A Love Song to the Piedmont Blues | Midwood Guitar Studio

A Love Song to the Piedmont Blues | Midwood Guitar Studio

Posted by Robinson Earle on Mar 27th 2020

A Love Song to the Piedmont Blues | Midwood Guitar Studio

I first learned to “Piedmont” pick from the late, great John Cephas of the Richmond blues duo, Cephas & Wiggins. I had just turned 15, and my fledgling identity was intertwined with music. I gravitated towards anything that struck me as sincere and authentic. This took me from punk rock to folk and blues. At the encouragement of my parents, I attended “Blues Week” at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.

Cephas played a different sort of blues than I was accustomed to. It lacked the plaintive gravity of the Mississippi delta that had come to characterize the genre. It had a playful lilt to it that almost sounded happy. It was dazzling, aloof, earthy, and less defiant than provocatively indifferent. Later in life, I would come to understand it as the music of Pan. It was dance music.

I practiced the patterns that John Cephas imparted unto us in that academic roundhouse. I studied the music of Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotten, Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell. I eventually even moved into the Piedmont, myself, starting a family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I frequent and continue to perform at many of the old tobacco warehouses in Durham where the old masters would play for the workers in celebration of the harvest. I do my best to tend the flame in the form of lessons and recordings. All my students from Carrboro are required to learn “Freight Train”.

One of the things that initially struck me is the sheer virtuosity of the style. It is true six-string wizardry. Given that many of its practitioners were blind, one imagines them hearing a ragtime ensemble and artfully transposing all its essential sounds onto one humble instrument. A visual representation of what was possible on the guitar was not available, leaving pickers like Blind Blake to attempt the impossible. Overtime, the bass notes assumed the proud strut of a tuba, and notes above the 12th-fret sounded as if they were poured from clarinets. It’s easy to see why piedmont pickers were so popular at lively gatherings. They could mimic a full band.

Another thing that I came to love about the Piedmont Blues aesthetic is its earthiness. It’s bawdy, jaunty, and visceral music. It also lacks structural rigidity, bars expanding or contracting to suit the narrative or instrumental flourishes. It’s a rural jazz form that rewards years of practice with the ability to effortlessly experiment and improvise. A Piedmont picker takes what he or she receives from their predecessors, and makes it their own. Each picker leaves different fingerprints on the strings. As one elder blues man that I met in the Midwood showroom put it, “all these tunes just evolved out of “Careless Love””.

Over the years, I’ve submitted many traditional and original compositions to the Piedmont style and I’ve rarely been dissatisfied. It’s the perfect porch music. It brightens up any dark forest. As one of my students put it, “it sounds like a happy guy walking past the crossroads.” Here are some patterns to get you started: