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The Living Legacy of the Piedmont Blues

The music that grew out of Durham's tobacco manufacturing plants influenced some of the most widely recorded musicians of the last 65 years—and still does.

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Truckin' My Blues Away

Blind Boy Fuller

What has been mostly forgotten is that tobacco also made Durham a creative epicenter for an almost-lost genre of music, known in recent years as the Piedmont blues or sometimes the East Coast blues. 

Durham was at the heart of this musical form from its birth in the 1920s until its disappearance at the onset of World War II. Only Atlanta can stake a greater claim in the development of the genre. 

Rediscovered during the folk revival of the late 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the Piedmont blues had an enormous influence on many of the most widely recorded British and American musicians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Like the tobacco factories and warehouses, this all-but-abandoned music was re-purposed for a different clientele.

Rise of the Piedmont Blues

Describing a musical genre by detailing its attributes tends to lead to generalizations and oversimplifications. The margins of musical styles are overlapping, and musicians listen to and are influenced by other musicians and styles. Separating musical expressions into neat, mutually exclusive categories is a pursuit fraught with trouble. 

Even so, one might say the alternating bass notes, syncopated melodies (accenting notes between the beats), and, most notably, the lively and bright ragtime flavor characterize the Piedmont blues.

It was typically played on guitar, distinguished by its complex fingerpicking patterns. Guitarists were sometimes accompanied by harmonica, washboard, and occasionally fiddle or mandolin. It often sounded like ragtime on guitar instead of piano, and, vital to its popularity, you could dance to it. 

Indeed, weekend house parties were a common venue for recreation and social interaction. Dance music was essential. But most homes didn’t have a piano, so guitarists playing the Piedmont blues along with other popular up-tempo styles were called upon for the job.

While this music could be widely heard in Black communities throughout the Piedmont region, it was, at the time, overlooked or dismissed as an art form. After all, it was just the crude regional folk music of a marginalized, poor, and largely illiterate Jim Crow-era population of African-American laborers, farmhands, and factory workers.

In the earliest days of mass communications in the segregated South, most whites were unaware of it. And professional and middle-class Black folks listened to the “higher-class” jazz and dance bands.