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Piedmont Blues: A region, a style, our blues

by Jason King

December 12, 2013

"The blues is a feeling," musician Abe Reid announces. " It's standing on the side of the road, after just leavin' your woman. It's smoking that cigarette, smiling after just making good love." The blues is everything to this 41-year-old blues player. Abe finalizes his thoughts, "It's the good haps, it's the bad haps. "

We sit in a perhaps less than classic setting for this sermon on the blues. An east side Charlotte Chinese restaurant booth is our front porch. With no other diners in the spot, we are left alone to swap opinions and fact. The standard Asian decor, and less than legal working age server, all add to the dichotomy of our discussion. The server, without doubt an owner’s child, chases me down at the end to return my change, apparently too young to understand tipping.

I lead off with a loaded question, what is the blues, ready to have my prejudices confirmed. I started this article truly seeking an answer to the question of whether or not Abe Reid, of Statesville, N.C., is the last real bluesman. More specifically of the Piedmont Blues heritage. Before we seek the later, first let me introduce Piedmont Blues for a moment.

Talking Guitars

The Piedmont Blues is a style of blues lost in the shadows of the more mainstream Delta and Chicago blues. It’s characterized by a syncopated finger picking, similar to a ragtime piano. Great facilitators of this style, such as Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller, were said to have "talking guitars."

The term Piedmont Blues was coined by one of the leading scholars in southeastern U.S. traditional music, Bruce Bastin. Bruce is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and along with folklorist Peter B. Lowry, the two have gone to tremendous lengths to capture and preserve this style of blues. Bruce is author of Red River Blues and Crying For The Carolines.

Bastin and Lowry’s efforts to track down and gather field recordings resulted in several 45s and LPs released on Trix Records in the 1970s including artist such as Durham's own Willie Trice. These albums gathered attention with a mostly white audience "discovering" the blues at that time. The acoustic traditional blues were losing favor with African American audiences and the traditional bearers of the art form were favoring electrified blues, soul, and R&B.

Piedmont Blues is considered the closest to a West African style of music. The finger picking is reminiscent of an 21-string harp called a Kora, popular in West African music. The choruses likely have roots in songs sung in the fields by African slaves and later African American share croppers. This music was played predominately in the region that runs from Richmond to Atlanta. A hotbed of this style found it's home in the Piedmont of North Carolina. In liquor houses, on street corners, and outside tobacco warehouses you could've heard this distinctive style from the 1920's to the 1950's.

This era’s artists famously include Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis, the aforementioned Blind Boy Fuller who was one of the most popular and recorded of theses artist. The Piedmont Blues might seem then to have faded away, with only obscure, dusty LPs on a debunked record label left to tell the tale. However, it’s been carried on by players emulating the ones who came before. Rather than recordings or mainstream popularity, it’s these carriers who embody the Piedmont Blues legacy.

Musical Revelations

Fast forward a half a century, am I splitting spring rolls with this lineage? Is Abe Ried, a white man with that innocent country look, today's embodiment of that purest of blues, the Piedmont Blues?

Abe started his fascination with the blues at age 15. As a fan of the Grateful Dead, future bandmate and lifelong friend Scott Sharp pointed out a particular Dead song: Katie Mae, Abe's favorite, was in fact a blues standard by Lightnin' Hopkins. When this revelation hit Abe, he wanted to play the blues.

Attending a blues festival in the early 1990s, Abe believed he would be seeing men impersonating actual bluesmen. Bewildered, he saw guys who fit the bill of true blues players. At this festival he also met Tim Duffy, a folklorist who would go on to start the Music Maker Relief Foundation.

Tim gave the eager young Abe an address to a drink house in Winston-Salem. There, he told Abe, was where he could meet the truest embodiment of a bluesman. That was where he would find Robert Lewis Jones, known better as Guitar Gabriel.

Gabriel played the blues all over the United States, sitting in with legends like Bo Diddley and Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. He took stages at blues festivals, and performed in medicine shows through the '50s, '60s and '70s. Under the name Nyles Jones, he recorded the album, My South My Blues, along with the single, “Welfare Blues,” in 1971 for Gemini Records.

When Abe found him in the early 1990s, Gabe entertained the down-and-out revelers at this drink house. When asked if Abe thought Gabe to be the "real deal," Abe shot back, "aww yeah, he had rotten teeth... and a stare that gave you power."

Thanks to Tim Duffy's Music Maker Foundation, Gabriel was beginning to see regular gigs again. Abe felt honored to carry his guitar case into these shows. Gabriel called Abe his "little roadie." Abe cut his teeth with Gabe. Not just with the music, but how to be a kind showman.

"Gabe would be glad to let anybody sit in, he [the guest] might be playing the wrong key harmonica, Gabe's just grinning at him, encouraging him," Abe remembered. Most importantly, Abe learned the blues from Gabriel.

Guitar Gabriel had been a contemporary of men and women who had jammed with the greats. He may have been the disciple of a number of players, and one huge influence was Houston’s Lighnin' Hopkins, though until his death in 1996 he called North Carolina home. This home shared with him one of its musical treasures, pure and from the source: Piedmont Blues. Gabe gladly shared the gift with young Abe Reid.

Keeper of the Piedmont Blues?

Abe ran with it, first taking off to New Orleans to be a street musician, much like early Piedmont Blues players. From there, he moved back to the burgeoning music scene of Asheville in the mid-‘90s. He formed a band called the Blue Rags and quickly built quite a reputation in the blues community.

In 1998, Abe entered a contest at Ziggys in Winston-Salem and won a spot at the International Blues Talent Competition in Memphis. To Abe's shock, he was called down in the top three.

"I knew I was going to win at that point," he says. To seal the deal, he belted out a Guitar Gabe standard, “Poodle Dog,” for the overall victory. Abe was the first solo act to win this competition. He was undoubtedly on his way.

Over the next decade, he saw tremendous highs, and horrible lows. "The blues is about suffering, just when you think you've suffered enough... You're just getting started." Today, Abe sits a seemingly happy man. He's married, has children, and is considered a great musician. On the night of our interview, he played the community center of a Charlotte library, making all kinds of people "boogie."

Abe answered my first question about the blues. Now on to my second: He learned from Guitar Gabriel, who learned from the greats..does that make Abe the last real Piedmont Bluesman? Does he even consider himself to be a bluesman?

"I like it when you call me a bluesman," he snickers. "Tim Duffy once said I was a rock and roller, that was like a dagger in the chest." Abe surmises that you strive to be like a certain someone, then one day you just become influenced by them.

Abe has been given a gift he has shared, the knowledge of the Piedmont Blues. Every great blues player, Piedmont or not, was once showed the chords or techniques we intellectually identify as the blues. To become a bluesman, you must earn that title through life. Abe, in my opinion, has earned it.

Is he the last Piedmont Bluesman? Was Blind Blake the first? Was Blind Boy Fuller the best? These are opinions to be hashed out by blues purest or perhaps folklorist. I sat with a true Piedmont Bluesman, without doubt.

At the library show, Abe fielded questions from a young African American teenager who plays bass. Without hesitation, he shared his experience. The young man seemed freshly inspired.

This and countless acts like it ensure the blues will never terminate with one person. If that young man stays in North Carolina and picks up the blues style, he may be the next Piedmont Bluesman.

 

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Tags: Jason Kind, Abe reid, blues, piedmont blues, charlotte, North Carolina

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