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SINGING THE BLUES

September 23, 2019

On a late summer evening several years ago, 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 continued to practice and play, becoming professional certified guitar players.  I went off on a different tangent to become God knows what.

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, who is a Southern songbird, and Brandon Turner, who can coax a mournful twang from any guitar – acoustic, electric, or steel.

In recent years I have developed a particular interest in the blues, a musical genre with a Southern heritage.

“I want you to meet Freddie,” David had said. “He plays the blues harp 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 and talked about the music indigenous to the South and to the Upstate.

As nearly as I can tell the blues all started at a railroad crossing in the upper Mississippi Delta where “the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.”  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 making Moorhead, Mississippi, the region’s most active freight connections. In 1914 the railroad crossing gained national fame with W.C. Handy’s blues song “The Yellow Dog Rag.”

The Delta Blues developed from African roots cultivated in the cotton rows of the South. During their backbreaking work in the fields of the Southern plantations, slaves developed a call and response way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their day. These field calls served 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 music adopted call and response patterns also common in African-American churches. A blues singer carried on a musical dialogue with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. This is a persistent pattern in the blues. The famous artist B.B. King named his guitar Lucille, and the two have been singing together ever since.

Blues songs are usually sung in the first person. This style of music has an unvarnished honesty conveyed through powerful, rhythm. 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 mill. Jail time, hard labor, and poverty find expression in the good blues 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, was an iconic blues musician. He played several instruments but was best known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. A propensity for a violent temper and knife fights led to his incarceration in prisons from Texas, to Louisiana, to New York on at least four occasions. Fellow prisoners gave him the name Lead Belly after another inmate shot Ledbetter in the stomach with a shotgun. Alan Lomax discovered and recorded Ledbetter 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, a hard-time prison. 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 earthy music became firmly established in Memphis and St. Louis and then in Chicago and Detroit.

The blues 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 at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. He is considered the father of modern Chicago blues. This new electric Chicago music was more powerful than its predecessor and became a major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s. Eric Clapton was major contributor.

Here in the Upstate, 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 an alternating-thumb-bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings.  Generally, Piedmont Blues is a little more light-hearted than its Delta cousins. Doc Watson is a prime example.

Freddie Vanderford explained that Piedmont blues musicians discovered that more upbeat 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 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, whose “Freight Train” is one of the best-recognized fingerpicking blues tunes.

A good-natured 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 have medicinal qualities. Pink Anderson is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Spartanburg.

Pink also played with Peg Leg Sam, a blues 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 and Paul Simon. Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt also adopted the style as their own.

Meeting Freddie Vanderford opened a door into a part of the rich musical heritage of our part of the country. He recalled stories about Reverend Gary Davis from Grey Court, Baby Tate who lived behind the Varsity Drive-in, and Josh White from Greenville.  Freddie told me that Brownie McGhee got his start playing at tobacco barn auctions and that Sonny Terry played the harmonica upside down.

I often listen to my copy of Freddie’s album entitled “Greasy Greens.” My greater gift is that now I know Freddie. He is one more reason to love the Upstate.

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