The Mississippi Delta. Chicago. Durham.
The blues are an inextricable part of America's cultural legacy and one of the most influential genres of music. The style helped shape popular music throughout the country for decades, from acts like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and contemporary rap and hip hop. But the blues weren't just a product of Mississippi and Chicago bluesmen, as many think. In fact, one style of blues, the Piedmont blues, developed in Durham.
In the late 1920s, Durham was a town built around tobacco warehouses and factories, and on the streets outside of those buildings - or in "house parties" at speakeasies - musicians and guitarists could be found playing the blues. But what they were playing wasn't in the same style as Robert Johnson and other Delta bluesman, nor what would have been played by Muddy Waters and his ilk in Chicago clubs after World War II. No, this sound was different. It was unique to the Piedmont. It was uniquely Durham.
Scott Ainslie, a Durham resident, musician, and historian, explained to The Herald-Sun how the guitarists on Durham streets developed their particular sound. It was a confluence of events that combined to give Durham its own indigenous music.
First, Ainslie explained, guitars were a popular instrument for middle-class women to play at the time of the Civil War. But as that style died out, those guitars were passed on to second-hand stores where they were picked up by young black men up and down the East Coast.
At the time, street music was used as a kind of advertising, especially in Greensboro. Black musicians would play outside of stores to draw a crowd. But in 1928, Greensboro banned street music and many of the newly out-of-work guitar pickers moved on to Durham's thriving black community to find work with the tobacco companies. Tobacco farmers would also come into town to sell their wares and would stay to listen to the tunes. John Dee Holeman, a contemporary blues musician, explained in an interview that he learned his love of the style that way.
The final component in the Piedmont blues was the ragtime music that was sweeping the country around the same time. Though ragtime was a piano music, Durham guitarists were influenced by the chord changes and musical structure of ragtime songs and adapted it to their instruments. The result is an upbeat style of blues played with a complicated, syncopated two-finger picking style.
The Piedmont blues had what Ainslie called more "rhythmic vitality" and was popular nation-wide for dancing. Lightnin' Wells wrote in the Tar Heel Junior Historian that the Piedmont blues are "more delicate and sensitive [and] have more of a sense of joy." In contrast, ragtime never became popular in the isolated Mississippi Delta, ensuring that those blues musicians played a more simplified call-and-response style influenced chiefly by African styles of music.
During the Second Great Migration, when much of the black population from the South moved to other parts of the country between the 1940s and 1970s, many of the Delta bluesmen settled in Chicago. Then the Delta blues were electrified by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and other Chicago bluesmen, and much of the Piedmont blues' popularity as the go-to blues style for dancing shrank. Today, the influence of Piedmont blues can be heard in country and rockabilly.
Just like Durham, the Piedmont blues moved across race and class lines and continued to innovate. Mixed by the tobacco industry, racial diversity, and a robust black community, the Piedmont blues is an important part of Durham's cultural heritage.
Its legacy is also carried on today by the annual Bull Durham Blues Festival. Founded in 1987, the two-day festival features not only Piedmont blues, but also other styles of blues and roots music, paying homage to the development of the Piedmont sound.
Most of the information on this page was compiled from an article titled "History of the Piedmont Blues Style," published in The Herald-Sun on September 8, 2000 and an article titled "Durham Rediscovers Its Past as a True House of Blues," published in The Raleigh News & Observer on September 2, 2001.
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