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  • Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection
    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

    Photo by Dorothea Lange

    Cover Story
    Appalachian Blues
    Blues from the mountains
    by Barry Lee Pearson

The Appalachian Mountains are only now beginning to be recognized as one of the primary incubators of African-American music, especially the blues tradition. Appalachian blues comes in a variety of styles—vaudeville blues, piano blues and boogie, string-band dance blues, guitar and harmonica-based down-home blues, ragtime blues, East Coast rhythm and blues, and so-called white mountain blues. Moreover, it includes such celebrated artists as Bessie Smith, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Cow Cow Davenport, Pinetop Smith, Josh White, Rev. Gary Davis, Jaybird Coleman, Luke Jordan, Dinah Washington, and James Brown. Why, with such an array of blues legends—the Empress of the blues, the Queen of the blues, and the Godfather of soul—has the region's blues tradition received so little attention?

Part of the answer lies in the sheer size of the region. The Appalachian Mountain chain cuts diagonally across the Eastern United States from New York to Mississippi, with Appalachian counties in a full thirteen states. Another factor has to do with demographics. Common wisdom held that there wasn't a sufficient black population in the mountains to sustain a viable blues tradition, in contrast with the cotton belt of the Deep South. One result of this bias was to associate the region almost exclusively with the country-music industry, which historically excluded black musical participation.

A closer look at the region and its history reveals a more complicated story. First, in regard to demographics, the black population varied significantly from Alabama to West Virginia, and while whites may have outnumbered blacks across the region as a whole, the ratio was by no means uniform. Moreover, urban centers attracted substantial black populations, and blues thrived in Birmingham, Alabama, Spartanburg and Greenville, South Carolina, and Chattanooga, Knoxville and Kingsport, Tennessee. Finally, after the Civil War and during the expansion of roads and rail into the mountains, Southern blacks came in as workers, helping to open up Appalachia to broader cultural influences. Others were attracted by work in the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia. Among the workers were musicians, including professional musicians, who brought new techniques and served as musical role models. And whether they remained in the region or moved on, they left their musical signature.

Unfortunately, few of those artists had a chance to record, and they remain undocumented except in the memory of musicians who happened to have been interviewed. They recall a thriving blues tradition even though the discographical evidence appears to indicate the opposite. But the extent of recording is more a question of whether or not record companies wanted to expend the energy to seek out musicians in such relatively inaccessible environs and of what they chose to record once they got there.

A major exception to this was Victor's 1927 Bristol Sessions, commonly called the "Big Bang of country music." Two major stars, Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers and the Appalachian Virginian Carter Family, were found at this session. Although they recorded a lot of blues and other forms of black music, both were white, further reinforcing the tendency to put a white face on the genre "mountain blues." But the sessions also produced recordings by several black artists: several sides by harmonica player El Watson and the Johnson Brothers, two of which were entitled blues, "Pot Licker Blues" and "Narrow Gauge Blues." On November 2, 1928, Victor recorded two more blues sides by the duo Stephan Tarter and Harry Gay, "Brownie Blues" and "Unknown Blues." A Columbia-Okeh field trip to Johnson City, Tennessee, on October 24, 1929, produced two blues by Ellis Williams, who played harmonica on "Buttermilk Blues" and "Smokey Blues." Brunswick-Vocalion conducted several sessions in Knoxville, Tennessee, on August 28, 1929, recording two unissued blues by Odessa Canselor, two sides by songster Will Bennett, "Real Estate Blues" and the blues ballad "Railroad Bill," and two songs by Leola Manning and Eugene Ballinger, "He Cares for Me" and "He Fans It."

During an April 1930 Knoxville session, Howard Armstrong's Tennessee Chocolate Drops, composed of Armstrong, Carl Martin, and Roland Martin, recorded two sides, "Knox County Stomp" and "Vine Street Drag" for Vocalion. Leola Manning recorded four sides, "Arcade Building Moan," "Satan Is Busy in Knoxville," "Laying in the Graveyard," and "The Blues Is All Wrong."

