Exploring the Roots and Resilience of the Piedmont BluesBlues
Current Piedmont blues artists speak to how the music that built Music Maker Foundation almost 30 years ago lives on.
Almost 30 years ago, Music Maker Executive Director Tim Duffy set out on a mission to find Guitar Gabriel. Gabe was a Piedmont bluesman who’d gone missing from the music scene decades prior. When Tim asked around for his whereabouts, people speculated he was dead. After about six months of searching in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, however, Tim met Guitar Gabriel in a drink house on the east side of town. The two became fast friends and business partners.
Through Gabe, Tim encountered a remarkable group of Piedmont blues musicians living in this city built by tobacco; Macavine Hayes, Captain Luke, Willa Mae Buckner, and Whistlin’ Britches. These people and their music became the foundation of Music Maker.
Naysayers have claimed from the beginning that these musicians were the embers of a smoldered fire. Acoustic blues had already had its heyday in the early half of the 20th century. Anything produced now must be relegated to retrospection.
What we have found, and continue to find, is that the Piedmont blues is deeply rooted in family and cultural traditions that exist beyond commercialized trends. Between late 2022 and early 2023, Music Maker released a run of three records from Piedmont blues artists; Shelton Powe, Gail Ceasar, and Jeffrey Scott. All individuals with their own unique sound and story, who belong to a larger tradition we know as the Piedmont blues. We spoke to these artists, as well as longtime partner artists Jontavious Willis and Big Ron Hunter, to understand this genre’s staying power.
Ask any of these musicians how they’d define the Piedmont blues, and you’ll get a different answer. According to Atlanta-based Shelton Powe, “The Piedmont blues is a fancy way of picking. It’s a combination with bluegrass, with some jelly put on it. It’s a little bit different than other forms of blues, say, Delta. The Delta’s more a haunting sound, deep down. Piedmont’s like a happy, ragtime deal.”
The definition Big Ron Hunter knows is “thumb and a finger, it’s what my dad always showed me when I was younger. Bass note and picking, that’s the Piedmont sound.” Gail Ceasar says, “To me, it’s not too much different from Country Blues.” Jeffrey Scott calls it “the happy blues.”
There are patterns in these definitions; the Piedmont blues is known by many for melding with mountain music and bluegrass genres. Gail Ceasar’s “Guitar Woman Blues” is a great example of this. She fingerpicks with precision and drives the rhythm using her thumb for the bass line–both hallmarks of these styles–but contradicts it by playing at a slower tempo and hitting a haunting blue note when she sings, “the blues”.
However, these widely recognized traits aren’t prerequisites to the Piedmont blues and can be a limiting definition of the genre’s sound. As blues ethnographer Jontavious Willis puts it, “Originally, I would say that it was a style of blues from the Piedmont region of the US, mostly the southern states. Georgia, some of Florida, and on up the coast. And it wasn’t characterized much more than that.” So, is there one “correct” definition?
The first and arguably most well-known breakout artist from the Piedmont was Blind Boy Fuller, who came on the scene in the 1930s with his hits like, “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” “I’m a Rattlesnakin Daddy,” and “Rag, Mama, Rag.” Fuller is known for his upbeat music that blends ragtime, slide, popular music, and the blues. His music has influenced countless artists, including The Rolling Stones, who titled their 1970 live album, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, after the artist’s single.
Blind Boy Fuller’s music became the style that many North Carolinian musicians followed. Guitar Gabriel’s father, Sonny Jones, recorded Fuller’s music, Guitar Slim Stephens learned to play from Fuller, as did John Dee Holeman’s cousin and uncle, to name a few. John Dee Holeman emulated Fuller’s in several ways, from his fashion sense to his picking style. However, Jontavious, a protege of Holeman’s, notes that John Dee never labeled his technique as the Piedmont blues.
“I’d ask Mr. John Dee, ‘Mr. John Dee, what is this?’ He’d say, ‘That’s finger picking.’ I’d say, ‘So what does it mean if I can go between the basses?’ He’d be like, ‘That’s good finger-picking.’ I was like, ‘Have you ever heard of the Piedmont blues?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know nothing about that,” Willis recalls.
Fuller’s sound became the framework for success for record labels. White producers and cultural anthropologists tended to deem contradicting artistic expressions from other musicians as irrelevant. As Willis explains, “It all depended on how many records you sold or what people wanted you to play. The record industry was pretty racist. So if you had a hit, if you played in a certain style, that’s all they recorded.” The implication was not only that artists were pigeonholed into playing in one particular style, but also that countless musicians were erased from the record entirely.
