Picking Up the Piedmont Blues

By  |  December 2, 2016
Algia Mae Hinton, Middlesex, North Carolina (2015). Photo by Tim Duffy Algia Mae Hinton, Middlesex, North Carolina (2015). Photo by Tim Duffy

Algia Mae Hinton, the great blues guitarist and banjo picker, lives in Johnston County, North Carolina. It’s a short drive from Raleigh and Durham but feels rather far from those cities, with their food trucks and breweries and warehouses refitted as condos—the latest iteration of the New South, one might say, except one finds the same pattern in Brooklyn or the Bay Area. In Johnston County you drift back to an earlier era. The lonely highways trace the edges of farms, many still dotted with sheds where the great crop of the region—brightleaf tobacco—was once brought for curing, the leaves smoked and stacked in fragrant, golden sheaths before being carted off for auction. 

A blues evolved alongside tobacco farming, known as “Piedmont blues,” in reference to the rolling foothills that stretch from Virginia through the Carolinas and down into Georgia, between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. It was played in the curing barns at night, while the fires roasted the tobacco leaves until they had the right hue and texture, and in warehouses during auction season. A musician like Blind Boy Fuller—who with Blind Blake and others helped popularize the strain in the 1920s and ’30s—could earn more during auction month than from working in a factory the rest of the year. 

Piedmont falls on the lighter edge of the blues spectrum, with a bounce and shuffle we do not hear in the blues of the Deep South. It is especially known for its intricate guitar parts, the strings picked with thumb and forefinger, the way a banjo is played; nearly all of the major figures of the tradition, like Fuller and Gary Davis and Etta Baker, were adept at both instruments. The sound reminds many of ragtime, and its rhythms are traceable to dance. Hinton’s reputation in the Carolinas was established not only on her guitar playing but also on her skill at the buck dance, a precursor to tap. Search “Algia Mae Hinton dance” on YouTube, and you’ll be taken to a film Alan Lomax shot in Johnston County in 1983. In it she moves in a comfortable and sensuous way, tapping in a scene meant to evoke the sort of weekend parties where blues was performed in the Piedmont decades ago. 

Hinton is eighty-seven now, in a wheelchair, and, on the day I met her, wrapped in blankets despite the July heat. Her hands are arthritic, clenched and finlike. She can no longer play yet was visibly animated by song, and our interview was choppy as a result, much of it performance. “I was nine years old when I started playing the guitar,” she said at one point, and then began to sing, “Honey babe your man don’t do you right.” Our conversation resumed: “I didn’t read no notes now,” but soon she had broken into song again, her feet scuffing on the floor in time to some phantom beat, the memory of the dance in them. And she kept asking her caretaker to bring us instruments, even the ones she couldn’t play, like the guitar and banjo. Then she remembered the spoons. She could manage those, popping them against her hand, and would also keep time with her comb, striking it against a drum before inserting it again into her patched and wispy hair.

As I drove back to Durham, I thought of the ways in which my visit could be described as traditional, and not for the most desirable of reasons. Blues pilgrimage tends to be belated, the talent old or dead. Robert Johnson and Charley Patton were gone when their searchers came calling. Skip James, Fred McDowell, and Elizabeth Cotten were in their last years when a folklorist or record producer helped introduce them to a wider audience. Of their earlier selves—as with Hinton’s—there is only surmise. Blues history is like that, haunted by absence. With jazz or rock we can witness the moment of creation, or think we can, and have only to put on the Hot Five or Elvis at Sun, but to study the blues means owning up to the fact that what has been preserved is often a consolation prize. Of those house parties in Johnston County, for instance, just a handful of photographs survive. So much is left to the imagination, which means we are bound to get some things wrong, and any attempt at re-creation is inevitably a trap. To pay tribute, to reenact the culture of the blues: how do we do that without simply being returned to the romance and illusion of our own minds? 

 

In December of this year, Duke University, in partnership with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, will stage a concert called Piedmont Blues. The performance features new music by Gerald Clayton, a young, dynamic, and highly respected jazz pianist. He will be accompanied by a six-piece band, a gospel choir, a tap dancer, and the vocalist René Marie. The program also includes a visual component, film and photography directed by Christopher McElroen, a cofounder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and director of the american vicarious, a company that specializes in transmedia performance. After premiering at Duke, the show will tour in 2017, traveling to other cities in the South and Europe. 

