Styles & Forms | Piedmont Blues (East Coast Blues)

While the Mississippi Delta gave birth to guitar-based acoustic blues, in the area known as the Piedmont region – which stretches along the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Florida – a wide range of blues styles flourished, from the backwoods sound of the Appalachian foothills of Virginia to the more urbane sound of big cities such as Atlanta.

The characteristic that these varying Piedmont styles have in common, distinguishing them from the Delta blues style, is an emphasis on a sophisticated, syncopated kind of rhythm playing, with a complex fingerstyle technique that closely emulated a pianistic or ragtime approach on the guitar. Some of the earliest and most famous practitioners of the Piedmont style include three virtuosic sightless players: Blind Blake (whose signature ragtime guitar piece ‘Diddie Wah Diddie’ was covered nearly 50 years later by Leon Redbone), Blind Boy Fuller (famed for ‘Step It Up And Go’ and ‘Rag Mama Rag’) and the formidable 12-string dazzler Blind Willie McTell (whose ‘Broke Down Engine’ was covered in the 1960s by blues guitar star Johnny Winter and whose ‘Statesboro Blues’ is still being performed as a blues-rock anthem to this day by The Allman Brothers Band). Other Piedmont pioneers included Curley Weaver and Robert ‘Barbecue Bob’ Hicks, both of whom recorded in the late 1920s.

In the late-1950s, a folk revival swept college campuses from coast to coast, helping to revive the careers of many Piedmont bluesmen. Pink Anderson, John Jackson, Etta Baker and the duo of harmonica ace Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee were rediscovered and soon performing on college campuses and in coffee houses. Budding folk artists such as Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt championed the cause of Rev. Gary Davis, while Ry Cooder, David Bromberg and Jorma Kaukonen studied with him.

A Uniquely American Artist

Also a blind artist and strictly self-taught on guitar, Davis developed remarkably quickly and, by his twenties, had an advanced technique that was unmatched in the blues field. Davis recorded for the first time in the early 1930s and became an ordained minister in 1937. An appearance at the 1958 Newport Folk Festival helped bring greater attention to Davis, leading to his becoming one of the most popular figures of the folk and blues revival scenes. Some of his signature tunes include ‘Cocaine Blues’, ‘Samson And Delilah’, ‘Twelve Gates To The City’ and ‘Lovin’ Spoonful’.

One of the most outstanding exponents of the Piedmont style today is the Washington DC based duo of guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins.

‘... Emphasis on good execution, rhythmically free-flowing, lighter in texture ... it had a distinct flavour which mingled with that of the Hillbilly and mountain singers of the white rural tradition.’
Paul Oliver

Leading Exponents

Blind Blake
Blind Boy Fuller
Blind Willie McTell
Rev. Gary Davis
Sonny Terry
Brownie McGhee

Piedmont Blues Style

In a typical example of Piedmont blues, the bass plays a one-bar...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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