Smithsonian Fine Tunes a New Collection of Appalachian Blues

BY Arts Desk  March 24, 2010 at 2:04 PM EDT

Classic Appalachian Blues from Smithsonian Folkways The migration of the blues from the fields of the Mississippi Delta to clubs on the southside of Chicago has been well-documented by historians and musicologists, but there is also a rich tradition in and around the Appalachian mountains that has received scant attention. A new album, ‘Classic Appalachian Blues’ by Smithsonian Folkways, helps to set the record straight.

“Evidence suggests that the blues arrived in Appalachia well after it had become entrenched in the Delta,” writes University of Maryland professor Barry Lee Pearson in the album’s liner notes. “It was brought by itinerant musicians who sought work in the mines or building roads and railroads, and who entertained themselves and other workers,” or by professionals who would play in local watering holes on payday. During the same period, records became more affordable and available in the region, providing another medium for the propagation of the genre.

The Appalachian blues incorporates a more complex finger-picking style than what came out of the Delta. It blends dance hall stomps, boogie-woogie and takes from the regional spirituals that also influenced their bluegrass and country music. It’s a diverse mix of sounds that reflects a confluence of black and white musical traditions.

“Looking at a record, frequently you had no idea what race the person was,” said Folkways archivist Jeff Place. John Jackson, the late black blues musician from Virginia, and one of the musicians on the new release, remembered growing up listening to white country blues man Jimmy Rodgers.

“We do not have segregation in the same way,” said Pearson. “When it comes to music, it is a much more integrated sound.”

The songs on “Classic Appalachian Blues” also show an influence on later folk and rock & roll musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

The Folkways label was started in New York in 1948 to record and release little-known music and spoken word from around the globe. For many musicians who left the south for New York in a kind of mini “Great Migration,” they found an opportunity to record at Folkways. In just under 40 years, the company released more than 2,000 albums. After the death of one of its founders, the label and its catalog was acquired by the Smithsonian Institute in 1987, which has continued to carry out the mission of the original Folkways.

“This stuff is not that well known,” said Place. “There are a lot of tremendous musicians that are sitting here in boxes and it is great to have a chance to get them out where people can actually hear them.”

Listen to an interview with Barry Lee Pearson and archivist Jeff Place:

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You can find a free download of “See What You Done Done,” a track off “Classic Appalachian Blues,” on the Folkways website.