A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
Growing up, Taj encountered a music that sounded like it was “disappearing.” “It was black music, but it was also country music. It turned out to be this fingerpicking that gave me a feeling of being connected to an older style of music that I assumed was African, though I didn’t know.” I said that might be the truest definition of the Piedmont blues I’d ever heard. “It was that little . . . somethin’-somethin’,” Taj said. “I didn’t have no ‘ethnomusicological’ term for it. My name for it was stumblepicking.” Stumblepicking? “Meaning,” he said, “you’re kinda stumbling over the notes to make them. That chord of Etta Baker’s on ‘Railroad Bill,’ it was like an E7 going into an F but it doesn’t stay there. It moves. It jars you. I found something close to it by accident once, and I could probably spend my whole life trying to find it again.”
Mentor to Alice Gerrard, beacon to all of us North Carolina folkie wannabes, revered by those of us with any musical knowledge, and—music’s highest compliment—sung by many of us who don’t know how we know the words. This Chapel Hill woman is the very heart of what we call Piedmont blues.
Floyd Council’s heart gave out on May 9, 1976: bad cholesterol and, in the end, kidney failure. He was sixty-four. He’s buried outside my hometown of Sanford, North Carolina. If you take Lower Moncure Road east beyond the 421 overpass, you’ll see a few identical grey trailers, a low brick ranch-style house, and a tobacco field, and then the road curves left and the trees close in again. A church used to stand here, and in the long grass between the shoulder and the pines some gravestones are peeking up through the green. Not much remains of the cemetery, and nothing of the chapel, White Oak AME Zion, abandoned for years and finally torn down in 2014. Broke and a widower, Council was buried here without a marker. And now that the grass has grown long and trees have sprouted up, the blues guitarist’s grave is lost.