Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Piedmont, the Forgotten Blues Style

“I’m po’ but I’m ‘round here; I wasn’t invited but I’m down here. We’re trying to have a ball in the hall tonight, I want everybody to come, bring your cleaver ‘cause we’re gonna drink rough stuff, tough stuff, stuff without a bone; if you can’t drink stuff, leave the mess alone.”

- a Piedmont blues house party attendee in “Blues House party: Music, Dance and Stories by Masters of the Piedmont Blues”

Piedmont (or east coast) Blues refers to a regional sub-style characteristic of black musicians of the southeastern United States that first gained fame in the 1920’s. Geographically, the Piedmont includes the Appalachian foothills west of the tidewater region and Atlantic coastal plain and stretches from roughly Richmond to Atlanta.

Since Charlotte is in the center of the Piedmont, it became a popular center for early North Carolina blues. As industry and the population more than doubled, musicians began taking notice of the city as a home for recording. But it was actually Durham, a small city wedged between three metropolises, that managed to step into the forefront of blues tradition.

Tobacco's popularity increased Durham's population by thousands between 1865 and 1930. With tobacco came factories and jobs, and with jobs came people with income who liked music. Therefore, musicians would busk outside the tobacco warehouses for workers taking a break, as well as in theaters, barbershops and for house rent parties.

Generally speaking, the Piedmont blues sound captured ragtime piano rhythms and chord changes within acoustic guitar playing. The rhythm typically played with the piano’s left hand is reproduced with the thumb while the melody played by the right hand is plucked on the treble strings by the forefingers. This is often called "finger-picking style. The guitar style is also highly syncopated.

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins give a great introduction to Piedmont Blues in this performance of "The Dog Days of August" from the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Most of all, Piedmont blues was good house party music as captured in Eleanor Ellis’s wonderful 1989 documentary film, “Blues House party: Music, Dance and Stories by Masters of the Piedmont Blues” The film runs an hour and is an absolute joy to watch. I can not recommend it highly enough; particularly when the discussion turns to dancing.

If, for some reason you want to skip wild stories of raucous house rent parties with women wrestling a 500 pound hog onto a picnic table, too much moonshine, dancing, and a couple knife fights you can jump 29 minutes in to focus on Piedmont Blues Dancing Styles like the Appalachian solo Buck Dance, Ballin’ the Jack , the Shimmy Sha-sha-wabble, Black bottom, Big Apple, Mess Around, and Kicking the Mule. Plus you'll get to see some impressive vernacular dance!

Blind Blake, "the King of Ragtime Guitar", recorded 80 “race record” recordings for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932 including, "That Will Happen No More" (1927). Some of you may find yourself singing, "Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine."

Peg Leg Howell, a one legged harmonica player from Atlanta recorded the Peg Leg Stomp (1927). Anyone else thinking Bugle Call Rag?

Atlanta’s Buddy Moss recorded the Stinging Nettle Blues in 1934.

Blind Boy Fuller from Durham, NC was one of the best known original Piedmont musicians. Here’s a recording of Step It Up and Go (1940) with guitar and washboard.

Josh White of Greenville, SC was the youngest artist of the “race records” era. While he remained poor and shoeless and slept in the horse stable, Paramount Record and Okeh Records made a good profit on recordings like Evil Man Blues (1934).

The Next Generation
In contrast, musicians like Rev. Gary Davis from Laurens, SC recorded up until almost 1970. Here's his "Death Don't Have No Mercy", which really benefits from the vast improvements in sound recording technologies.

Meanwhile, Harmonica player Sonny Terry (Greensboro) and Brownie McGhee (Knoxville) broke into huge popularity with fans of folk music in the 1950’s and 60’s with Sonny Terry’s joyous whoops between raucous harp blasts and Brownie’s traditional picking style. Just try to stay still during this live recording of their Cornbread and Peas (1966)

Drawing inspiration from them were clearly Virginia's John Cephas and Phil Wiggins who played into the late 1980’s. Richmond Blues (1989)

Lastly, I’ll introduce you to Etta Baker of Morganton, North Carolina who was born in 1913 and began playing guitar at the age of 3. Etta was the premier Piedmont blues guitar instrumentalist until passing away in 2006 at the age of 96 (and leaving behind 108 family members!)

Here's a clip of Etta giving away all her guitar secrets as she teaches viewers to play "On the Other Hand Baby"

And we’ll fade out with her playing one of my favorite songs to DJ, "Comb Blues", recorded with Taj Mahal in 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Bill. Best intro to this topic I've come across so far. I'm wondering whether Piedmont is now considered a musical style so that someone playing similar music anywhere would be considered part of the Piedmont tradition, or whether the term only applies to those within the geographical region? Are there current artists or is this style merely historical; has it evolved into something new?