John Locklear, who goes by the handle Lakota John, is a young Robeson County-based singer-songwriter. Like other young musicians, he performs at clubs and festivals. 

Unlike most of his contemporaries, he’s performed at the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress, and he has shared the stage with internationally renowned talents such as Joe Bonamassa and Taj Mahal.

These are remarkable honors for a 26-year-old, and proof of the purposeful way Lakota John approaches his trade. He is building a successful artistic career by digging deep into indigenous musical traditions of the Piedmont—the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain—and he’s combining these folk traditions with modern influences. 

He’s getting noticed not just because of his extraordinary skills as a guitarist and a writer, but because, in his own original compositions and performances, you can clearly hear traces of southeastern regional music of earlier times.

“I’m very aware of the music of my elders,” Lakota John told The Assembly. “I build on that. It’s great music. I want to bring it forward in my music.”

Some 120 miles north in Durham, Jon Shain is an accomplished singer-songwriter. A 55-year-old Duke graduate, he’s the 2019 winner of the International Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category, outplaying 260 competitors. 

Like Lakota John, Shain’s music takes the past and projects it forward for contemporary audiences. He creatively combines ragtime, bluegrass, and swing with the folk music of the Piedmont. 

Like so many other musicians, Shain and Lakota John note that a number of different styles, genres, and musicians have influenced their musical inclinations. But one thing they have in common is that the music that came out of Durham’s tobacco warehouses in the 1920s and ‘30s is foundational to the music they create and perform today. 

And they are in good company.

Lakota John, courtesy of the artist.
Jon Shain, courtesy of the artist.

The story of Durham as a vastly influential center of American musical culture has long been overlooked. 

Whether you listen to artists who play country, rock, blues, jazz, or folk, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the echoes of a small group of early 20th century Black musicians from Durham and the surrounding region. Their names are rarely mentioned, or even remembered, but these trailblazers are still shaping the music we listen to today.

“That music they played,” Shain told The Assembly, “is in the root system of American music.”

Bull City Dirty Work

In the early decades of the 20th century, Durham’s tobacco processing industry offered thousands of Black sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and rural laborers a way out of an endless cycle of debt and poverty. Demand for tobacco products seemed insatiable, and the Bull City was a land of opportunity.

On the southwest corner of Pettigrew and Blackwell Streets, an enormous plant owned by the American Tobacco Company—the manufacturer of Lucky Strike cigarettes and 35 other brands of tobacco products—was turning out 5 million cigarettes an hour by 1939. 

A Durham tobacco properties in 1905. (Courtesy Duke Manuscript Collection / Digital Durham)
The Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower Durham in 1930. (Courtesy Duke Manuscript Collection / Digital Durham)

On West Main Street between Cigarette and Fuller Streets, the Liggett & Myers plant had installed machines that could each produce 1,200 cigarettes per minute for their Chesterfield, Picayune, and other brands.

On Morris Street between Morgan and Fernway, the massive Imperial Tobacco factory —a joint venture of 18 British tobacco manufacturers—was sorting and processing the region’s famous and cherished “Bright Leaf” tobacco for export overseas.

Nearby, the annual tobacco auctions took place in gigantic warehouses. 

Each fall, both Black and white farmers brought their crops to the Durham warehouses where they were bundled, graded, and sold to the highest-bidding manufacturer or tobacco broker. Warehouse workers then re-dried, pressed, and packed the tobacco into barrels where it was stored until called upon by the successful bidder. 

To make it all work, the industry needed cheap labor. Black workers comprised the majority of the industry’s workforce, but they were hired only for the dirtiest, lowest-paying, most physically demanding jobs like stemming, cleaning, and processing the leaves by hand. Supervisory roles and positions as machine operators were reserved for whites.

In the latter half of the 20th century, folklorists at universities in North Carolina interviewed community elders like Margaret Turner, who could still vividly recall life in Durham in the 1920s and ‘30s. 

Turner was a widow raising children when she got a job with the American Tobacco Company, and worked there for 38 years. “What they hired us for was the dirty work, not [work] in the cigarette department but in the leaf department where everything was dirty,” she told North Carolina Central University researchers for an oral history published in 1988

Still, Durham was a city where you could get a job with a salary.

From Reconstruction through the industry’s demise in the late 20th century, tobacco powered North Carolina’s economy. By 1937, due largely to the federal tobacco excise tax levied on producers, manufacturers, and wholesalers, North Carolina was the fourth largest contributor to the United States Treasury. 

Durham’s American Tobacco Company on a postcard in 1967. (Courtesy Durham County Library)

As the tobacco industry faltered in more recent decades, many of its massive structures were repurposed as office buildings, apartments, restaurants, biomedical research facilities, and event venues. They remain outsized reminders of a bygone era.  

What has been mostly forgotten is that tobacco also made Durham a creative epicenter for an almost-lost genre of music, known in recent years as the Piedmont blues or sometimes the East Coast blues. 

