Blues History

Piedmont Blues History

Unlike many musical styles that have a defined beginning, blues crept into American culture unnoticed until someone decided to give it a name. Although many scholars have traced blues' roots to the period before the Civil War, when slaves gathered to sing songs they had learned in Africa, others suggest that blues may not have emerged as a unique style until 1900. Dorothy Scarborough and W.C. Handy both allude to blues originating in the early 1900s, after the style of black music changed from "coon songs" (Handy).

After Reconstruction, when African Americans began entertaining for the public, white southerners began ridiculing it, making stereotypes and playing parodies of black songs. Before this time, the preferred instrument for black music was the banjo, a variation of the stringed instrument most African Americans had learned to play in Africa. However, wanting their music to be taken seriously, some musicians abandoned the banjo and chose an instrument that allowed them to vary their playing significantly: the guitar. Maybelle Carter, one of the first musicians to don the guitar, discovered she could pick melodies from the strings rather than just strumming.

Blues musicians who shifted from the banjo to the guitar may have learned the art of picking a tune on one-stringed, homemade instruments. This homemade instrument may have introduced the "slide" technique typical of the later Piedmont Blues, mainly for the variation of notes since one string allowed less flexibility for melody. Many musicians recall learning "John Henry," a still-popular tune, because it was easy to pick on any stringed instrument.

Blind BlakeSince 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. Between 1927 and 1938, Victor/RCA established a recording center in Charlotte, after which it moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina.

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.

Peg Leg Sam, a peg-legged harmonica player, said, "any musician who was any good would come to Durham." Most musicians situated themselves right outside the tobacco warehouses, waiting for workers to take a break or leave to go home. While the warehouses were a popular venue, the work was as seasonal as the crop, so musicians played in other settings as well. Some played in theaters that provided music; others played in private homes. Other settings were caf├ęs, barbershops and house parties.

Blues and pre-blues traditions existed simultaneously in North Carolina, sometimes contiguously. Durham, for instance, was the blues central for the piedmont, while its neighbor, Orange County, still had a strong string band tradition. Even when this Piedmont Blues style was at its height, the North Carolina press ignored it. Knowledge of the music on Pettigrew and Fayetteville streets passed only by word of mouth, because newspapers and radio never made reference to it.

Blind BlakeIn 1974 the founding of the Office of Folklife Programs at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources began drawing the state's attention to Durham's legacy. The department began introducing folk artists such as John Snipes, a blues artist who had never played before a white audience before, to schools and public functions. The first North Carolina Folklife Festival in 1976 began drawing audiences from throughout North Carolina and Virginia to hear blues artists. The festival was such a success that Durham has held it annually. Local papers, including a noteworthy article in the November 1972 issue of the Daily Tar Heel began covering a small blues festival that was part of the Fine Arts Festival at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Representatives of the early Piedmont Blues style still live in pockets of North Carolina. In Caldwell County, Elizabeth "Babe" Reid, Cora Phillips and Theopolis "The" Phillips continue the tradition of the first style. As the pioneers age and many of the original blues settings disappear into history, new Piedmont Blues musicians and fans keep the music alive in styles that sometimes vary from the pure Piedmont Blues that swept through Durham in the 1930s.  A few of the 1950s era 'Juke Joints' still survive to this day. Blues musicians from around the state, such as Cool John Ferguson and Captain Luke, still play shows there on a regular basis. Since 1988, the Bull Durham Blues Festival has brought national and regional talent to the historic Durham Athletic Park, former home of the Durham Bulls baseball team. This annual event has now grown to become the largest blues festival in North Carolina and draws close to 20,000 fans each year. A relatively new band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has emerged in recent years as one of the few African-American stringbands that specializes in Piedmont style music. The Music Maker Relief Foundation of Hillsborough also hosts a number of blues events each year in various locations across the state.