Willis continues, “Most of the people that we associate with Piedmont pickers are people that finger pick. But Barbecue Bob doesn’t really finger pick. And Tampa Red doesn’t really, not alternating bass fingerpicking. There’s less of that ragtime feel. It all depends on the artists.
“Blind Willie McTell has a song called ‘The Death Cell Blues.’ And he’s a great finger picker, but he also can make, he calls it, ‘In-the-Alley Blues.’ The lowdown, beer-drinking, sorrow blues. For instance, people would say that Mississippi John Hurt is a Piedmont player, but he’s from the Delta. He plays sweet stuff all the time. But he’s from the Delta.”
Duffy concurs, “If someone like Guitar Gabriel or anyone that comes from this area comes around, they’re compared to Blind Boy Fuller. It’s like being a folk singer after Bob Dylan. They defined Blind Boy Fuller as the Piedmont Blues. It created an artificial hierarchy.”
This overlay prevents us from seeing the full picture. The Piedmont blues came from people living on the margins of society due to slavery and systemic racism. The music continues to exist on the fringes: of past and present, of popular culture and oral traditions. This defiance of categorization keeps it from being enveloped by any one person or cultural current.
This music tells the story of how Black people living in a country plagued by white supremacy asserted their full humanity and dignity, expressed their rage and sorrow, and created their own sense of safety and joy. It is an art form learned in church pews, at house parties, and in the fields, carried through generations.
As Jeffrey Scott explains, “The white folks, they could go into the city and eat dinner. They could go into the ballroom and dance. But see, we had to have what they call, ‘house parties’. We might meet over at Jim’s, or Fletcher’s farm, and everybody’d hang out and play music.
“My Grandmomma was the oldest of 14 kids. Uncle Johnny was one of the younger ones. I do have the fondest memory of going up to Rappahannock County as a boy, and they would be cutting firewood or whatever, and we would sit around the wood pile and there would be nine, 10 guitars. There would be an autoharp in the crowd, a kazoo. We were all having fun playing music while they were supposed to be cutting wood. Or they would be out butchering hogs. And we’re having fun playing music because we are waiting for Johnny, Ned, Freddy, Jack, Henry, all of them would be down the hill, just killing the hog, bringing it back up to us to skull and clean.
“It didn’t matter if we were cutting wood or if we were at church. We would go and play music on Saturday night. We were playing all those blue songs. My mom would get me and my five sisters up out of bed, make us go to church on Sunday morning. Well, we played those same songs in church on Sunday morning. But it was different words, we just changed the syncopation, and it was the same song. And then all of a sudden on Sunday morning, that song was called, ‘I Shall Not Be Moved.’
“Well, the night before, we would take that same song, the same tune, and we would say, ‘Step Down Mama, and let me see what’s going on.’ I didn’t realize until I got old enough to know about the Birds and the Bees,” he laughs.
The Piedmont blues can be viewed as a constantly evolving method of cultural transmission. Each rendition of a song is a distinct expression, reflecting how an individual has been influenced by the stories and experiences of those who came before them. This art form was created by and for the Black Americans who made it, and it continues to reflect the cultural heritage of the Piedmont region.
Today, artists have access to a broader range of musical influences and traditions, courtesy of the internet and its resources. Even if they don’t see the representation they want to around them, they can draw from these wells. Gail Ceasar can speak to this. “I’m the only woman that’s playing this music around where I live at,” she shares.
“I haven’t seen any other women that play blues up where I’m at other than what I’ve seen on TV or listened to on a CD, or YouTube,” Caesar continues. “I get nervous, but I do the best I can and I just hope that everybody, I just hope the listeners enjoy it. It is a comfort to me.”
These musicians are torchbearers who carry forward the legacy of the loved ones they’ve lost. Gail was taught by her uncle, Pete Witcher, who’s now passed. Big Ron Hunter was taught by his father. Shelton Powe plays to remember his mother and his childhood. Jeffrey Scott learned from his uncle, John Jackson.
As Scott’s uncle once told him, “This is being in a relay race. You got to take this music that I’m teaching you, and you got to show young people how to play it. And when you can’t go anymore, you can pass the baton on. You’ve got to keep this music alive.”
Powe shares this conviction that comes from being part of something greater than oneself. “It’s American music. I mean blues and old-time gospel, that’s where it all started. The Rolling Stones, all these guys, Eric Clapton, they all started out with the blues. It stems from that old time music, that community music, folks who had one-string banjos playing this music centuries ago. It is just American music and it’ll go on.”