Paying dues to the Piedmont style of blues
by Gordon Campbell
Ever since white people first began listening to the blues, the Mississippi Delta has held pride of place. The emotional extremes of the singing and playing by the great names from that region – Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton etc – not only saw the Delta treated as the crucible of country blues, but fed on into the respect afforded to the electrified Delta styles later to emerge from the south side of Chicago, via Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. In the process, those blues singers and guitarists whose music had its rhythmic roots in ragtime or in stride piano stylings ( eg Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Frank Stokes, Barbecue Bob, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Furry Lewis etc) tended to be treated as pleasant enough, but as being a bit lightweight by comparison.
Over time, a more sensible balance has been struck. So much so that by the time of the neo-folk revival in the 1990s, white guys like Beck found they had more in common with the melancholy beauty of John Hurt’s music than they did with that intense guy with the hellhound on his trail. Even today, the acoustic segment of Kurt Vile’s live set owes a lot to Hurt’s Piedmont style of finger picking, which took its name from the Piedmont plateau on the East Coast. The musically crucial section stretches from Virginia through North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia.
A few months ago all this came back to mind when Precious Bryant died from the effects of poverty, diabetes, and alcohol. Bryant, 71, came from the Chattahoochee Valley in south Georgia, and was an exponent of the same light–and-limber picking style as Hurt. Although she came late in life to a career as a professional musician – she disliked travelling by plane – Bryant was a gifted writer and performer. When she died in January, the local Ledger-Enquirer newspaper in Columbus, Georgia ran an extremely well written account of her life that you can read here.
A few days later, the Ledger-Enquirer also published a lovely set of photographs from her funeral at the Salem Primitive Baptist Church near Talbotton, Georgia, which you can see here.
I particularly liked this laconic segment of the Ledger- Enquirer ‘s account of her life:
She got married and had a son, Tony, who later would be her constant companion and accompany her on bass. He was just a little boy when his mother killed his abusive father in self-defence. She spent a day or two in jail while authorities sorted it out. Afterward she rarely spoke of it, once referring to it as “that little trouble my husband had.”
For a good introduction to the music of Precious Bryant and her distinctive style of singing and playing, try this clip from the documentary Sing My Troubles By.. Also, her own beautiful composition “The Truth” was probably the closest thing she ever had to a hit.
2. Precious Bryant : “Georgia Buck ” Frank Stokes : “You Shall” Here’s another taste of some of Bryant’s playing, via her version of the instrumental “Georgia Buck.” Some of her most attractive music was in this traditional mode, but she also found new corners to illuminate in Little Willie John’s “Fever” or Jimmy Reed’s back catalogue, or even in a tired old chestnut like “ When The Saints Go Marching In” Unfortunately, her wonderful version of “Saints” is not available on Youtube.
Frank Stokes was another Piedmont style bluesman. He came from Memphis, and did most of his best recording in the late 1920s. His roots were clearly in ragtime and jug band music, but he’s one of the most soulful, modern sounding singers from that period. Other tracks by him (“Take Me Back” and “How Long”) are also worth checking out, but I’ve chosen this tale of an encounter with a lecherous preacher…..
Now when I first moved to Memphis, Tennessee
I was crazy about the preachers as I could be
I went out on my front porch a-walking about
Invite the preacher over to my house
He washed his face, he combed his head
Next thing he want to do was slip in my bed
I caught him by the head, man kicked him out the door
Don’t allow my preacher at my house no more
I don’t like ’em, they’ll rob you
Steal your daughter, take your wife from you…
3. Mississippi John Hurt : “Blind Man Sit In The Way And Cried”
Frank Hutchison : “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town”
This track by Mississippi John Hurt is a pretty good example of the helium light touch with which he could convey emotion of the deepest kind. As for Frank Hutchison [pictured above, with dog] … decades before anyone thought to ask whether white people could sing the blues, Hutchison just went out and did it, like Jimmie Rodgers before him. He could perform Piedmont style – which basically involves a syncopated rhythm played by the thumb on the bass strings of the instrument, while the fingers pick out a melody on the treble strings. – or he could play slide guitar with equal dexterity, the latter usually with the guitar in his lap. Unfortunately, after ending his recording career in the 1930s ( his versions of “KC Blues” and “Worried Blues” are worth checking out on Youtube ) Hutchison and his wife opened a store that burned down. This sent him into a drinking spiral, which finally killed him at the age of 54.
