Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, and Various Artists

Classic Piedmont Blues From Smithsonian Folkways
Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, and Various Artists

It’s less improvisational than other types of blues, but East Coast (a.k.a. Piedmont) blues is no less expressive or impassioned. In addition to roots in African American folk music shared with other blues styles, it developed through a range of inputs, including ragtime, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley stylings. Thus, deceptively lively guitar and measured singing often play against tragic, eerie, or heartbreaking narratives.

A brilliant example on this collection is Elizabeth Cotten’s take on “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad,” a song of deep despair despite having become an anthem for carefree hippies. Like Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson, and many others included here, Cotten’s playing had a deep and wide effect on generations of guitarists. Much of the folk music of the Greenwich Village school comes directly from Piedmont blues thanks to Cotten and acolytes like Happy Traum, who learned firsthand from Piedmont guitar great Brownie McGhee.

There’s also Josh White, whose take on “T.B. Blues” exemplifies Piedmont’s patchwork nature. White was a fierce lion tamer of a player who could work a set of guitar strings to his absolute command.

Doubtless this tasty sampler will whet your appetite for more from the other American musical treasures it spotlights.

This article originally appeared in VG September 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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