Oh, That East Coast Sound; The Piedmont Blues

Every American knows the blues. We’ve all heard it drifting up from the sticky Mississippi delta, salty and reeking of bathtub gin; anyone who knows a rock song unwittingly knows the blues lick that preceded it. Modern media have done much to propel the delta blues into our musical lexicon, but what about the blues of a different hue? What about the pickers east of the mighty Mississippi, coming from the red clay rocks of Georgia, or the mountains of Appalachia? Theirs is an amalgamation of once popular styles, molded by nimble hands and finely tuned ears, known as the Piedmont Blues.

The Piedmont plateau region runs from Richmond, VA to Atlanta, GA, stretching out to the edges of the Appalachian range on all sides. Many African-Americans began their migration here during Reconstruction and on through the 1920s, taking with them the musical traditions they had begun earlier. The natural barrier created by the mountains kept the local culture from expanding further north and west, and by the early 20th century, many musical styles had converged upon each other.

The ragtime and string band traditions melded with the white folk sounds of the mountain hollers, resulting in a highly syncopated, fingerpicking guitar style. Whereas ragtime piano uses the walking-bass left hand to support the melody driven right hand, Piedmont blues converts all action into the right hand. The thumb acts as the bass, while the rest of the fingers pick out the melody. Since influence was pulled from an assortment of different sources (country, ragtime, string bands and folk), Piedmont blues tend to have a lighter touch, as opposed to the heavy-handed delta sound.

As with delta blues, the heyday of the Piedmont sound lasted through the 1920s and 30s, falling by the wayside during the war years, only to be picked up again by folklorists and revivalists of the late 1950s. Some of the most popular names in Piedmont blues are Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis. Their influence is heard in bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, to name a few.

It’s said that there are many ways to skin a cat, and that rings as true in blues music as in anything else. The blues are an idea, conveyed in whatever style is readily available to the player at the time. Like it’s more popular counterpart, Piedmont fingerpicking blues has done more than its share to propel music forward, while pulling the past along for the ride.

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