In studying the historical development of the blues, it would be easy to assume that all blues came directly from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and the river bottoms of the Brazos Valley in Texas. That would be a mistake because cotton was not the only plant that contributed to the blues tradition. The other was tobacco, grown in the Piedmont region along the East Coast, which stretches from the Appalachian Mountains, down through Virginia, the Carolinas all the way to Alabama and Georgia. The region’s style of guitar picking, using only the thumb and index finger on the right hand and a slide on the left, became known as the Piedmont Blues, or was sometimes referred to as the East Coast Blues. The Piedmont style is differentiated from other styles, particularly the Mississippi Delta Blues, by its ragtime-based rhythms.
Tobacco had been grown in Virginia ever since white settlers from Europe established a settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Exporting tobacco leaves from Jamestown to England was far more profitable in those early days than growing corn. Black slaves from Europe were introduced later as tobacco growing was very labor intensive and such slaves were less likely to contract diseases than the white settlers. These slaves, coming mostly from Western Africa, brought their music with them. One of the most famous Virginians to make a fortune selling “yellow leaf” tobacco was James B. Duke, who employed the first cigarette-rolling machine. His descendants used this fortune to establish Duke University, whose basketball team is still known as the Blue Devils.
“The tobacco cities and towns of North Carolina and Virginia, plus the textile-based ones of South Carolina and Georgia, loom importantly in the history of Piedmont blues. Musicians followed the money during the tobacco harvest and auctions. The Durham market, for example, lasted three to four months, ending in December. It was a rowdy scene replete with medicine shows and buskers in the auction warehouses, all amplified by flowing dollars and bootleg whisky,” states The Blues Encyclopedia.
Why were so many Piedmont Blues players blind men?
Perhaps because the Piedmont style was less complicated than regular guitar picking, blind guitar pickers were some of the first to master the style. Such visually impaired men really had to choose between picking cotton or plucking a guitar in those days. “Blind Blake [1896-1934] was a notable exponent of this style, with clean picking, steady rhythm and tasteful and imaginative phrasing making him a best-selling Blues artist. Throughout the ‘20s he played on street corners, Saturday night dances and fish-fries all up and down the Georgia and Carolina coastline. His instrumental, ‘West Coast Blues’ was a hit on Paramount in 1926, and he recorded more than 80 tracks before his demise in 1933,” explains allaboutmusic.com.
Blake was a long-time husker, working the streets of Atlanta and Augusta. He cut his first record in 1927 for Victor Records and recorded for several different labels up until the 1950s. Unfortunately, this great master of the Piedmont Blues did not live long enough to see the “discovery” of many old blues musicians in the 1960s. Blake died from complications of diabetes and alcoholism. Not much is known about Blind Blake’s history, but the record is much better for another blind blues guitarist named Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959), who hailed from Thomas, Georgia.
“Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier) was a Piedmont blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues. Unlike his contemporaries, he came to use twelve-string guitars exclusively. McTell was also an adept slide guitarist, unusual among ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher voices of Delta bluesmen such as Charley Patton. McTell performed in various musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music and hokum,” states Wikipedia.
Etta Baker (1913-2006) of Caldwell County, North Carolina played the guitar in the Piedmont Blues style for more than 80 years, starting when she was only three years old. Her father, who picked guitars in the same style was her only teacher, which meant that the 93 year old had learned from a first-generation blues performer. Many blues players have been influenced by Baker’s “pure” mastery of the Piedmont style.
Piedmont blues was popular between the 1920s and 1940s, but fell out of favor after WWII. However, the music enjoyed a revival thanks to the British Invasion and the growing anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the 1960s. Modern-day practitioners of the Piedmont style include such musicians as Keb Mo’, Eric Bibb and Ry Cooder. The last-named musician’s slide guitar, with its haunting and soul-piercing sound, has been the soundtrack to several movies, including “Paris, Texas” and “Southern Comfort.” Of Cooder’s many hits, my personal favorite is “Vigilante Man.” Arlo Guthrie famously used a Piedmont blues backing for his “Alice’s Restaurant” monologues, as it was easy to play repeatedly for long stretches of time.
Ry Cooder performs “Vigilante Man” (1973)