Piedmont Blues

Piedmont Blues

In the mid-1920s, a form of guitar music evolved from African-American culture that echoed the soul and personality of African-American life. The style evolved from "rags," played with banjos, fiddles and percussion. As the guitar replaced the banjo as the lead instrument and songs were picked from the strings rather than strummed, an energetic voice emerged that began to sweep through the Southeast, and it was called Carolina blues, or Piedmont blues. Piedmont blues differed from the tradition blues that lulled a sad, longing story and picked up the pace, peppy enough for people to dance to it. The sound, because it was played with guitar and After World War II, the electric guitar began to replace the acoustic guitar, and the blues picked up an influence from the 1950 rock 'n roll.

David Holt talks to three talented artists and experiences the whole spectrum of Piedmont Blues. Etta Baker, a well-known artist in the North Carolina mountains, plays old favorites like "Knoxville Rag" and "Careless Love." She also plays a traditional blues song, showing the difference between the type of beat most people associate with "blues" and the ragtime style of Piedmont Blues. She also plays some slide guitar with "John Henry." David also plays his guitar beside George Higgs, another artist who plays the blues in the style of Blind Boy Fuller, a blues artist of the 1930s. George also slides the blues on his harmonica, as David accompanies him. Finally, David introduces us to John Dee Holeman of Durham, North Carolina, who plays the modern style of blues that emanated from the war. Playing his electric guitar in the styles of both Blind Boy Fuller and Lightning Hopkins, John concludes Piedmont Blues with a beat that will get your toes tapping.

Blues in NCBlues in NC
The Carolina blues--traditional music of mid '20s Southeastern black culture--still survives, as danceable and evocative today as in the era of its birth. Two other UNC-TV productions that have focused on Piedmont Blues are Step It Up and Go and Piedmont Blues: A North Carolina Now Special .

Until the early decades of this century, Southeastern blacks called their instrumentally-accompanied secular music "reels" or "rags," terms used interchangeably to denote differences in tempo. By the mid-'20s, this music had evolved to emphasize lyrics in standard tune structures, and the guitar had replaced the banjo as the music's lead instrument. The result--Carolina Blues.

As one area songster recently declared, the blues is but one fish in a well-stocked musical pool. But that one "fish" swims in several schools of distinct style, determined by geographic region and population. As the blues evolved, unique forms of the music took their shapes in the Southwest, the Mississippi delta and Southern Central states area, and the Southeast.

What characterizes the Southeast's Carolina blues is that tunes are picked from the strings of the guitar instead of strummed as in other blues styles. Though its name implies trying times and forlorn feelings, the Caroline blues is first and foremost a dance music that actually expresses a sweeping range of emotions.

In an earlier era when the livelihoods of Southeastern working-class blacks usually depended on hard, physical labor, the music paved a creative way to express life's dreams and disappointments, lost loves and raucous romances, today's despairs and tomorrow's promises. Settings for the music's development included private homes, town streets, tobacco fields and warehouses, and houseparties. The houseparty offered the chance for neighbors and friends to relax and forget their hardships, swap jokes and wisecracks and, of course, perform and dance to the Carolina blues.

Musicians heightened the sense of community celebration in renditions that encouraged spontaneous interaction between them and the audience. These "coperformances" constantly blurred and sometimes erased the line between entertainer and audience.

Just as waves of Mississippi delta blacks followed railroad lines and the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago in the '20s, '30s and '40s, so did thousands of Southeastern blacks begin to look northward to the new "Promised Land." Seeking freedom from the uncertainties of farm life and Southern society's repression, they migrated and resettled along the Atlantic seaboard. And they took with them their Carolina blues, planting musical seeds that took root ad flourished in places such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark and Harlem.

Born of rags and reels, primed and flavored in tobacco fields and warehouses, celebrated at houseparties and on street corners, the Carolina blues gave distinct voice to the cultural creativity, tradition and strength of Southeastern blacks in the early 20th century. That voice is still strong today.


UNC-TV's Piedmont Blues: North Carolina Style
This website has information and resources related to UNC-TV's production, Piedmont Blues: North Carolina Style.

Music Maker Relief Foundation
The Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. Music Maker will give future generations access to their heritage through documentation and performance programs that build knowledge and appreciation of America’s musical traditions.

Piedmont Blues Preservation Society
Dedicated to keeping the blues music genre alive and growing while supporting community, cultural & social causes.

Carolina Downhome Blues Festival
Find out about the Blues Festival in South Carolina.