My summer camp was an Episcopal one in the sandhills of South Carolina, a place that was so incredibly hot and muggy in July that the most popular hangout in that flat expanse of pine trees and open fields was directly in front of a six-foot-tall industrial blower. We called it the Byrd Fan, after a priest who’d once been a director of the camp, and it was the only relief for the sweaty hordes of kids zombie-ing around in the mid-afternoon heat. Our glorious fan was located in a concrete-floored pavilion that also happened to be the musical epicenter for the whole camp. Giant speakers blasted tunes all hours of the day, the counselors our DJs. It was here, with my shirt pulled high in front of the Byrd Fan, that I was first introduced to a band called Jump, Little Children.
I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a bigger city like New York, Chicago, or Atlanta, where the people making the art you love are potentially sitting in the next subway car, but I can tell you that as a teenager in South Carolina, I often felt like the art-makers lived in a separate universe, one that did not overlap with my own and one that I would never in a million years have access to. I know better than this now—the truth is, musicians and writers and painters were all around me, I just didn’t know where to look—but that’s how it felt to me then. So you can imagine my surprise when, as a thirteen-year-old kid, I learned that this band I discovered at summer camp lived not way up in New York but just down the highway in Charleston.
Jump, Little Children had roots in Winston-Salem, where once upon a time its members were art students, but it was in Charleston that the band found their sound and audience, and it was that city, ultimately, that claimed them as their own. It was in Charleston where they got their start busking on the streets and where they recorded much of The Licorice Tea Demos, the album playing on rotation that summer at camp. Licorice Tea? I remember thinking. I’d never tasted Licorice Tea—and I’d never heard anything quite like this music, which sounded a little bit like what you’d get if you dropped traditional Irish music, blues, and gypsy jazz through the strainer of mid-nineties alternative rock.
Licorice Tea was a very can-do, scrappy assembly of songs. You got the feeling the band was trying to shake as much rock & roll as possible from their hodge-podge of acoustic instruments—cello, upright bass, guitar, mandolin, tin whistle, harmonica, tea kettle. The voice of lead singer Jay Clifford was somehow forlorn but also eager and upbeat; the lyrics, oblique but weirdly specific. In the track that first caught my attention, “Quiet,” the loudest and most rollicking part of the song arrives in the chorus, when, with cymbals crashing, Clifford doesn’t ask you to scream but instead pleads for some “precious peace and quiet.” It all had the feel of a very fun but earnest house concert. A house concert with a keg—but also a pot of coffee going in the kitchen. When they sang about peach silk dresses, harbor lights, lemonade, and a “rocking chair by the river side,” it was Charleston you heard and saw and smelled, a muggy evening on the sagging porch of a single house on Spring Street. Before leaving camp that summer, I bothered a counselor enough until he copied the album onto a cassette tape that I could take back home to Spartanburg.
The story that often gets told about Jump casts them as one of the almost-famouses. Successive studio-produced albums moved them closer to what was then mainstream alternative rock. Some of their softer, more elegiac songs got them play on radio and in TV shows like Scrubs and Party of Five. “Cathedrals,” a nice showcase for the band’s lush arrangements, is the song that probably appears on the most Spotify playlists today.
Before the band split for what would turn out to be a fourteen-year hiatus, I caught something like a dozen concerts, a handful of them in Charleston, where I wound up living for a short time. I always found plenty of songs I liked on a JLC album, but it’s Licorice Tea I’ve listened to the most. I played that cassette so many times I can tell you exactly where in the middle of the song “My Heart Is on the Ocean” you had to flip from side A to B. For a time, the album was a litmus test for new friendships (if you like this, then I’ll definitely like you), and, if I’m being honest, I suppose I also liked the fact that they called it a demo. A proto-album. Not intended, perhaps, for wide release. You couldn’t just buy it in a regular store! When you’re a teenager, thinking you’re the first to something has a certain magic, never mind that you almost never really are and that it has almost nothing to do with the music itself. I had to pretend not to be embarrassed when I learned, eventually, that the demo I’d been listening to wasn’t even the first, that in fact there’d been a demo before the demo—even scrappier, even more nascent.
The music we love as teenagers is the music we’ll love forever, to some degree, no matter what—a curse or a blessing, depending. The songs we played on repeat back then are portals to the people we used to be and the things we felt. And true enough, when I listen to songs like “Quiet” or “Dancing Virginia” today, I’m right back in front of the Byrd Fan, or I’m driving around with my friends aimlessly on a Saturday night, or I’m on a street corner in Charleston. Or, because memory does not obey the usual rules of time and space, I am all of those people and in all those places at once. But nostalgia only partly explains why, all these years later, I still return to Licorice Tea. I also happen to think it’s just really good music that I wish more people knew about. If we still had tape decks, I’d make you a copy.