The Magazine of South Carolina

She Sings of South Carolina

"Good sandlapper" Nelle McMaster Sprott's legacy lives in the songs of our state.


Nelle McMaster Sprott at her Piano

Sprott Enjoys a Performance of her Songs

Third Graders at Richard Winn Academy in Winnsboro

by Laurie Drafts

Her love of her native state is evident. Anne Worsham Richardson prints adorn the walls of her living room. Walter Edgar’s South Carolina: A History is on the coffee table along with other books regaling the Palmetto State. Winnsboro’s Nelle McMaster Sprott has found a place in the hearts of South Carolina’s children through the enduring strains of melodies about beaches, mountains, rivers and wrens.

Composing songs about the state is easy for Sprott. "If you don’t love something, you sure can’t write about it," she says with a laugh.

Sprott’s love of music began early. "One of my earliest recollections is being put to bed and Mother would go to the piano and play us to sleep," Sprott reminisces. Her childhood days were filled with music, but it was the weekends she treasured. "My dad was a great appreciater of operatic music. He had these wonderful Victor Red Seal records and we weren’t allowed to touch them. He would play them for us on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. This was the time we got to hear this beautiful classical music."

Sprott remembers being enthralled by the glorious voices of Enrico Caruso and Amelita Galli-Curci. "We had an old Victrola with the big horn that you crank up. I was exposed to good music, I had musical parents, and my father bought the wonderful records. There wasn’t any way to avoid that we were going to be musical children."

Deciding on a career was easy. With a full scholarship, Sprott majored in piano and graduated from Coker College in 1938. "I went to Coker, graduated, and immediately I knew I was going to work. From then on, it was really wonderful to do music. Music was fun and everybody enjoyed it. It’s been a wonderful thing to me because I just love children and I just love to see their response to music. At first, I thought it was because they were getting out of arithmetic and spelling! Then I saw it was an important part of their lives. The world needs to have musicians as well as great scholars in mathematics."

Her celebrity officially began in 1969 when the late Raymond Thigpen, the state supervisor of music, sat in on a music class at South Winnsboro’s Everett Elementary School. A group of sixth graders were singing Sprott’s "Carolina Sunshine, Carolina Rain."

"I told them they were my guinea pigs," Sprott recalls. "I wanted to try them out to see if they liked this song. They were just singing at the top of their voices."

Thigpen immediately was impressed with the tune and inquired about it. "I said, ‘Well, I wrote it.’ And he said, ‘Have you got any more like that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve got a lot of them."

Unbeknownst to Sprott, Thigpen was on the music committee for South Carolina’s Tricentennial Celebration, and he had spotted something special in her songs. He later went to Sprott’s home and listened as she played tune after tune. The songs were published and distributed to the state’s schools by the Tricentennial Commission in 1969.

"I felt there was a need for songs about South Carolina and I had been composing these songs before the Tricentennial came along just for my own school children," Sprott says. As for her newfound celebrity, she recollects, "It was providential. He [Thigpen] would have enjoyed knowing that the songs are still being used."

Now 84, Sprott has penned three new songs about her beloved state’s history. Her sister Laurens Livings encouraged her to compose a piece about Francis Marion after seeing the movie The Patriot. Livings, a former New York opera singer, has taught music at Richard Winn Academy for 10 years. After extensive research, Sprott wrote "A Whistle in the Dark" and "Francis Marion was a Small Man," and set to music the first stanza of William Cullen Bryant’s "Song of Marion’s Men."

"I was very impressed with all the material we found on him and it made me admire him more," Sprott says. "He was a very remarkable man. It is something to appreciate: South Carolina’s part in the American Revolution—a very important part."

Her new songs recently were debuted at Richard Winn Academy by the third grade class as part of their study of South Carolina history. The performance was led by Livings and proudly attended by Sprott. The children enthusiastically rendered 11 Sprott compositions, which included "Sunny Yellow Jessamine," "Carolina Wren" and "Sandlappers." Aware of a celebrity in their midst, the children excitedly clamored for her autograph after the recital. "I’ve never had such adulation!" exclaimed Sprott, clearly pleased.

Livings, affectionately known as "Miss Bootsie" by her students, recognizes the charm her sister’s songs hold for the children. "I have a little boy who won’t open his mouth but he’ll sing these Carolina songs. They seem to be tuned into those songs. Nellie really knows how to write for children."

Student Catina Gibson has a favorite: "Come With Me." She explains, "It was such a joy because I had so much fun with it. I hope I remember it all my life."

Sprott’s songs are educational as well as fun. Gibson notes, "Miss Bootsie read the Swamp Fox book to us before we learned the new songs. I learned he was very brave and his men helped us to be free."

Zach Timms, another student, likes "the sandlapper song" best. "It tells everybody how good we are at doing stuff."

Her legacy has spanned generations. Doris Smith of Winnsboro notes, "My son David sang these songs in 1969 with Mrs. Sprott. Now my grandson Marc Poston Smith is singing them."

Sprott is thrilled to know her songs will live for years to come in the voices and hearts of South Carolina’s school children. "I think if you learn something when you’re young, it becomes part of the psyche," she reflects. "You’ve got it there all the time to help you and sustain you and encourage you. When you get older, if you have these beautiful things in your head, it’s a help." 

Columbia writer Laurie Drafts covered the upstate's Focus Quilting Group in the summer.


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