“N.C.’s musicians take songs from Juke Joints to Carnegie”
The Associated Press – Nov 9, 1986
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the 1930s and 1940s, they picked and wailed in tobacco warehouses and juke joints for fellow farmers and workers or they buck-danced on their back porches for family and friends.
Now many of North Carolina's blues musicians have an international following and perform in places from Carnegie Hall to Southeast Asia. Others, however, continue to work the blue-col-lar jobs they've had for years.
"North Carolina has been intensively investigated for blues," said Glenn Hinson, a Creedmore resident who is re-searching a book on North Carolina blues musicians. "As a result, public awareness of the blues is high enough so many musicians here are able to do gigs regularly. Many of them now rep-resent not only their state, but also their region nationally and internationally as they tour and perform."
Hinson said the Piedmont blues differs from the more publicized Delta blues in its complex, delicate guitar picking style. It was influenced by rag-time and white country styles, while the Delta blues sounds rougher and sparser.
Delta blues moved up the Mississippi to Chicago and the West Coast. Its most famous practitioners included B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.
Piedmont blues moved to New York with musicians like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Terry, a blind musician who came from the Durham blues tradition in the 1930s, died last March. His partner, McGhee, now lives in California.
But many other blues musicians in black communities around North Carolina continue to perform, and some sell records worldwide.
Among them is Thomas Burt, who lives near Creedmore. Born in 1900, Burt has "watched the entire development of the music, the transition from set dances to city house parties, said Hinson.
Burt played guitar for round dances and buck-dancing, a rhythmic solo dance that was the precursor of tap dancing. As the blues developed, he played for farmers who brought their crops into eastern North Carolina tobacco markets.
In the late 1940s when rhythm and blues became more popular, Burt con-tinued to play for family and friends. But an appearance at a 1978 folk festival in Durham helped revive his popularity. He went on to perform at the National Folklife Festival at Wolf Trap in 1980 and the National Down Home Blues Festival in Atlanta in 1984.
Many women played the blues in North Carolina, but not many became well known outside their own neighbor-hoods. Hinson said an exception is Etta Baker, 73, of Morganton.
"Etta is probably one of the finest guitar players in the Piedmont style," he said. "She has an incredibly light and delicate touch, fingering very complex runs on an acoustic or electric guitar."
Baker was one of the first Piedmont blues musicians recorded during the folk revival of the 1950s. Since then, she has appeared regularly at folk festivals and has been included on other albums.
Another accomplished female blues musician with North Carolina training is Elizabeth Cotten, 94, who now lives in Syracuse, N.Y. Famous for the song Freight Train, she won a Grammy award last year for best traditional album.
Algia Mae Hinton was one blueswoman who didn't, mind playing for the rollicking house parties that produced many musicians. Hinson said Hinton, 57, still performs in her native Johnston County.
"She's also one of the area's better buck-dancers," he said. "She's still able to perform with all the facility of a teenager."
Hinton dances while she plays, sometimes playing the guitar behind her head when inspired. She was re-corded for a statewide blues album in 1978, has played at national folk festivals and last year performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. She also plays with the Black Folk Heritage Tour of the North Carolina Arts Council.
Another performer on the statewide tour is John Dee Holeman, 57, who has combined the Durham guitar blues tradition with the best of Chicago blues. "He's also a buck-dancer who literally can tell stories with his feet," said Hinson.
"His voice is powerful. It can vary from very lighthearted vocals, almost joking, to a deep, brooding meanness."
Hinson said recordings and writings by folklorists "led to a revival, not a discovery, but a bringing of these artists to a new public, to a community that ex-tended beyond their hometown."
It wouldn't have died out, it would have survived in its own way," he said. "But the music has enabled people like Algia Mae to stop doing farmwork and rely more on their artistry. That's a real change, and that's allowed the music to grow and develop in new ways."