Freedpeople working on Edisto Island after the Civil War (Source: National Archives)
Friday, June 29, 2018 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year when people across the United States celebrate Independence Day on the fourth day of July, the anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. All across America, the Fourth of July means fireworks, band music, barbeques, and everything red-white-and-blue, but once upon a time here in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, it was all about the Too-la-loo. Never heard of it? The Too-la-loo was a popular dance that in the late 1870s became a sort of synecdoche for African-American celebrations of Independence Day in the Charleston area. Not one word of that sentence makes any sense without the proper historical context, so let’s rewind the Time Machine and take a snapshot-view of the rise and fall of the Too-la-loo.

Charlestonians first celebrated the Declaration of Independence in August 1776, just a few weeks after the text of the document was ratified by our Continental Congress. A printed copy of the Declaration arrived in Charleston on Friday, August 2nd, and the document was read aloud at a public ceremony under the Liberty Tree in Mazyck’s Pasture on Monday, August 5th, 1776. Charleston’s first celebration of the Fourth of July took place in 1777, when the townsfolk commemorated the first anniversary of our nation’s birth with the ringing of church bells, the firing of seventy-six cannon, a military parade, and lots of feasting and toasting.[1]

From that first grand celebration in 1777 onward, our community has observed the anniversary of our Independence Day with public festivities every year, with four notable exceptions in 1861, 1862, 1863, and 1864. The long-brewing political tension between Unionists and advocates of “States’ Rights” reached a fever pitch in 1860, but Lowcountry residents still celebrated the Fourth of July that year.[2] Following South Carolina’s secession from the United States in December 1860 (our own sort of “declaration of independence”), and the commencement of a civil war in April 1861, however, South Carolina’s political leaders deemed the Fourth of July to be the enemy’s customary holiday, and it was not observed here. That same spirit prevailed for three more years, until the United States military occupied South Carolina and brought the war to an end in the spring of 1865.

Annual public celebrations of the Fourth of July resumed in Charleston and throughout South Carolina in the summer of 1865, but the spirit of these commemorations was quite different in the immediate post-war era. For more than a decade after the conclusion of our Civil War, the celebration of Independence Day was almost exclusively an African-American holiday in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The formerly-enslaved population embraced the Fourth of July as a time to celebrate their delivery from the yoke of slavery and their new civil rights, while the majority of the white population (including Confederate veterans) stayed home and lamented the failure of secession.

In the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s, when celebrating the Fourth of July was almost exclusively a black phenomenon, the city’s annual celebrations commenced with a parade down Meeting Street, featuring brightly dressed citizens, politicians, brass bands, and uniformed members of the South Carolina National Guard, which, in the post-war era, was composed almost exclusively of formerly-enslaved black men. The parade ended at White Point Garden, where thousands of people would gather for a great picnic and a shady rest. The focal point of these events was a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by political speeches delivered by the black Republican leaders of the day. After all the official business was over, the citizens would eat and drink, nap, frolic, and dance.

The white newspaper reporters who described these events in the late 1860s and 1870s were generally pretty vague and rather condescending about the music and dancing that accompanied the predominantly-black celebrations of the Fourth of July. We know, for example, that “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” was the big hit of 1870, but most of the tunes and the dance steps of the era are long forgotten.[3] In a newspaper story about the 1876 celebration, however, a reporter for the Charleston News and Courier actually took the time to describe, in some detail, the appearance of a “new” dance performed by the black folks gathered at White Point Garden on the Fourth of July. This was the “Too-la-loo,” which the reporter described as “the favorite melody” of the day.

Despite calling it a “favorite melody,” this 1876 newspaper description doesn’t include the actual melody of the “Too-la-loo,” and I haven’t been able to locate a tune called “Too-la-loo” anywhere on the Internet.[4] Nevertheless, we can sort of reconstruct the rhythmic outline of the song by looking at clues from the 1876 newspaper description. First, the newspaper says the song and the dance were performed in “jig time.” Now, if you’re talking about seventeenth or eighteenth century European music, “jig time” means compound duple meter (two groups of three notes, like “one-two-three | four-five-six”), indicated by a six/eight time signature. In mid-nineteenth-century American pop music, however, the phrase “jig time” indicates a lightly-syncopated duple meter, like you hear in “O Susannah” or “Camptown Races.” This sort of “jig time” rhythm was popularized in blackface minstrel shows, in which white men put on black makeup and imitated (with a hearty dose of artistic license) the sounds and mannerisms of African Americans in the South.

This nineteenth-century American “jig time” was also used to accompany a new form of popular dancing known simply as the jig, or jigging. That’s right—folks were “gettin’ jiggy” in the Lowcountry more than 150 years ago. At that time, however, the term “jig” was applied to any sort of duple-meter-dance that included stomping or percussive footwork—an early form of what we might call tap dancing. A quick look at the lyrics of the “Too-la-loo,” as printed in the local newspaper in 1876, shows that the scansion of the words fits neatly into the simple duple meter of nineteenth-century “jig time.” Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m going to read aloud that 1876 newspaper story with the words to the “Too-la-loo” and I want you to understand the rhythmic clues imbedded in the text.


Charleston News and Courier, 5 July 1876:

“The Fourth in the City. . . As is usual on such occasions, the rustic damsels from the sea island cotton fields and their dusky swains indulged all day in their favorite pastime, called in the expressive vocabulary of the plantation, ‘gin around.’ The music and style on this occasion, however, was varied, a new song and dance called | Too-La-Loo | being the favorite melody. The process of this entertainment, which is performed in the open air under the rays of the sun, is about as follows: A ring is formed by about a dozen damsels and as many men. One of the ladies steps into the ring, and while she walks around the others sing and clap their hands to jig time. The refrain [of the Too-la-loo] is as follows:  

Go hunt your lover, Too-la-loo!

Go find your lover, Too-la-loo!

Nice little lover, Too-la-loo!

Oh! I love Too-la-loo!

The lady then selects a gentleman, and the two get into the ring, when they perform a jig. While the gentleman dances, the crowd sing the following verse:

Gentleman motion, Too-la-loo!

Watch dat motion, Too-la-loo!

Bull frog motion, Too-la-loo!

Oh! I love Too-la-loo!

Then the lady performs and the crowd sings:

Lady motion, Too-la-loo!

Nice little motion, Too-la-loo!

Pigeon motion, Too-la-loo!

Oh, I love Too-la-loo!

Then the lady and gentleman have a pas-de-deux, during which the refrain is changed by an injunction:

Salute your lady, Too-la-loo!

Kiss dat lady, Too-la-loo!

Berry nice lady, Too-la-loo!

Oh I love Too-la-loo!

At this stage of the performance the gentleman gives the lady a turn, embraces her, smacks her lips and permits her to retire. He then goes through the same performance, selecting another ‘lover’ for the occasion.

At a very moderate calculation, there were fifty rings performing this dance, in different portions of the Garden, and it was entered into with a zest which kept up the sport from 8 o’clock in the morning until after midnight. By sundown ten hours of the performance had worked up the participants into a moist state of patriotism which was equal to the (s)centennial emergency, and it was kept up by moonlight until long after midnight.”[5]


As you can see from this 1876 description, the “Too-la-loo” was what ethnomusicologists would call a “ring dance”; that is, a relatively simple dance performed by a large number of people arranged in a circle, all of whom execute the same steps, more or less, at the same time. The ring dance is an ancient cultural form found in many communities around the world, from Africa to Scandinavia to South America. If you’ve ever done the Hokey-Pokey, you’ve participated in this timeless tradition. The 1876 description of the “Too-la-loo” also mentions rhythmic clapping and the periodic pairing of two solo dancers in the center of the circle. Again, these are common characteristics of ring dances in different cultures, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. In short, the “Too-la-loo” represents a fusion of ancient African traditions with the popular culture of mid-nineteenth-century America. To put it another way, the “Too-la-loo” is a forgotten part of our community’s Gullah-Geechee heritage. 

The “Too-la-loo” was apparently a “new” phenomenon in the summer of 1876, and it was danced to celebrate the centennial anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day. Later that year, however, the political landscape of South Carolina changed radically, as the post-Civil War project known as Reconstruction came to a crashing end in our state. After twelve years of watching over South Carolina politics to ensure the maintenance of law and order, the Federal government pulled out and allowed the conservative Democratic party to resume control. The Republican party, then dominated by formerly-enslaved African Americans, was suddenly out of power, and out of favor. From 1877 onward, celebrations of the Fourth of July in the Charleston area became increasingly subdued. The black community continued to celebrate the Fourth, and the black National Guard troops continued to parade, but there was far less newspaper coverage, far less enthusiasm, and far less political rhetoric.

On the Fourth of July, 1877, one year after the debut of the “Too-la-loo,” the Charleston newspaper press wondered aloud if the crowds of black folks would even turn out for the holiday. “Whether there will be any civic ceremonies at the battery could not be learned,” said the News and Courier. “The impression was that there would be no oratory or reading of the Declaration of Independence as heretofore. The legion of cake, sweet beer and peanut vendors will be at the Battery, and doubtless a large number of men, women, youths and girls to take part in celebrating ‘Too-la-loo.’”[6] Here in 1877, just one year after its first appearance, the phrase “Too-la-loo” was being used as a sort of shorthand for the black community’s celebration of Independence Day. The day included much more than just a ring dance with kissing, of course, but to the white newspaper press, the black celebration was hereafter subsumed under the simple rubric of “the Too-la-loo.”

