Piedmont is an area that runs to the east of the Appalachian region and Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Coast and extends from Alabama up through New York State. I have made some passing references to some of the artists from this area, in particular with my post on the adjacent Appalachia and Bluegrass. You may be surprised at Piedmont’s significant contributions to the Blues and other genres.
Music from this region is primarily known as the Piedmont Blues or the East Coast Blues. There is a significant difference in the style of Piedmont Blues music compared to the style found in the epicenter of the Blues, the Mississippi Delta. I’ve talked about the importance of Arnold Shultz in the development of Bluegrass and fingerstyle guitar; in Delta Blues I discussed many pioneers such as Broonzy, James and Leonard. For the Piedmont region, we look to artists of no less importance such as Blind Blake, Scrapper Blackwell, Kokomo Arnold, Elizabeth Cotten, Josh White and others that played not only the Blues, but Folk and Country hybrid styles as well.
Piedmont Blues comes down to the thumb style and frailing technique known as Ragtime Guitar. This type of music features guitar playing styles and songs that would shape future musicians beyond the Blues genre including both Rock and Folk. For the Blues genre it is a sound that is much more upbeat in nature resulting in a ‘happier’ sounding Blues compared to that of the Delta Region. The best way to describe it is to get to the artists themselves.
Arthur Blake was born blind from either 1893 or 1896 and died in 1934 after succumbing to pulmonary tuberculosis. His recording career with Paramount Records only lasted from 1926 to 1932. Little is known about his life other than that he was an itinerant guitar player who traveled in Georgia and the Carolina regions. Ironically, one of his best-known songs is “West Coast Blues”. Blind Blake is the first person known to use the thumb picking guitar style, which was the basis for the region’s significance. With people’s penchant for giving monikers to musicians, I am surprised I never ran across a description of him as the ‘Father of the Piedmont Blues’ as his influence, it seems, was very significant. Some of his most popular songs are “Police Dog Blues“, “Rope Stretching Blues” and “Diddie Wa Diddie“.
We know more about Blackwell than Blind Blake – he was born February 21,1903 and died October 7,1962. A native of the Carolinas, he produced some very important works as a solo artist but had the most success working with the influential Indianapolis singer and piano player Leroy Carr. During my research I discovered that Blackwell recorded the important song “Kokomo Blues” in 1928 and it seems he is often credited by music journalists, Blues music websites and various biographies as having written the song. See my notes below as I suggest a different story. Nevertheless, he and Carr toured the South and the Midwest and their songs, “Prison Bound Blues”, “Blues Before Sunrise” and especially “How Long, How Long Blues” became very popular and influenced the next generation of Blues artists.
James Arnold recorded the same song as Blackwell, “Kokomo Blues”, naming it “Old Original Kokomo Blues”, which led to the nickname Kokomo Arnold. Arnold was from Georgia and spent just a very short time in the music business recording for Decca from 1934 to 1938. He lived in Pittsburgh for a time then moved to Chicago and worked in a factory. However, he is an important part of this story. First, his version of the song came to the attention of famed Delta Bluesman, Robert Johnson, who wrote “Sweet Home Chicago” based on the same melody and some of the words as well. Secondly, Arnold wrote the song “Sagefield Woman Blues” from which Johnson took the line ‘dust my broom’ which later became one of his signature songs. Lastly, there is some more traceable influence on Johnson who took Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” and turned it into “Milkcow Calf Blues”.