Gennett recorded blues in Birmingham, Alabama, during the summer of 1927, recording Jay Bird Coleman, Daddy Stovepipe, Whistling Pete, William Harris, Joe Evans, Arthur McClain, Bertha Ross, Ollis Martin, and Wiley Barner. Brunswick also visited Birmingham in 1928 but recorded no blues. Returning again almost ten years later in 1937 as ARC, they recorded various blues artists, including Peanut the Kidnapper, Charlie Campbell, Guitar Slim, and the duo Mack Rhinehart and Brownie Stubblefield.

Through the 1940s and 1950s black musicians from Appalachia followed the general African-American population in the Great Migration to the urban North. Although some recording occurred in Philadelphia and New Jersey, New York City served as the major musical magnet, much the same way Chicago drew musicians from the Delta and the Deep South. Recording opportunities in New York City included both small rhythm-and-blues labels looking for commercial hits and the Asch, Disc, and Folkways labels with a broader interest in documenting traditional music. This latter position enhanced Folkways importance during the folk revival, making it the principal label documenting Appalachian traditions and Southeastern blues.

This CD draws on these Asch and Folkways recordings dating back to the 1940s and on live recordings of Appalachian musicians made at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in the 1970s and 1980s. It features musicians from seven states: Chief Ellis from Alabama; Baby Tate of Georgia; Pink Anderson, Ted Bogan, Gary Davis, Peg Leg Sam Jackson, and Josh White all from South Carolina; Etta Baker, J.C. Burris, and Doc Watson from North Carolina; Roscoe Holcomb and Bill Williams of Kentucky; Howard Armstrong, Brownie McGhee, Stick McGhee, and Leslie Riddle from Tennessee; and Estil C. Ball, Archie Edwards, Marvin and Turner Foddrell, John Jackson, Carl Martin, and John Tinsley from Virginia. Several sidemen—John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, James Bellamy, and Tommy Armstrong—come from outside the Appalachian region. The entire group of musicians includes three harmonica players, two bass players, a piano player, a fiddler, and one mandolinist; the rest play guitar, the signature blues instrument of the region.

The guitar came to the Appalachians relatively late via mail-order catalogs and the U.S. Mail, but it quickly became the poor man's piano and a source of pride for the accomplished player. The harmonica was also inexpensive and expressive as an accompaniment for the guitar, and a harmonica/guitar duet tradition became an important part of the Appalachian story. While there was diversity in the guitar styles within the region, based both in location and generation, there was also stylistic continuity: a fairly complex finger-picking style characterized much of the region. Usually it involved the thumb and two fingers, with the thumb laying down a solid bass line and the fingers picking melody on the treble strings. Appalachian guitar was also relatively smooth and rhythmically simple, making it more accessible to white players. Furthermore, there was a strong preference for ragtime progressions, up-tempo eightbar blues, and other upbeat music suitable for house parties or other country dancing. In general, the instrumental approach was lighter in texture and more melodic, and it employed more chord technique than the harsher, more intense Delta guitar styles.

Moreover, the antiphonal, or call-and-response patterns typical of much black music were deemphasized: increased emphasis on faster tempos left less room for the response part of call and response. This tendency to speed up is found in other regions as well, but seems more pronounced in the mountains. Finally, while there is increased emphasis on instrumental dexterity, there is less emphasis on the nuanced phrasing and tonal expressiveness found in the Delta.

Similar patterns hold for vocal styling, although once again it is important to recognize diversity within the region, with Gary Davis at one end of a spectrum and Archie Edwards or John Jackson at the other. Of course, Davis' insistent harshness may be a consequence of his long tenure as a street singer and of his religious repertoire. Nevertheless, black Appalachian vocal style is generally less intense, less emotional and preacherly, than styles from the Deep South. This may be a function of more frequent racial interaction, performing for mixed audiences or, as some scholars have suggested, less harsh living conditions coupled with closer ties between black and white communities.