4. Barbecue Bob : “ Going Up The Country” “I Won’t Be Long”
The Atlanta bluesman Robert Hicks took his name – Barbecue Bob – from a part time job he had as a short order chef. In the few short years before his premature death in 1931, he was an extraordinary popular artist – selling thousands of records during those pre-Depression boom years for blues and gospel music – and its easy to see why. A confident singer and a terrific songwriter, he was always fully in command of the gigantic sound he could wrest from his 12 string. The tracks I’ve chosen here are “ Going Up the Country” later to be a hit for Canned Heat in the 1970s, and “ I Won’t Be Long Now” on which he banters with his brother Charlie Lincoln, before getting down to business. His “ Chocolate to the Bone” (“So glad I’m brown skin, chocolate to the bone”) is another great BB track well worth checking out.
5. Elizabeth Cotton “Vestapol” ; Bayless Rose : “Frisco Blues”
Here are a couple of classic, lovely instrumentals. “Vestapol” is by Bryant’s friend Elizabeth Cotton, the brilliant left-handed guitarist who wrote “ Freight Train.” She was ‘discovered’ after she picked up a guitar in the Seeger household, where she worked as a maid – and she had only got that job as a result of finding Peggy Seeger’s lost child in a department store. (Talk about a fluke career. ) The other track was recorded in 1930, by the mysterious Bayless Rose. No one knows for sure whether Bayless was black or white. Some suggest he may have been a Melungeon, a term for those of tri-racial white, black and Native American origins.
6. Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown, “James Alley Blues”; “I’m Not Jealous”
Not much is known about Rabbit Brown beyond that he was a New Orleans street singer and singing boatman – on Lake Ponchartrain – with a repetoire of music hall tunes, murder ballads and topical songs on subjects such as the sinking of the Titanic. “James Alley Blues” though, is a masterpiece – and a standout cut even among the competition on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. There’s an eery calm to the early verses that sets the listener up perfectly for the mounting sense of resentment, and the hurled out-of-nowhere violence of the final line of the song.
“I’m Not Jealous” is Rabbit Brown in a lighter mood – almost anything else would be – but it has real bite to its narrative too. Brown died in 1937 and it’s a pity we don’t know more about him, given the psychopathology of his lyrics.
7. 5. Blind Willie McTell “ King Edward Blues” Furry Lewis “ Falling Down Blues
The Blind Willie McTell track dates from a 1940 hotel room session with Alan Lomax and his wife, and was a real heartbreaker. Because you can hear McTell (in the between-song banter) advising the Lomaxes that Blind Willie Johnson was dead, even though he wasn’t at that point. Did McTell truly think so – or was he trying to divert his new meal ticket (the Lomaxes) from following the trail of an even greater artist than himself? It doesn’t bear thinking what might have happened if Lomax had pressed on and found Johnson, and thereby prevented his premature death from poverty-related pneumonia in 1945. Here’s one of the lighter tracks from the 1940 McTell session, and it includes a topical reference to the abdication (for love!) of King Edward. Great lyrics :
I hear church bells ringing,
I see visions clear.
I hear the birdies singing
Even though I know there’s no birdies there.
I don’t like your shirts and ties
They don’t seem to harmonise
They don’t match those big brown eyes,
Baby, and it must be love….Make the preacher lay the Bible down
Make the rabbit hunt the hound
Make King Edward give up his crown
Baby, it must be love
The Furry Lewis track “Falling Down Blues” is from the outset of the Memphis singer/guitarist’s career, back in 1927 – luckily for him and us, this was long before Joni Mitchell came along to patronise him in her “ Furry Sings The Blues” track, 50 years later.
8. Mississippi John Hurt: “The Angels Laid Him Away”
And finally, here is John Hurt again, with a song aka “Louis Collins” that is itself a variation on the well known “Stagolee/Stackerlee” song that became a rowdy US No 1 pop hit in the late 1950s for Lloyd Price. Incredibly, the Price version got banned in New Zealand – apparently, for making light of shooting people as a method of cancelling your debts. In the hands of Hurt, the song comes across as a cautionary tale about how gambling and guns will lead you to sorry outcomes, with angels as the only balm for a mother’s tears. Easy to see why some people call Piedmont the “feminine” side of the blues, but the attempted compliment actually obscures more than it reveals.