It is an ambitious project, the sort that has never been attempted with this subject, and one wonders how to place it. Though large and experimental—and thus seeming to be granted a certain amount of license and liberty—Piedmont Blues is also based on rigorous investigation. “We approached it as if we were students,” McElroen tells me. He and Clayton made several trips to North Carolina, consulting with historians and visiting the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC as well as other archives, and interviewing musicians like Hinton and the late Boo Hanks. Each song Clayton is writing has a specific root, taking as its starting point the harmony of Hinton’s “Out of Jail,” for instance, or Cotten’s “Freight Train.”

But the evening is not a tribute concert. Clayton’s compositions, though based on Piedmont songs, range across several idioms, from spirituals to modern jazz, and the program has three parts, or acts. “We came up with a narrative that follows the growth of a tobacco plant,” Clayton explains. “From the seed to harvest and exploitation.” The show begins in the tobacco field, with the sowing of the plant, and gradually shifts to Durham—Bull City, the city of Chesterfield and Lucky Strike and the Duke brothers—and the spectacle of auction, when farmers would board in the warehouses, selling their crop by day and being regaled by musicians, prostitutes, and dancers by night. 

How will this all be conveyed? “The visuals are secondary to the sonic events,” McElroen concedes, yet one imagines that much of the onus in making this progression clear rests with him. He has quite a palette to choose from: film shot over the past year of figures like Hinton and John Dee Holeman, and a sampling of archival footage of Durham from the heyday of the tobacco boom until late in the twentieth century. Yet it is not enough to say he is providing a gloss. There will be juxtapositions, close-ups, and manipulations of light, projected across a variety of screens, an empty floor frame, and pieces of an old tobacco barn. “It’s almost as if,” he says, “you were to go find a field, lie down in it, listen to some music, and you fall into this kind of lucid dream space. You recall your life experiences; you recall whatever the music conjures.” 

From Durham and the auction houses, the blues—like the tobacco plant—is sent to other parts of the world. That is the “exploitation” Clayton referred to, and he used the word in a literal rather than pejorative sense: “The idea that something starts with a pure expression and then spreads. . . .  The language these people found in early 1900s America is still prevalent. You hear blues in every musical language that came after.”

Until receiving the commission from Duke, Clayton admits, he had no knowledge of the Piedmont as a formal, named tradition. It is not, after all, as well known as other blues styles, in part because it lacks a foundational myth. There is no selling of souls in the Piedmont, no northern migration to become electrified and spawn rock and r&b. Yet, as Clayton indicated, its influence is vast, and can be detected in everything from the earliest country music—Mother Maybelle Carter learned from a Piedmont player, Lesley Riddle—to Bob Dylan’s first albums and the repertoire of the Grateful Dead. So Clayton, while he did not recognize it as such, discovered he was already familiar with the form. “As soon as somebody played me a clip, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a sound that has influenced folk and country and a lot of guitarists.’ Anytime I go to Rockwood [Music Hall] in New York and hear a folk singer-songwriter break up the chords that way—do fingerpicking—there’s some Piedmont in there.”

Clayton was raised in a jazz family; his father and uncle are professionals, touring as the Clayton Brothers, and his playing is marked by fluency and control, the runs reminiscent of Oscar Peterson or Wynton Kelly. Meeting him, one gets the sense that Piedmont Blues is closer in scope to what he would like to be doing than his first two albums, two-shade and Bond, which are more like straight-ahead jazz. “I didn’t even know how to get what I wanted in those early days,” he says. “Those are me just recording what I did, trio gigs.” 

Handsome at thirty-two, and lean, his dreadlocks tipped with blond, Clayton hopes to move back to Los Angeles, where he was raised, so he can surf every day. Until then he lives in a walk-up in Harlem, a grand piano squashed into one of its bedrooms, and it is here that he has been writing Piedmont Blues. As he sits at the piano, we talk about the Piedmont sound, its bright inflections and spry danceable quality.  

“‘Step It Up and Go,’” I say, referring to Fuller’s famous tune, which became an anthem for the region. “That could almost be Ray Charles.” 

“Yeah, right? It’s definitely got that vibe.” 

He begins to play, counting the beats. “It’s a hemiola,” he says, “where we’re still in four, but the phrase is going over the bar. . . . It sounds like we’re skipping but we’re not.” 

One of the things, it emerges, that Clayton likes most about the Piedmont’s music is the irregularity of it, the odd chord changes and hemiolas, the phrases that are five bars long instead of four. For a jazz player it’s like entering the Old World. “It sounds like it’s from a different time,” he tells me. “The lines are different. Bebop hadn’t been created yet.” 

He continues to play, morphing into his own slant on Fuller, and suddenly I wonder about the concert’s other moving parts, the dancing, the images. It could so easily become ungainly, diffuse. Why not just present the music as music?

“Our classic stereotype, so beautifully honed by the folk revival, was that this was a music played on stages—a solo music, an entertainment music—when in fact it was nothing of the sort,” says Glenn Hinson, a professor at the University of North Carolina who has served as an adviser to Clayton and McElroen. His field recordings of Piedmont blues—collected on the LP Eight-Hand Sets and Holy Steps—are among the most important examples of the genre, and Hinson knows better than anyone how much has been lost or undocumented, how our knowledge of Piedmont blues depends on conjuring. But there is a fallacy in that, he says. We tend to picture the blues as something apart, distinct from dance and rhyme and other folk arts. The problem, as he phrases it, is, “How do we restore an integrity the music had in its community?” 

I ask why he chose the word “integrity,” and he answers: “For many working-class African-American communities, this music was a piece of a creative whole that became a stark and unflinching declaration of humanity, black humanity. A declaration that was musical, that was moved, that was poetic, that was all a piece. And I think what Gerald is trying to do is to see the music not—as white America so often sees it—as an isolated part, but rather to insert it again in both the aesthetic whole and the politics of that aesthetic whole.” Though we may view the house parties and warehouse jams as concerts, with the blues at the center, they were more like symposia, where any number of talents could be indulged, and where the iniquities of Jim Crow could be protested. 

 

“O Father God I want you to hear me / And please consider this black boy’s prayer / And build a high neon sign in heaven stating that you’ll have no discrimination up there.” So reads the end of “A Black Man Talks to God,” a poem Horace Williams, a spoons and bones player, composed in the 1930s. But it was never published: he would recite it from memory, and only seldom—at the end, once he became widely recognized—for white audiences. During Piedmont Blues, a recording of Williams reading the work will be played, and Clayton has even transcribed Williams’s voice, using its cadence and subtle maneuverings of pitch to seed one of his songs. Like the dancing Hinton performed for Lomax, these poems, orally transmitted, were part of the “declaration” Hinson named, achieved whenever African Americans gathered to affirm the vitality and human dimension the social codes of the South denied them. 

“The world,” Hinson continues, “where women worked in other people’s kitchens and laundry rooms and men worked in the fields and row-building jobs, the demeaning nature of all these opportunities gets overturned in the moments where one doesn’t have to deal with the Man, doesn’t have to think about the Man, doesn’t have to wear the mask, and can instead just engage in the fullness of ‘This is our created world.’”

Piedmont Blues aspires to celebrate that fullness and to remind us of its palliative force. That can be done, its creators believe, through the interplay of its various parts, the effort to summon what McElroen earlier called a lucid dream space. “It’s very much an experiment,” he insists. “I think it’s an experience that folks will feel and understand, but not in a literal way, [like] ‘we’re telling you the history of the Piedmont blues.’ We’re certainly paying respect to that tradition, but we’re looking to pull the story forward.” 

It may share the revivalist’s dream of mastering the tradition, of getting it right, but this dream is pursued not to relive or reenact, but for its generative power. The concert is like a novel based on the life of a character in another novel. We see an imaginative investiture of something established, its life opened up and renewed. What is permanent, Clayton believes—what binds his and McElroen’s interpretation to the past—is not a particular sound or method of presentation, but something else.

“What do we have to go by?” he asks as we are sitting at the piano and discussing the fundamentals of his composing. “It’s the lives behind the expression, the attitude behind the music, the way it makes you feel. The blues gives back to us. The expression itself is a taste of salvation.” 

A taste: indubitable, we might say, but fleeting, to be sought after again and again. And not to be won by being a bystander. The history of the Piedmont reminds us of that. Here everyone, through rhyme or dance or song, could get in on the act; everyone could “play.” It was a communal and multifaceted art, what the residents of Durham and those old tobacco farms made in their quest for salvation. It took everything they had.


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Benjamin Hedin is the producer and writer of the documentary Two Trains Runnin’. He is also the author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now and the editor of an anthology, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader.