New Collection Explores 'Classic Appalachian Blues' Blues fans have long looked to the Mississippi Delta or Chicago for a taste of authentic Americana, but a new compilation draws attention to another region: Appalachia. Classic Appalachian Blues, from Smithsonian Folkways, features acoustic fingerstyle blues assembled by music professor Barry Lee Pearson and archivist Jeff Place.
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New Collection Explores 'Classic Appalachian Blues'

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New Collection Explores 'Classic Appalachian Blues'

New Collection Explores 'Classic Appalachian Blues'

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(Soundbite of song, "Outskirts of Town")

GUY RAZ, host:

Author and poet James Weldon Johnson wrote: It's from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristics.

(Soundbite of song, "Outskirts of Town")

Mr. JOSH WHITE (Singer): (Singing) I'm gonna move way out on the outskirts of town...

RAZ: This is Josh White from a 1944 recording of the song "Outskirts of Town." He was born in Greenville, South Carolina, a town on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. It's not a region that gets a lot of attention from blues fans. They've always looked to the Mississippi Delta or to Chicago rather than Appalachia. But a new compilation of mountain blues may change that. The record's called "Classic Appalachian Blues."

And it was put together by Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place, who join me here in the studio.

Welcome to NPR. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. JEFF PLACE: You're welcome.

Mr. BARRY LEE PEARSON: Thanks for having us.

RAZ: Let's start with you, Barry. Josh White, the musician we're hearing now, tell me about him.

Mr. PEARSON: Well, he grew up in the Greenville-Spartanburg area and started out life as a lead boy for some local blind musicians. And he helped take them around and in return he picked up some guitar tips from them. Later on, he got into music himself and recorded several 78 RPM records under different names, one when he did gospel and the other when he did blues, because you're not supposed to do both of those.

He was a very attractive man and played around, I think, when he went into this kind of nightclub act. He got a little bit more attention because he would come out on stage with his shirt open all the way to his navel and do things like break a guitar string in mid-song and change it without stopping the song. So, he was a classic entertainer across the board.

(Soundbite of song, "Outskirts of Town")

Mr. WHITE: (Singing) 'Cause I don't want nobody who's always hanging round...

RAZ: Jeff Place, can you sort of explain what it is that makes Appalachian blues unique or different, say, as opposed to the Delta blues or Chicago blues?

Mr. PLACE: Well, East Coast blues and Appalachian blues, it's more melodic. You have fingerpicking and there's like the (unintelligible) ragtime music involved. Delta blues is almost like the guitar becomes a percussion instrument. It's more, you know, banging and rhythmic.

And there was these sort of various types of traditions, both in the white and black communities in Appalachia, which kind of affected each other, you know? People would like, you know, there was a lot of, for instance, mining towns. I remember going down to a town - I think it was called Lynch, Kentucky, right on the border - where there was the black part of town and there was the white part of town. And they all played baseball together and played music together, but otherwise they were segregated.

And these people would kind of influence each other. So you could actually, in the old days, listen to some 78s and music from there and not really know if it was a white or black guy playing it.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And you even quote a fiddle player in the liner notes called Howard Armstrong. He says: Music was the one medium where blacks and whites seemed to meet on very nice ground, on common ground. And that was unique to this region. I mean, that didn't happen in the Delta, where whites and blacks often didn't see each other.

Mr. PLACE: Yeah. Well, there was a famous string band called the Georgia Yellow Hammers in the '20s, an integrated string band in the era when you wouldn't expect to find such things. And the two African-American members, frequently when they played, they had to sit behind a curtain, you know, and play. And you could hear them play but you couldn't see them, because, you know, I guess if they were seen playing together it would cause a stir.

RAZ: That's amazing. Barry Lee Pearson, you write in the liner notes that black Appalachian vocal style is generally less intense, it's less emotional and preacherly than styles from the Deep South. And I want to hear an example of that. This is John Jackson singing "Railroad Bill."

(Soundbite of song, "Railroad Bill")

Mr. JOHN JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) Railroad Bill, he said that he will. He never worked and he never will. Let him ride, your railroad Bill...

RAZ: Why do you think the singing style was different in Appalachia?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, it's difficult to say. It's a little bit more of a back porch-style of singing. Some people think it's closer to white style, but I'm not sure that that's really the case. Delta music's a lot closer to field hollers and other things, which are very exclamatory, and preacher styles too are, you know, different from region to region.

In the case of John Jackson, there's not very many people that sound like John Jackson. And when you do find them they can be over on the Houston shore, they can be up in the mountains. They may be white, they may be black, but it's a very distinctive style. I don't know if you noticed that every syllable that he puts out has at least three tones to it.

(Soundbite of song, "Railroad Bill")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Famine came (unintelligible) and famine came behind(ph), take all (unintelligible) to the graveyard, ain't gonna bring him back, so let him ride, you railroad Bill...

RAZ: Jeff Place, why do you think that in Appalachia there was this cross-pollination? I mean, how did it happen there?

Mr. PLACE: I'll tell you the story. Back when the Carter Family - this little great country music group - wanted to travel from their house in Macy Springs, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee for this 1927 recording session, it took them eight hours to drive the 20 miles over the mountains. With this in mind, if you were in a holler somewhere or a valley with a bunch of people, you - pretty much those are the people you're with. And people will get together for like, these parties and dances. And you're all - you're basically all in the same place together.

John Jackson used to be a big fan listening to Jimmy Rogers, the country singer, all the time and Doc Watson grew up listening to Mississippi John Hurt's 78s. You know, good music was good music.

RAZ: Well, now we've got to hear the track by Doc Watson off this record, and that track is called "Sitting on Top of the World."

(Soundbite of song, "Sitting on Top of the World")

Mr. DOC WATSON (Musician): (Singing) Was in the spring one sunny day, my sweetheart left me. Yeah, she went away. Now she's gone and I don't worry. Lord, I'm sitting on top of the world.

RAZ: Jeff Place, out of the 21 tracks on this collection, this artist, Doc Watson, is probably the best known.

Mr. PLACE: This one is, it's one of my favorite Doc Watson songs. And it's also interesting to point out that it was written by one of those African-American string bands, the Mississippi Sheiks. Here he is doing a song out of black tradition, but it's got that great Doc Watson stamp to it, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Sitting on Top of the World")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) And don't you come back running holding out your hand. I'll get me a woman like you got your man. And now she's gone and I don't worry. Lord, I'm sitting on top of the world.

RAZ: Appalachia as a region that produced blues. Has it - I mean, it's been obscured in a sense by the Mississippian and to some extent by Chicago. And is that starting to change?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, I certainly hope it is. You know, for a lot of years, too, people thought of Appalachia as literally being so isolated that it didn't have very many people there that would be playing blues. They didn't think there was a substantial black population. People were surprised to find out that, hold on, you mean the banjo's an African instrument or, oh, you mean these string bands, they weren't white, they were black?

So it's a combination of lack of information and stereotyping. You know, if you heard a string band, you assumed that they were a white string band. That's going to change, and we hope that this thing that we've produced, "The Classic Appalachian Blues," will help that process along.

RAZ: Jeff Place and Barry Lee Pearson are the curators behind the new album, "Classic Appalachian Blues." It's on the Smithsonian Folkways label. You can hear full tracks from that album at our website,

Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming in and sharing music with us.

Mr. PEARSON: Thank you.

Mr. PLACE: Sure thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Sitting on Top of the World")

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz at NPR West in Southern California. We'll be back here tomorrow. For now, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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