Smithsonian Institution
Summer 2010: Featuring Featuring Grassroots Music from the United States



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Appalachian Blues

Blues from the mountains

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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.

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Click images to enlarge and view captions

Classic Appalachian Blues from Smithsonian Folkways by Various Artists

recording details

Audio Samples

Hoodoo Blues

Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Tommy Armstrong

Red River Blues

Lesley Riddle

One Dime Blues

Etta Baker

I Got a Woman

Marvin and Turner Foddrell