Tag Archives: Blues

piedmont blues

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)

little red rooster

Willie Dixon

Lyrics written and sung by traditional bluesmen have often tried to mimic the sound of farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens. For example, Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson accurately copied the braying of mules in his 1928 recording of “Wild Jack Blues.” Lightnin’ Hopkins sings about talking to a cow in “Tom Moore’s Blues.” Other traditional blues players used harmonicas to mimic the sounds of different farm animals. Blues song writers and performers, such as Willie Dixon (1915-92), grew up on Southern farms and were surrounded by such animals. Dixon is often referred to as the “poet of the blues.”

It is only natural, then, that these budding artists noticed the sounds and behavior of their feathered and cloven-hooved friends, later incorporating the same into their music. In fact, one of Dixon’s greatest creations was “The Little Red Rooster,” first recorded by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song about a barnyard rooster gained an instant following, especially after covers were later recorded by Sam Cooke (1931-64) and the British rock band The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ lyrics, somewhat different from the original, go like this:   

“I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day
I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way

The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster’s on the prowl.”

A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded “Little Red Rooster.” Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. Some critics claim the song is the most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan” while more objective analysts see it as an innocuous farm ditty. Dixon himself said, rather sarcastically: “I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!”

American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more up-tempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas, points out Wikipedia. That particular tour was a major impetus for the British Invasion which soon followed.

The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded “Little Red Rooster” with original member Brian Jones, a blues purist and a key player in the recording. “Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke’s, became a number one hit record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to ever reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. ‘Little Red Rooster’ continues to be performed and recorded by a variety of artists, making it one of Willie Dixon’s best-known compositions,” opines gerrymoss.net.

Interpretations notwithstanding, the above comments beg the question of whether white people can authentically sing and/or play the blues invented and perfected by African Americans. Muddy Waters once famously said that whites can play the blues but cannot sing them. A June 1999 article in the Independent entitled: “Music: White Men Sing the Blues” asked the question of whether white bands like the Rolling Stones could actually sing the blues like black singers. “Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones’ artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as ‘the world’s only blue gum [very dark skinned black man] white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake’. Brian Jones also initially called himself ‘Elmo Lewis’, an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.”

Unfortunately, the blues-loving founder of the Rolling Stones drowned in a swimming pool incident in 1969. After his death, the Rolling Stones became less bluesy and more focused on rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger, then comfortably ensconced as lead singer of the group, realized he needed to become more visual and active during stage performances. He needed a dance that would make him appear more African-American like. So Jagger studied the dance moves of the incredibly athletic James Brown in order to perfect his own version of the funky chicken. He also copied the moves of Ike and Tina Turner, in an attempt to become a white singer with black moves.

By doing so, Jagger succeeded in becoming an international sex symbol, but some observers remained unimpressed. Ike Turner said that Jagger “could not sing” and Truman Capote deduced that Jagger’s performances were “about as sexy as a pissing toad.” Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones are still rocking and making millions onstage despite being grandfathers and senior citizens. According to the magazine named after the Rolling Stones, they are the second-longest running rock band (without a break) after U-2, an Irish rock band named after an Irish unemployment form.

The Rolling Stones sing “Little Red Rooster”