Charleston music is represented by the sounds of Americana boot-stompin,’ easy-going alt-country and expansive indie rock.
Charleston visitors are often drawn to Rainbow Row, a street of brightly painted houses shining along the edge of the Battery, a seawall promenade along the edge of the peninsula. But to locals, a dive bar on King Street legendary for offering the most 12 oz. PBR cans in the world annually and a Morrison Avenue Mardi Gras-themed venue are the centerpieces of the local music scene. Charleston music is represented by the sounds of Americana boot-stompin,’ easy-going alt-country and expansive indie rock. These songs from and about Charleston your essential soundtrack to the city.
“The Charleston” by Cecil Mack, 1923
Charleston’s long and often grim history is rooted in Southern plantations, slavery, and racial tension. We can’t forget the area’s resilient black history and culture, and the Charleston is, in a way, a testament to it. The dance was created in a similar style to a dance that originated in the African-American community, known as the Juba. In the 1920s, it was a piece of that culture shared to the masses. Now, it’s still a favorite song to dance to in jazz clubs and at backyard parties. It takes you back in time to a day when the cobblestone streets of The Holy City were a less crowded, but still full of life.
“Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, 1964
Though Myrtle Beach may be more known for its long, sprawling boardwalks, Charleston also has many beautiful coastal walkways for romantic sunsets and evening. There are a lot of docks and piers in Charleston, from the famous Folly Beach promenade built in 1995 and lined with fishermen and pop-up ice cream shops to the Old Village with its stretch out into the pluff mud-spattered, crab-scurrying marsh. The original Old Village plantation house built in 1803, The Hibbin House, still stands today as a side-attraction to the gorgeous views. This is also the perfect song to accompany the state dance, the shag. Invented in the 1940s, originated along the South Carolina coast and is still a significant tradition.
“Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor, 1968
“Carolina in My Mind” may not mention Charleston specifically, but Taylor’s easy-listening soundtrack seems right at home in the city, where stopping on the side of the highway for a roadside local hot dog at Jack’s Cosmic or some peaches or boiled peanuts from a farmers’ market vendor is more important than your final destination.
“Cathedrals” by Jump, Little Children, 1998
Jump, Little Children is one of those bands from Charleston with a local and international cult following. The orchestral rock band, popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, was around for just a decade before calling it quits. Another decade later, the band reunited for a show at the Dock Street Theatre, a supposedly haunted former hotel built in 1809 in the French Quarter, for a 10th anniversary show. That was the moment the band decided they were going to make another album. Much like that downtown theatre, Jump, Little Children have haunted the local music scene, lasting through generations and making the band’s official 2018 reunion all the more powerful with the release of brand new record, “Sparrow.” This introspective track, however, is from the band’s heyday.
“Washed by the Water” by Needtobreathe, 2007
The members of Needtobreathe lived in Charleston for several years, and bassist Seth Bolt still operates his studio, Plantation Studios, in the Lowcountry. This song is one of the band’s best-known tracks. The band still plays several shows a year in Charleston, including some which were recorded for a forthcoming album.
“Coast of Carolina” by Jimmy Buffett, 2014
Jimmy Buffett has been caught surfing at Folly Beach in Charleston, and it’s clear that the local beaches are part of the inspiration for his laid-back repertoire. This song, however, shows the country side that emerged later in his career, and which leads to another piece of the Carolina coastline.
“You Can Have Charleston” by Darius Rucker, 2015
Darius Rucker is one of Charleston’s most prized musicians. He owns a home in the Lowcountry, and his former bandmate Mark Bryan of Hootie & the Blowfish is involved in today’s local music scene. In this ballad, Rucker describes some of the city’s most iconic scenery: “The cobblestone streets/The steeples looking down on the Battery/The Topsails and the Clydesdales pulling people all around/ The ocean breeze and the live oak trees.” Hootie & the Blowfish became well-known in the late 80s and early 90s, and perhaps the band’s most notable album, “Cracked Rear View,” came out in 1994. It’s the 19th best-selling album of all time in the United States.
“Rising Water” by The High Divers, 2015
Y’all know that Charleston floods, right? When a summer thunderstorm strikes in the midst of high tide, downtown is completely underwater, especially the market, which is usually the first to be submerged. College of Charleston students and neighborhood kids ride their kayaks down the streets. It’s wild. So, this song by Charleston rock band The High Divers is fitting, especially since Charleston’s “1,000-year flood” of 2015 just so happened to take place the same year that The High Divers wrote this song. Coincidence? That year, Charleston got twice as much rain in one deluge as it did during Hurricane Hugo.
“Sink ‘Em Low” by Ranky Tanky, 2017
Charleston Gullah group Ranky Tanky expresses the African-American Southern experience, with poignant lyrics, jazz, gospel, and some soulful R&B. The song evokes the Afro-Caribbean culture of Charleston’s Gullah people, descended from slaves brought over from Africa in the 1700s and 1800s to work on local rice farms. The color “haint blue” is still seen on certain Charleston porches to ward off evil spirits, a trace of Gullah culture that lingers; others include local cuisine, sweetgrass baskets and the Geechee language.
“Jah Werx” by Susto, 2017
You can’t talk about Charleston music without mentioning the local scene’s biggest breakout band. Susto started as a Southern rock and Americana project in the Lowcountry in 2014 and has risen to national and international fame (They were on CBS This Morning last year). The band’s sophomore album, released in 2017, included psychedelic folk and expansive soundscapes. This is one of the many tracks to which that Charleston music fans know every lyric. The message all comes down to this line in the chorus: “And I’m fine today.”