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The Piedmont Blues

September 24, 2012

On a late summer evening, Freddie Vanderford, David Ezell, and I enjoyed supper together at a Mexican restaurant in Union, South Carolina. David and I have known each other for years. Since our boyhood days we have coaxed tunes from our acoustic guitars. Back in the dim ages we each had the privilege of making music with Walter Hyatt. As a teenager I strummed hillbilly chords with Walt on Monday nights at a small Presbyterian Church after Boy Scout meetings. David and Uncle Walt played together becoming professional musicians.  I went off on a different tangent to become God knows what.

At age 20, Walter formed Uncle Walt’s Band with Champ Hood and David Ball. He went on to a successful career as a singer and song writer until his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1996, one month before I became Pastor at Morningside Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

In recent years I have developed a particular interest in the blues, a musical genre with a Southern heritage.  David and Freddie are members of the inner circle of Piedmont blues musicians in the Upstate. They play gigs together with other artists like Fayssoux McLean, a Southern songbird, and Brandon Turner, who can tease soulful licks from any guitar – acoustic, electric, or slide.

“I want you to meet Freddie,” David had said. “He plays the blues harp [harmonica] like you have never heard. He learned from Peg Leg Sam.”

The meeting over Mexican cuisine in Union was my first encounter with Freddie. We chose the location because David and I call Spartanburg home while Freddie hails from Buffalo, South Carolina. David was right. The man from Buffalo can make a harmonica sing.

We enjoyed our supper as we talked about the blues.

As nearly as I can tell it all started at a railroad crossing in the upper Mississippi Delta. The junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta Railroad was established in 1897. For decades it was the central Delta’s major rail link.  In 1914 the railroad crossing gained national fame with W.C. Handy’s “The Yellow Dog Rag” which includes the line “where the Southern crosses the yellow dog.”

The Delta blues developed from African roots cultivated in the cotton fields of the South. During their backbreaking work on Southern plantations, slaves developed a call and response way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their day. These field hollers, as they were known, serve as a basis of all blues music.

Following the Civil War the traditional slave music was influenced by ballads, spirituals, and rhythmic dance tunes known as jump ups. The blues adopted call and response patterns also common in African-American churches. A singer carried on a musical dialogue with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. This persistent pattern is evident in the music of B.B. King. He named his guitar Lucille. King often sings a line and Lucille answers with a voice produced by the string bending and vibrato from the nimble hands of the King of the Blues.

Blues songs are usually sung in the first person. The music has an unvarnished honesty conveyed through a powerful, rhythmic beat. The lyrics are soulful and melancholy, reflecting themes of daily life. Nothing is off-limits. Love, marriage, and unfaithfulness all find a voice. Drinking, gambling, stealing, and murder are grist for the blues mill. Jail time, hard labor, and poverty find expression in these songs, as do mules, railroads, and trucks.

Some of the best known Delta blues singers were discovered in prison.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, is an icon. He played several instruments, but he was best known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. His violent temper and a propensity for knife fights led to his incarceration in prisons from Texas to Louisiana to New York. Fellow inmates gave him the name Lead Belly after another prisoner blasted him in the stomach with a shotgun. Alan Lomax discovered and recorded Lead Belly in 1930 during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana.

Freddie Vanderford sings “The Parchman Farm Blues,” named for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Several musicians were imprisoned there, including Bukka White who wrote the song.

During the Great Depression, many Southern blacks migrated north along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad. The blues became firmly established in Memphis and St. Louis and then in Chicago and Detroit.

The music filled rowdy urban nightclubs. The loud crowds and bigger venues led some of the more inventive performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to switch to electric guitars and to add drums to their bands.

Muddy Waters was born in Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. He is considered the father of modern Chicago blues. This new electric Chicago music was louder than its predecessor and became a major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s.

Blues also found a home in the hilly area between the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Virginia. Piedmont blues is characterized by a syncopated guitar technique that is comparable in sound to ragtime piano. The style features a fingerpicking method in which the thumb plays the bass strings while the fingers provide the melody on the treble strings.

Piedmont blues is a little more upbeat than the Delta blues. As Freddie Vanderford explained, the Piedmont performers discovered that more lively music garnered larger tips than mournful songs.

In the early twentieth century, influential artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell made Piedmont blues increasingly popular. Freddie said that the blind musicians had made a significant contribution in shaping the style. Women were also masters of Piedmont guitar style, including Etta Baker from Morganton, North Carolina, and Elizabeth Cotton, who’s “Freight Train” is one of the best recognized blues tunes.

A fingerpicking guitarist, Pink Anderson was born in Laurens but raised in Greenville and Spartanburg. He played for thirty years as part of a medicine show, Dr. Kerr’s Indian Remedy Company. Pink entertained crowds with an old Gibson J-50 guitar and a harmonica while Kerr tried to sell a concoction purported to remedy every ailment. Pink Anderson is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Spartanburg.

Pink also played with Peg Leg Sam, a harmonica player from the West Springs area of Union County. Peg Leg Sam got his nickname, following an accident while traveling as a hobo in 1930. He mentored Freddie Vanderford, who played a few gigs with Pink Anderson’s son, Little Pink.

The Piedmont Blues influenced other popular musicians such as Ray Charles, Doc Watson, and Paul Simon. Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt also adopted the style as their own.

Meeting Freddie Vanderford opened a door into the rich musical heritage of the Upstate. He recalled stories about Reverend Gary Davis from Grey Court, Baby Tate who lived behind Spartanburg’s Varsity Drive-in, and Josh White from Greenville.

He told me that Brownie McGhee got his start playing at tobacco barn auctions and that Sonny Terry played the harmonica upside down.
I was given a copy of Freddie’s CD entitled “Greasy Greens.” The greater gift to me is that I now know Freddie. He is one more reason to love the Piedmont and the blues.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2012
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