The persistence of a string-band tradition shared by both blacks and whites also affected blues development. In the first place, blues did not so clearly displace earlier forms of African-American dance music in the mountains as it did in other parts of the South. Instead, blues became one of several forms of popular party music performed at country dances, and the eventual transition from fiddle and banjo music to guitar and harmonica-based blues occurred more slowly in the mountains, where set dances and square dancing were part of black rural recreation well into the 1940s.

Moreover, the banjo remained a traditional African-American instrument well after the arrival of blues, and banjo techniques and tunings influenced the way musicians learned to play the guitar. For example, Virginia-born bluesman Archie Edwards' father, Roy Edwards, played banjo and then learned guitar using open tunings derived from the banjo. Archie recalled:

My dad used to play a lot of banjo songs on his guitar because he was a banjo picker. He would play "Georgie Buck," and "Stack O'Lee," and "Cumberland Gap," and an old song about the "Preacher Got Drunk and Laid His Bible Down." He used to play all them old things, you know. He used to play "John Hardy;" he used to play that on his guitar. "John Henry"—that was his favorite piece, and "Frankie and Johnny," all those old legendary songs. Of course, they had a different way of playing, playing in Sebastapol with a slide in open tuning. He played "That Train That Carried My Girl from Town." That's a slide song like "John Henry." And blues, he could play blues for hours; just go from one song to another. He had a hell of a repertoire for country blues, and he would play them on the guitar or on the banjo. (Edwards 1986)

South Carolina's Josh White also learned in open-E tuning, or Sebastopol, and used it all his life, but without a knife or slide. In Knoxville, Tennessee, Brownie McGee's (1915–1996) father, Duff McGhee, also played in open tuning as did Brownie when he was first learning to play:

I started out in open tunings because he tuned that way, and he'd leave [the guitar around] sometimes. But he played with a pocket knife. First time I heard "John Henry" to really absorb it, he was playing it with a pocket knife, had it tuned in "Vastapol," had a knife between his fingers. And he was noting it, sliding it up and down on that guitar. And that was fascinating to me. If he left it in that tune, I'd pick it up. And it just sounded good. All I do is strum across the strings, and it sounded a chord. (McGhee 1972)

Eventually, the string-band tradition fell out of favor in the African-American community, although artists like Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong and the Foddrell family maintained the tradition up to the 1980s for home consumption and on the festival circuit. But many of the same artists who once worked in string bands continued to perform in regional variations of guitar or guitar and harmonica-dominated down-home blues.

Evidence suggests that the blues arrived in Appalachia well after it had become entrenched in the Delta. It was brought by itinerant musicians who sought work in the mines or building roads and railroads, and who entertained themselves and other workers in their leisure time. We also see professional musicians working the region, hitting the paydays at various work sites. These would include walking musicians, medicine show performers, and artists associated with minstrel or carnival shows. Most often, however, they were individual guitarists who stopped off to play the streets or a social gathering then moved on. At times musician's paths would cross, and songs and ideas might be exchanged in an impromptu jam session, and then each musician would move on to their next destination.

In town, blues players sang and played on street corners. Ted Bogan listened to two of his hometown heroes:

Probably you heard of this guy: his name is Pink Anderson. And Blind Simmie Dooley. They're from my hometown, Spartanburg, South Carolina. I used to give them nickels and dimes to hear them play. (Bogan 1986)

Brownie McGhee played on street corners not only in Tennessee but also in New York City. Luke Jordan played on the streets of Lynchburg, and Bessie Smith sang on Ninth Street in Chattanooga before she left on the minstrel show circuit. Archie Edwards spoke of Blind Lemon Jefferson songs coming into Virginia from West Virginia musicians:

Long about 1926 things started to roll pretty good in the West Virginia coal mines. That's what my Uncle did; he worked in the coal mine. That's about the time that Blind Lemon Jefferson started recording "Ain't Got No Mama Now." (Edwards 1986)

John Jackson recalled his father and his family befriending a convict who worked on a road gang and who was a great guitar player and blues singer. Jackson also spoke of other blues sources connecting the Delta to the Blue Ridge:

We used to see people from out of Mississippi, use to be up in that area working: people like Tom Terrell, he was from Mississippi, and Ron Phillips. It was where a big dog kennel and horse stable used to be, about a mile and half from where we lived. And they used to bring people from Mississippi breaking horses and, you know, kennels were for dogs and fox racing. And they used to bring these guys out of Mississippi up in there and work, and that's how we met them—the people from out of Mississippi who was blues players. (Jackson 1999)

Job hunters of various kinds came into the region bringing their blues with them. This was especially true during the Great Depression when looking for work was itself a full-time job. Birmingham piano player Chief Ellis hit the road as a hobo:

I hoboed north. The first encounter of me playing was in Roanoke, Virginia. We stopped at this restaurant to ask for food, and this lady had a piano in there. So I asked her could I play the piano. When she heard me play the piano she liked my playing. And then she kept me over there because she used to have dances on the weekends. And she kept me there playing for about three weeks. She gave me food, a place to stay, and maybe fifty cents a night. That was a lot of money in those times. (Ellis 1977)

The Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong string band were also professional musicians who worked their way through Appalachia more or less on foot, looking for work wherever they could find it. Spartanburg guitarist, Ted Bogan, recalled the hit-or-miss composition of such traveling musical groups who went wherever they thought they could make a dollar:

So I cut out and went to Asheville, North Carolina, and met a guy there that played guitar. And we got together, and he said, "Let's go to Knoxville, Tennessee." I said, "I don't care." So we left and went to Knoxville. But he was married, and he got a message his wife was ill, and he had to go back.

So later on I met Martin, and we got together and went to Kingsport, Tennessee. And Armstrong, he was ill, he couldn't come, so we stayed in Kingsport until he got better. Then he joined us. (Bogan 1986)

After the traveling musicians, Appalachian musicians recall phonograph recordings as the second most important source of blues songs and technique. Beginning in 1920, so-called "race records" made blues available to whoever had the wherewithal to purchase a record player and, of course, a few records. At first, such innovations could be bought only in the city, but expanding road and rail systems soon made even the most isolated communities susceptible to traveling salesmen. John Jackson recalled such entrepreneurs:

They would bring a bunch of records, and some come by mail order. It was people like the Carter Family, old Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, Frank Stokes. It was mostly black blues players from the South, and so that's how we come by so many records back then. It was just everybody whoever made a record near back to 1920s up to that time. So when I'd put a record on the record player and listen to it, [I'd] then try to learn to play it. So that's the influences that I had when I grew up. (Jackson 1999)

Jackson also noted that people had a hard time telling if artists were black or white, especially if they played black-derived material:

You don't know what they were—white people singing them or black people—who it were. There were no pictures and no names on most of them. And I know Blind Blake. After I got grown up, you could pick one out from the others and pretty much tell who it was. But we never did know Uncle Dave Macon was a white man until way later—always thought he was black. Everybody did around there. (Jackson 1999)

Archie Edwards' family bought blues records and also those by country artists such as the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers, and Frank Hutchison. Both Archie and his father learned Hutchison's "That Train That Carried My Girl from Town." In the 1980s, I showed Archie a picture of Hutchison and he was shocked. "I never knew he was white," he said. Over in Tennessee Brownie McGhee's family purchased records through the mail:

You could buy from the Chicago mail-order house. That's the only way you got a record. And you had to send in and order five records or more, and they ship them to you. They wouldn't ship just one record. So when you saved up enough money together you'd get Carter Family, Jim Jackson, Leroy Carr, Bessie Smith, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. So you'd get an assortment of records. And this was the thing about it. And every month, or every other month, they'd send you this circular with who's got the new releases. (McGhee 1972)

But even the catalogs made mistakes based on aural evidence. For example, Howard Armstrong's 1920 Vocalion sides "Knox County Stomp," and "Vine Street Drag" by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops was marketed as a "hillbilly record." According to McGhee, if you bought race records they would send you a race catalog; and if you bought a country record then you would get a country catalog:

It was all black blues and then they'd send you a country and western thing if you ordered some of that, like Jimmie Rodgers. Now Jimmie Rodgers got famous down in there because all of that was black stuff he would sing. And Carter Family records— we had lots of them down there, way down in Tennessee, because they used to buy them because they did a lot of spirituals. And they [were] big sellers for them with the black people. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," all of that. (McGhee 1972)

McGhee, Jackson, and Edwards grew up listening to blues and old-time country and learning from both. This, in part, accounts for the racially mixed repertoire and style of Appalachian blues performers. But, as Edwards, Jackson, and McGhee also noted, black listeners found the so-called country music very familiar. It was, as McGhee said, "black stuff in the first place." However, whites' listening to and learning from blacks, and vice versa, predated the arrival of phonograph records through much of Appalachia. A white blues tradition is by no means unique to the Appalachian region, but Appalachian blues has an interracial, or perhaps non-racial, quality. Whether one sees this as blacks playing in a white style or as whites adapting African-American style, the fact remains that there is an overlap, just as there was in the earlier string band tradition.

Overall, Appalachian blues tradition is far more integrated than Delta or Texas blues. To be sure, bands like the Mississippi Sheiks had a repertoire suitable to either black or white audiences, and some Mississippi artists like John Hurt played with white musicians— in Hurt's case with fiddler Willie Narmour. But the blend of black and white tradition appears more prevalent in the mountains, probably due to the closer social interaction between blacks and whites in the region. Artists ranging from Howard Armstrong to Turner Foddrell make the point that despite the existence of Jim Crow, they grew up playing with white children of various ethnicities whose parents came to work the mines or railroad camps. This created opportunities for music to cross racial boundaries. In such camps blacks and whites often lived and worked in close proximity despite segregation. The list of Appalachian musicians who played for coal camps is quite extensive. Carl Martin from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, north of Gate City, also worked the coal camps, as did his partner Howard Armstrong. Armstrong later recalled that integrated bands, whether impromptu or professional, were not uncommon in the region:

Music was one medium where blacks and whites seemed to meet on very nice ground, common ground. Even in the small towns in Tennessee and different places like that, they did integrate when it came to playing music. Because I know, right up there in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, there was five people in this band. I think there were two blacks and three whites, and they were together. Played well together and everything else, and nobody looked askance at them. The guy was head of it, we called him Smitty. He was a piano player, Smith Carson, and he had another guy that played with him, a black guy. And they played for everything. And I've known several black musicians, you know, just like a fiddle player and banjo player would play with these whites. Maybe [there would] be two of them or three of them, or what not, but nobody paid it any mind at all. [Armstrong 1990]

Archie Edwards also noted that white neighbors would come to his father's dances:

White guys, not only one, but three or four, would come in there from time to time and ask my dad if they could stand inside the building there along the wall and watch them dance the square dance and listen to them pick the banjo. In other words, picking up on black culture. And so my dad said, "OK, if you want to." So they sat around and learned it, so later on in life they were square dancing and buck dancing and flat footing, too. (Edwards 1986)

John Jackson's father also played for both black and white dances:

He used to play for parties and stuff all around the county. He was the onliest black man I know that went up in the white areas and played for some of the parties up there, around the mountain there. Everybody knew him, and he did play for some white parties there, I do know he did. He used to play for square dances. That's what he was doing for these white fellows, playing dances and all like that. (Jackson 1999)

Blacks and whites learned from the same phonograph records. They participated in integrated musical events. They drew from a shared string-band tradition. And black professionals performed before mixed or white audiences. All of these conditions laid the groundwork for a more homogeneous, integrated black and white tradition. This is not to say that Appalachian blues is corrupted by white folksong values or that it is less "African" than other blues styles. It simply means that among the diverse forms of Appalachian blues we find a variety of blends—the result of merging African and European musical values in ways that made sense to local musicians.