Piedmont Blues refers to the finger-picking style of blues played predominantly on the east coast of the USA. The music of African American communities in the heartlands of the cotton, tobacco and fruit-picking regions, Piedmont blues has influences from the country string bands and medicine shows that were common in the rural USA. It’s also argued that Piedmont blues is more closely related to traditional African music, especially West African kora playing, than the blues of the Southern states.
The Context of the Piedmont Region
The Piedmont region is a plateau running between the Atlantic coastal plan and the Appalachian mountains, from New Jersey in the North to Alabama in the South. The Southern stretch through Georgia and the Carolinas was the traditional cotton growing area whereas the northern part of the plateau was home to tobacco and fruit farming.
The Finger Picking Style of Piedmont Blues
Piedmont blues is characterised by a lighter, ragtime influenced finger-picking style. Although guitarists including Blind Willie McTell incorporated slide techniques at times, Piedmont-style is defined by a bass rhythm played with the thumb and predominant use of the index finger on the treble strings. The style of singing takes a sweeter, gentler tone than singers of the Delta blues and in general the Piedmont Blues has a more laid-back, light-hearted tone.
Great Exponents of the Piedmont Blues
Many blues musicians adopted the Piedmont style at points in their careers but we have chosen our top musicians who specialised in the finger-picking style of the region.
Blind Willie McTell
Born in Thomson, Georgia in 1898, Blind Willie McTell was a finger-picking pioneer. His complex syncopated rhythms that blend ragtime and blues motifs are key to the Piedmont style. He taught himself how to read musical notation in braille which was truly exceptional for the time. He worked as an itinerant musician for many years, making his first studio recording in 1927. McTell was introduced to musicologists John and Ruby Lomax who conducted recordings of his music in 1940. He continued to make recordings throughout the 1940s but to little commercial success. His career was blighted by ill health, suffering from diabetes and alcoholism. By the late 1950s McTell was a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta and died from a cerebral haemorrhage on August 19, 1959.
Henry ‘Rufe’ Johnson
Henry Johnson was born in Bogansville, South Carolina in 1908. Johnson’s career is not well documented and it the only the release of his 1973 album The Union County Flash! brought attention beyond the local community. Tragically he died of kidney failure just months after its release. Henry ‘Rufe’ Johnson exemplifies the laid-back style with the technical intricacies of the Piedmont Blues.
Etta Baker was born in North Carolina in 1913, the daughter of country blues guitarist, Boone Reid. Her father started to teach her guitar when she was 3 years old and music remained at the heart of family life whilst they worked on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia. Etta Baker not only played six and twelve-string guitars but was also an accomplished banjo player. A chance meeting with the folk musician and musicologist, Paul Clayton led to her inclusion on the 1956 album, Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.
Etta Baker died in 2006 with 90 years guitar-playing experience behind her. Her legacy remains strong, especially in her native North Carolina where she was bestowed with multiple honours. A truly gifted guitarist.
Piedmont Blues musicians feature regularly on the Sunday Soul show with Jo Bowler – every Sunday from 10am GMT
Read more about the Piedmont Blues musicians
Georgia Blues: Blind Willie McTell – Documentary by David Fulmer for Georgia Public Television (1997)
“Blind Willie” McTell (1898-1959) – New Georgia Encyclopaedia
Etta Baker: Mistress of the Piedmont Blues – Independent