Blind Boy Fuller
Fulton Allen was born sometime between 1904 and 1907. He slowly lost his eyesight due to untreated neonatal conjunctivitis and was completely blind by 1928. I mentioned in an earlier post that Pink Floyd took their name from Pinkney “Pink” Anderson and Floyd Council, fellow Carolinian/Piedmont Blues artists that were listed in the liner notes as playing on an album by Fuller. Like others in the region and for that time in history, Fuller had a short life, dying from sepsis among other problems in 1941. However, he was a prolific and popular artist and recorded over 120 songs. He was a student and later master of the Blind Blake guitar playing style and is best known for his influence on others and at least two significant songs. The first is “Truckin’ My Blues Away”: this song contains the line, ‘keep on truckin’’ and is the first known use of the phrase. The second song is “Get Your Yas Yas Out“, later adapted by the Rolling Stones for the name of their 1970 live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
Brownie McGhee was Blind Boy Fuller’s protege and another fine guitar player with an even finer singing voice. After singing in groups and doing some solo recording he teamed up with the amazing harmonica player, Sonny Terry, who was also influenced by Fuller. Terry was blind by age 16 so he was forced to try and make a living as a musician. He ended up playing at Carnegie Hall in 1936 and is one of the legends of the Piedmont.
While Arthel Lane Watson, as I noted in my post on Bluegrass often played in that flatpicking style he was born and bred in the Piedmont region on March 3, 1923 in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Watson also died (May 29, 2012) in North Carolina where he lived most all his life. Blind by the age of two, Arthel acquired his nickname after a live radio performance where the host thought Arthel was an odd name and someone yelled out “call him Doc”, it’s assumed after the Sherlock Holmes sidekick. While he mostly played in the thumbpicking style of Blind Blake he would find influence in the music of the country superstars of the Carter Family and the “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. Known for his ability to play fiddle tunes on his electric guitar, he was a handy guy for a square dance. But around 1960 on the advice of musicologist and mandolin player Ralph Rinzler, he switched almost exclusively to acoustic guitar and banjo. His career took off and in my opinion he has a place as one of the finest guitarists of all time.
Watson played with many other artists including his own family and still produced hundreds of solo recordings. Here he is with a traditional rendition of “Tom Dooley” that he learned from his grandmother who actually knew at least one of the people named in the song. This North Carolina Folk song is about the 1866 murder of Laura Foster and the condemned man named Tom Dula, pronounced Dooley. It’s listed as a traditional song because the author’s name is in dispute, and it was first recorded in 1929 by the grandson of Col. James Grayson who employed and eventually helped capture Dula. This is the original Tom Dooley by Grayson and Whitter , released May 2, 1930. It became a number one hit for The Kingston Trio in 1958. Watson recorded another well-known Piedmont tune several times; this version of “Black Mountain Rag” is with his son Merle. Originally for the fiddle, it is based on the song “Lost Child” and written by Virginian Leslie Keith. It has become a favorite of Country artists and Fingerstyle guitar players. This clip of “Deep River Blues“ shows some great closeups of those amazing hands. Here is a great demonstration of his banjo playing on “Hiram Hubbard“.
There are many other important and influential artists such as Buddy Moss, Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Etta Baker and Curly Weaver. And while I have talked about the artists who are the pioneers of the Piedmont Blues sound, there are two more people who deserve a lot of credit for shaping both Folk and Rock music. They are Elizabeth Cotten and Josh White.
Elizabeth Cotten was born January 5, 1893 and she died on June 29, 1987. Though she was from the Piedmont she was well known beyond that for both her songwriting and guitar playing styles. Cotten wrote “Freight Train” at age 11 and was most certainly an influence in the Bluegrass, Folk, Blues, Country and Rock genres. This influence really came after her rediscovery by the iconic musical family of Ruth Crawford Seeger and her husband Charles Seeger in the 1950s. Cotten had retired from playing and after a chance meeting with the Seegers she worked briefly as their housekeeper. When they realized her talents, one of the children, Mike Seeger, began recording her songs. This inspired Cotten to continue performing, write more songs and earn a good living, eventually winning a Grammy in 1984. Here she is singing “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie/Old Woman Keeps Tellin’ Her Lies On Me“.
To generalize a bit, Black musicians played a more Blues-oriented sound typified by the Delta and Piedmont Blues subgenres. But Cotten would be categorized as more of a Folk artist. The self taught Elizabeth Cotten – like Kokomo Arnold – played the right-handed guitar left-handed, which is more unusual than you think as most left-handed people are forced to learn to play it right-handed for lack of a left-handed instrument. Just think about it, the guitar is upside down for the left-handed player; the base string is now at the top, not to mention everything else about it is for right handers. While the left-handed guitar was invented perhaps as early as 1915, it was quite rare and it was very hard to get a hold of one and apparently still is in some parts. More compositions by Elizabeth Cotten: “Shake Sugaree“, “Spanish Flang Dang“.
White was born February 11,1914 and died in New York at age 55 on September 5,1969. There is so much to this remarkable man that I can only tell a brief bit of his story today. His father was taken away to a mental institution after an altercation with a bill collector so his mother was forced to sell him into servitude at age eight for a fee of two dollars a week. Two years later, he left his Greenville South Carolina home to tour with Blind Man Arnold and became a recording artist. He has left a mark on not only American music but on stage, film, activism and race relations. He returned home at age 10 only to be lured away to record more records. As to his singing and guitar playing, he recorded Christian Music, mainstream Stage Productions, as well as Country Blues and Folk. He did sessions with other Piedmont artists such as Buddy Moss and the aforementioned Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr.
While he could read and write music, he his best known for his adaptations of several songs. His biggest hit was a reworking of an 1855 song called “The Lone Fish Ball”. It was later titled, “One Meatball”, written by the famed Hy Zaret (Unchained Melody) and Lou Singer. He would reword and change the music to several songs but most notably was “House of the Rising Sun”, which he recorded twice, in 1942 with a frequent co-performer and collaborator Libby Holman, and in 1944. The 1944 arrangement set the baseline for others who recorded the song such as Leadbelly and The Animals.
Here he is with a Roosevelt Sykes song “D.B.A. Blues” recorded in 1935 under the name of Pinewood Tom. It’s hard to believe it’s the same artist. Here is one of his songs, “I Got a Home in That Rock”, billed as Josh White (The Singing Christian). Josh White, a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, spread influence across many different genres, from Folk singers like Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, to Folk Rock with The Byrds and David Crosby, and Blues singers such as Blind Boy Fuller and even Elvis Presley. His rendition of the Blues classic “St. James Infirmary” is a standout among hundreds of versions.
More about Kokomo Blues
The first known recording of this song was printed as “Kokalo Blues” due to a misprint by the record manufacturer. Madlyn Davis’s 1927 recording of the song predates Scrapper Blackwell’s by about one year which dispels, in my mind, the likelihood that he wrote it, and as far as I can tell, no one knows who did. Unlike some of the sites specializing in Blues music history say, “Kokomo Blues” is not about a brand of coffee, but it’s in reference to the City of Kokomo Indiana. In fact, as far as I can see and hear, none of the versions mention coffee at all, yet the word “city” is right in the lyrics. Not only that but I found nothing on the internet about a brand of coffee from that time period. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, but again, it seems very unlikely. There is however a Kokomo Coffee shop in town that opened fairly recently – go figure!
So why all the fuss about this tune you may ask? Well this little-known piece has persisted in cover songs and the melody is one of the most famous songs in Blues history. Let’s circle back to Madlyn Davis for a moment: I can’t find anything about her other than she recorded this and a few other songs in Chicago around 1927/28. I found some reference to her having composed Kokomo Blues but was not able to corroborate it. Where she was from originally is anyone’s guess, so I can’t say she is from the Piedmont area. But Scrapper Blackwell was from the Piedmont, as is the singer who got his name from the song. As mentioned, Kokomo Arnold’s version inspired Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”. There is certainly no dispute that that song is very important to Blues Music, but it also speaks to the perception of Robert Johnson. Johnson is someone who – while being exceedingly talented – has been elevated to a status far above his contemporaries, in my opinion. These contemporaries deserve more credit than they get, at least from what I’ve read and seen so far.
Here is a sampling of other artists that belong to the Piedmont/East Coast Blues and Folk styles: Big Ron Hunter, Ry Cooder, Precious Bryant, Valerie and Ben Turner and the duo of Warner Williams and Jay Summerour.
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