I had been playing fingerstyle blues for many years before I ever heard the term ‘piedmont blues.’
I had gravitated towards a group of players that included Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Brownie McGee, looking for songs that I felt comfortable singing, without knowing they were all from the same region. There’s certain vulnerability to piedmont blues, and an inspired joy within the piedmont guitar rags. Later I became aware of the geographical significance of the ‘Piedmont’, the eastern seaboard between Richmond, VA and Atlanta, GA. I was drawn particularly to the playing of Blind Blake, who had a disarming quality to his singing. Blake is important not just because he was the most successful of the early recording artists, but because of his virtuosity, as a performer, vocalist and composer. He set the bar high. Because he was widely heard from 1926 to 1932 at the time when phonographs first became more widely available to working-class people, he influenced many of the younger players, in the piedmont and beyond.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, here’s the Wikipedia definition of piedmont blues: ‘a type of blues music characterized by a fingerpicking approach on the guitar in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others.’ Pretty straight up. If you’re not a fingerstyle guitar player you probably don’t care, but the point is that the piedmont style refers most importantly to a right hand technique. As opposed to delta blues–where the picker pinches the strings in a shuffle rhythm, with the thumb keeping the pulse on the bass string–in piedmont style there is a more pronounced use of an ‘alternating bass‘, where the thumb alternates between different bass strings. This allows for the creation of more varied bass lines, counterpoint melody in the treble strings, and a more pianistic or harplike effect.
This technique has influences from the ragtime tradition in the early part of the century (as opposed to the ‘classic ragtime’ of Scott Joplin most people are familiar with). Although Ragtime was from New Orleans and the Mississippi, it survived in rural piedmont in dance steps of the time that were set to rags, which included cakewalks and two-step. This popular influence was felt in later guitar ‘rags‘. But there is also layers of influence, going back to Western Africa and the music brought by African slaves to the new world. In particular, ancient banjo techniques which didn’t survive on banjo but were transferred to guitar, while banjo playing styles evolved differently.
Blues scholar Samuel Charters traveled to Africa in an attempt to determine the connection between the kora, african banjo and piedmont style fingerpicking in his book, “The Roots Of The Blues“. Since that time, appreciation of the ‘african blues singers‘ has grown and there is more understanding of the connection between Africa and the blues.
One thing is clear, as the wiki points out: “The Piedmont style is differentiated from other styles (particularly the Mississippi Delta style) by its ragtime-based rhythms which lessened its impact on later electric band blues or rock ‘n’ roll…” which is why most people have never heard of it. Meanwhile, designating the blues of all the players of a region to be of the same style is problematic. The three players I mentioned above could not have more different individual styles. While Blind Blake used a foundation of alternating bass picking, his bass lines are typified by a double bass technique where he frequently adds a pick-up note before the beat. Gary Davis, in contrast has varied and wide-ranging bass lines, less reliant on straight alternating bass. Using only thumb and forefinger and creating a variety of triplet effects, with the thumb ranging all the way up to the treble strings to create single note runs, and interspersing full strums in a way not seen in Blake’s playing. Meanwhile, Brownie McGee traveled widely and blended a number of influences in his playing to create a very sophisticated synthesis of styles, even while rooted in the style of that other great piedmont bluesman, Blind Boy Fuller. Despite the variety of the individual styles, there’s a certain quality that runs through the songs and the personalities of the piedmont players, a certain core of light within the songs.
Making it even more difficult to draw a geographical line around specific playing techniques, the best example of the alternating bass technique technique that the wiki mentions as defining piedmont style, is played by Mississippi John Hurt, in a completely different region. Interestingly, Hurt’s playing and personality is more similar to the piedmont players than some others of his own regional brethren. As an aside, another piedmont area player of this ‘thumb’ technique–Elizabeth Cotton, being left handed–reversed the guitar and played alternating bass with her fingers and treble with her thumb.
The piedmont blues are somewhat under appreciated, compared to other blues styles. One deterrent to the average music listener becoming interested of course is the rough quality of the pre-war era recordings. But there is also a way that an a less nuanced version of the blues, has been sold to the public. Often in the music marketplace, we don’t look beyond the facade–the bluesman braggadocio–to see the person and the artist. So the softer, friendly blues of Georgia and Carolina often get overlooked and we can understand the pride in their local contribution to the great story of the blues.
One thing I know, any time you play some real piedmont style fingerstyle guitar, people smile–they tap their feet, they say “that sounds nice”. There’s just nothing else quite like it.