As conservative white politicians regained control of city and state government here in the late 1870s, they began enacting laws designed to restrict the movement and freedoms of the African-American population. One such law, ratified by Charleston’s City Council in the spring of 1881, specifically targeted the black community’s traditional celebrations of Independence Day and other holidays at White Point Garden. Without specific reference to any group or demographic, the text of the 1881 city ordinance made it illegal “for any persons, company or companies, organization or organizations, to use that portion of the South Battery known as White Point Garden, for public proceedings, celebrations or festivities of any kind whatsoever.”[7] In late June of 1881, the local newspaper noted there would be “no ‘Too-la-loo’ this year” in White Point Garden, in accordance with the new law. Instead, the mayor “made arrangements to allow the colored military, and street vendors the use of the Citadel Green on the Fourth of July.”[8]

Once the “Too-la-loo” had been exiled from White Point Garden, the city kept pushing it away. Citadel Green was renamed Marion Square in late 1882, and in the first of half of 1883 the city completely re-landscaped the site, transforming it into the sort of public park we see there today. In the wake of that project, the city denied permission for the black celebration of the Fourth of July at Marion Square. Instead, the “Too-la-loo” moved again to Hampstead Mall, at the intersection of Columbus and America Streets. Three years later, in the summer of 1886, city officials denied permission for the black community to celebrate Independence Day at Hampstead Mall. Instead, the “Too-la-loo” festivities moved to a new site west of the Ashley River called “Pleasure Grove,” where it flourished for a few more years.[9]

In the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, as racial tension continued to increase in South Carolina and throughout the “Jim Crow” South, the black community’s enthusiasm for celebrating the Fourth of July became less distinctive in the Charleston area. They continued to mark the holiday, to be sure, and even occupied White Point Garden on a few occasions, but the excitement and novelty of the “Too-la-loo” were gone. As the new century dawned, white Charlestonians became increasingly active in celebrating Independence Day—no doubt inspired by the economic boom that accompanied the opening of the Charleston Navy Base in 1901. In the summer of 1906, one local newspaper observed that “all [of] Charleston keeps the Fourth,” and offered this useful explanation:

“The celebration of the Fourth, which was a colored festival a few years ago, has now grown into larger significance, and the day is more observed by the white than colored people. No longer are the Too-la-loo celebrations given across the Ashley river bridge, no longer are the streets swept by a large throng of people of various color in remarkable dress and costume, with many gateways a place of rest and feasting, where the colored folks satisfied their appetite on a diet of fish, doughnuts and watermelon, and no longer does a military parade add to the boisterous behavior of the colored people.”[10]

A century later, in present-day Charleston, the Fourth of July is a universal holiday celebrated by everyone in more or less the same fashion. That’s a good thing, in many ways, but as a historian, I also think it’s a bit sad that we’ve lost some of the cultural quirks that made our community distinctive. The forgotten “Too-la-loo,” for example, was a song and dance phenomenon that became synonymous with the African-American community’s joyous celebration of Independence Day. I’m not suggesting that we need to resuscitate the “Too-la-loo” and add it to the schedule for next year’s festivities, but I think that sometimes it helps us appreciate what we have when we contemplate the past. We live in a vibrant, diverse community, with a fascinating history and a bright future. As we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day this year on the Fourth of July, I encourage you all to be safe and be merry. Too-la-loo!


[1] See the description in Gazette of the State of South-Carolina, 7 July 1777.

[2] See, for example, the Charleston Daily Courier, 4 July 1860.

[3] For references to “Shoo Fly,” see, for example, the Charleston Daily News, 26 January 1870 and 19 May 1871.

[4] Note that the Charleston “Too-la-loo” of 1876 is unrelated to the chart-topping pop song of 1914, “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral (Irish Lullaby),” written by James Royce Shannon and performed by Chauncey Olcott.

[5] Charleston News and Courier, 5 July 1876.

[6] Charleston News and Courier, 4 July 1877.

[7] G. D. Bryan, comp., The General Ordinances of the City of Charleston, S.C., and the Acts of the General Assembly Relating Thereto (Charleston, S.C.: News and Courier Book Presses, 1882), 194, where the ratification date of this ordinance is given as 22 March 1881.

[8] Charleston News and Courier, 28 June 1881.

[9] Charleston News and Courier, 5 July 1883; 6 July 1886.

[10] Charleston Evening Post, 4 July 1906, page 6. For information about the general context of civic holiday celebration in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Charleston, see Ethan Kytle and Blaine Roberts, Demark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: New Press, 2018), 77, 89, 153, 165-66.


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