The Blues kicked my ass from the git-go. I didn’t know it at the time, but the folk music I started listening to half a century ago would inform the totality of my life. That’s the power of the Blues, a music we yankees like to say is indigenously American but which is, in fact, old as the first slave ship to the New World.
My best friend had some sophisticated parents. I loved them both. He taught me photography
let me listen to her records. My professional and personal life has strayed not an iota from pictures and music ever since.
As the littlest of kids, Wil and I would glue ourselves to his parents’ old-fashioned console record player, entranced by the songs of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But the hook was well and truly set forever in the summer of ’63 when, in a period of three glorious weeks, Wil and I saw Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Josh White, Carlos Montoya, and Joan Baez PLUS Bob Dylan, one after the other, like a multiple musical orgasm. I’m sure the tickets cost us less than a hundred bucks all-in.
As great as all these artists were, and as seminal as Dylan, in particular, was to become, it was Josh White who chilled me to the bone.
The stage was eighteen inches high, three feet in front of us. This enormous Bible-black man in a white shirt soon soaked with sweat in the hot Lennox sun commenced to near-destroying his acoustic guitar as he performed some of the most amazing songs I’d ever heard.
Josh White played and sang in the Piedmont Blues style, and to this day it’s the form of blues music I most prefer. In the interest of getting to the point, I’m going to commit a gross generalization by positing that it was the influence of the east coast American cities and their attendant industries (and white people) on African American music that gave rise to what we now term Piedmont-style blues.
The Mississippi Delta blues, as personified by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Elmore James, may well be considered “true” African-American blues music, but if you think about it, you realize that the Piedmont style may indeed represent an even more interesting “authentically American” musical tradition, since it melds southern rural African American music with northeastern ragtime, country, and urban popular song.
The American Piedmont lies on the East Coast of the United States roughly between Richmond, Virginia in the north and Atlanta, Georgia to the south. It is bordered on the west by the Appalachian Mountains, whose creeks and streams powered young America’s mills. Early in our nation’s history the Appalachians impeded further westward settlements. Migration was north and south along the coast, and it is in the urban concentrations there that black bluesmen from the south first met white musicians from the north.
Some would argue that “authentic” Piedmont blues style began in Charlotte, North Carolina, and their argument is a good one, for that city is located in the geographical center of the region. In the late 20’s and 30’s many Piedmont Blues records were recorded there by RCA/Victor. Likewise, as the city of Durham, North Carolina, grew along with the tobacco business, it too has been cited as the traditional “birthplace” of the Piedmont Blues.
Piedmont-style blues is characterized by a unique finger-picking guitar style which mimics the ragtime piano. The bass line rhythm is played with the thumb while melody and harmonies are defined by two or three fingers. The sound therefore is more rhythmically complex and especially melodic than the Delta Blues, which—generally—is characterized by a simpler, more hard-driving rhythm. Piedmont, to my ear, sounds brighter and more delicate. There are, of course, exceptions, but if you hear a guitar that sounds like a ragtime piano, you’re listening to Piedmont.
Etta Baker, who died in September at the age of 93, was an exemplary exponent of the North Carolina Piedmont style of guitar. It is said that Bob Dylan met her on his 21st birthday and was inspired to compose Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. His fingerpicking on that song is definitely in the Piedmont style.
These days, the traditional Piedmont Bluesmen are few and far between. John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, who’ve been playing together for more than forty years, are perhaps the greatest living examples of the style. They spend a good deal of their time on the road teaching guitar (Cephas) and harmonica (Wiggins) to young people who, perhaps like me and my friend over forty years ago, are too entranced by the music to stand by and watch it die.
John Cephas died of natural causes on March 4, 2009. He was 78.
Piedmont Blues Artists: