Of course it started in a beer joint. The Esso Club
is more than that now, but in 1981 it was a hang-out for townies and
professors, as well as a few of the more adventurous students from Clemson University, whose campus was just across the road. The Esso Club was a converted gas station - at that time it was still listed in the phone book as "Clemson Service Station" - and still sold gas, but it also bragged of having the oldest and longest standing beer license in Clemson - since the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Being a college town bar, the big business season was the fall, when home football games brought tens of thousands of fans to the small town. The slowest season was late summer, when the students and many professors had their last out of town flings before fall classes started.
Clemson is a land grant university, and it focused on engineering, architecture, agriculture, forestry and textile science with a minor focus on teaching and nursing at the time. Liberal arts courses were mainly presented to round out the more technical degrees and to provide a small menu of liberal arts majors for locals who didn't want to travel for an education. Fine arts was definitely not a major focus at Clemson University at that time. Because of this emphasis, Clemson was frequently referred to by students from its arch-rival, the University of South Carolina, as a "Cow College" or "Moo U". Clemson students generally accepted this and gamefully played to the stereotype of being hicks and hillbillies. This game was enhanced by the school being located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the Chattooga River where the movie
Deliverance was filmed.
In August of 1981 The Esso Club's owner, Bob Higby, was wondering aloud how to get enough money up to stock the coolers for the first home game in a few weeks. The regulars started tossing out ideas.
Since some of them were musicians of a sort, the idea of a music festival was suggested. The best known music festival in South Carolina at the time was Spoleto USA in Charleston, a high-brow event featuring fine arts performances of opera, theater, dance, symphony and chamber music by some of the world's greatest performers. Someone suggested that a kind of anti-Spoleto be staged, featuring the "redneck arts". Thus was hatched "Spittoono Fiasco '81". Local bands were solicited to play for free, a dunking booth was borrowed from the local Shriners and a flatbed truck was found to serve as the stage. The dates were set for the weekend before the first home game, after students were back on campus - August 28 and 29. A T-shirt was designed and printed. It was a line drawing of a hot-air balloon printed in black on a plain white shirt. T-shirt profits were figured by Algebra Earl.
The host band was a pick-up jug band made up of Esso Club regulars who called themselves the Clemson Honky Tonk Sympathy Orchestra, or CHTSO (pronounced chit-so). This was made up of a washtub bass, a washboard for percussion, and really jam-up banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar players. Other bands included The Esso Bees, Dick Child's Guitar Army, and the acoustic duo Tommy and Sandra Harper, all local performers. The music ranged from jug band and bluegrass to blues and rock and roll.
The organizers decided to hold competitions in keeping with the theme. The selected events were tobacco spitting (for distance), beer chugging (12 oz. drafts) and clogging (around here it's clogging, not clog dancing). The prizes were brass spittoons autographed by Clemson's legendary football coach Frank Howard and the active head coach Danny Ford, who would take the Clemson Tigers to a national championship and be named National Coach of the Year that year. Both coaches were tobacco chewers and spitters of great renown. Square dances were held, much beer was drunk and a general good time was had by all.
There are many tales (all true) from that first Spittoono: In one, local man-about-town Dan Baker offered $500 as prize money in a wet t-shirt contest. With that much money on the line things quickly got out of hand and the contestants were taking off a lot more clothes than was legally allowed. Back stage, girls were asking the gobsmacked staff to rub ice on their breasts to make their nipples erect. In another, Bob Higby refused to take his turn in the dunk tank after Jimmy Howard (Coach Howard's son and a local legend in his own right) because Jimmy claimed to have pissed in the tank. In still another story, there is Higby trying to lead the crowd in a rendition of "Dixie" - " I wish I was in the land of cotton, ol' times there -what comes next? Fuck it! Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda".
After all was said and done and the parking lot was cleared out, it turned out that Bob had made enough to stock up for the football
season and there was some money left over from the t-shirt sales. In the heady aftermath of a successful drunken party, the decision was made to try to do it again the following year, so a legal non-profit organization was formed. This was "The Redneck Performing Arts Association", better known as the RPAA. The next year saw "Give a Spit - Spitoono '82", and it has been going ever since, expanding to three days in 1984.
After ten years on the small paved parking lot at the Esso Club, and with the Club under new management who wanted to change the
festival format, Spittoono was moved to a softball field across town and Spittoono XI ("Victoriously Redneck - The Momma of all Redneck Festivles", this was following Gulf War I that year, and either the shirt designer was drunk or thought the misspelling was in keeping with the hick theme) started a new era for the festival. This gave the crowd room to spread out and sit on the grass and enjoy the music. The format has changed very little over the years. The organizers still keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks. No admission is charged. Bands still play for free, but now they are begging to get on the lineup and the music quality is amazing. Money is raised from beer and T-shirt sales. Spittoono T-shirts are collector's items. As of last year (Spittoono XXVIII - Naturally Redneck), over US$50,000 has been given away to local charities. And it is still the best three day party around.
Visit the Official Spittoono website here.
EnochRoot is prominently displayed in several of the photos.