Durham was at the heart of this musical form from its birth in the 1920s until its disappearance at the onset of World War II. Only Atlanta can stake a greater claim in the development of the genre. 

Rediscovered during the folk revival of the late 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the Piedmont blues had an enormous influence on many of the most widely recorded British and American musicians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Like the tobacco factories and warehouses, this all-but-abandoned music was re-purposed for a different clientele.

Rise of the Piedmont Blues

Describing a musical genre by detailing its attributes tends to lead to generalizations and oversimplifications. The margins of musical styles are overlapping, and musicians listen to and are influenced by other musicians and styles. Separating musical expressions into neat, mutually exclusive categories is a pursuit fraught with trouble. 

Even so, one might say the alternating bass notes, syncopated melodies (accenting notes between the beats), and, most notably, the lively and bright ragtime flavor characterize the Piedmont blues.

“I’m very aware of the music of my elders. I build on that. I want to bring it forward in my music.”

Lakota John

It was typically played on guitar, distinguished by its complex fingerpicking patterns. Guitarists were sometimes accompanied by harmonica, washboard, and occasionally fiddle or mandolin. It often sounded like ragtime on guitar instead of piano, and, vital to its popularity, you could dance to it. 

Indeed, weekend house parties were a common venue for recreation and social interaction. Dance music was essential. But most homes didn’t have a piano, so guitarists playing the Piedmont blues along with other popular up-tempo styles were called upon for the job.

While this music could be widely heard in Black communities throughout the Piedmont region, it was, at the time, overlooked or dismissed as an art form. After all, it was just the crude regional folk music of a marginalized, poor, and largely illiterate Jim Crow-era population of African-American laborers, farmhands, and factory workers.

In the earliest days of mass communications in the segregated South, most whites were unaware of it. And professional and middle-class Black folks listened to the “higher-class” jazz and dance bands.

They used to classify guitar music as strictly the devil’s music, and church-going folks didn’t have nothing to do with it,” Reginald Mitchiner, a former Liggett & Myers employee and sharecropper’s son, told folklorist Glenn Hinson in 1976 for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program

That could have had something to do with the lyrics. As one might expect from any kind of blues, common themes included unrequited love and infidelity, economic hardship, incarceration, oppression, failure, frustration, and rambling from one place to the next. 

But the Piedmont blues could also be tawdry and vulgar. The Piedmont guitarists had a seemingly endless supply of double entendres.

Race Records and Folklorists

No one was writing this music down. Its community was largely illiterate, and the performers couldn’t read music. They learned by ear. 

Fortunately, samples were recorded. In the 1920s, the Library of Congress launched an effort to search out and record indigenous American folk music. White folklorists John Lomax and his son, Alan, spent years conducting field recordings throughout the South, with an emphasis on African-American folk music. The Piedmont blues is among the musical styles they recorded. 

A handful of other researchers also made non-commercial field recordings of Black folk music in the Piedmont region in the 1920s and 1930s, and even into the mid-1950s. But by then, most listeners had moved on and the Piedmont blues had become a relic. 

A Durham sign noting the story of the Piedmont blues, a long and historic finger picking blues guitar tradition. (Photo by Earl Leatherberry)

Other samples were collected by commercial record companies. In the early days of the white-dominated recording industry, record companies issued recordings of Black gospel, jazz, and blues on what they called “race records” intended to appeal to African-American consumers.  

Still, many of the Piedmont’s finest musicians and folk songs were never recorded. They could be heard on farms, at family picnics, at wood sawings and corn shuckings, on street corners, in Black-owned diners and barber shops, and, most notably, at the seasonal carnivalesque tobacco auctions that helped make Durham a center of gravity for this music. In an era in which radio was not yet universal and before jukeboxes became commonplace, live performance was the source.

“[A]ll around Durham and back up here near Stagville, there was a guitar in near about every house you went in,” Thomas Burt, a part-time musician, told the folklorist Hinson.

Street Corners, Parties, and Warehouses

Piedmont guitarists could always find an audience along Pettigrew Street and on Fayetteville Street in Hayti, Durham’s then-vibrant Black commercial district.

“Of the old guitar pickers … the best one I heard play was Arch Hammond,” said Burt, who, aside from earning gratuities as a guitarist, strung together a living working at various odd jobs at a sawmill, brickyard, tobacco factory, and elsewhere. Arch “stayed down in Hayti, and I would go down there and me and him would get together and play all around Hayti.” 

Like Burt, few of the Piedmont guitarists were full-time professionals; most held one or more menial jobs. The ones who earned their living as full-time musicians were disproportionately blind or disabled and, consequently, unable to get work on a farm or in a factory.

Those familiar with the Piedmont blues may recognize some of the genre’s most prominent names: Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and the Reverend Blind Gary Davis. Harmonica master Sonny Terry was also blind but somehow avoided the moniker. They could rely only on their music and had few other options. But even part-timers like Burt could make money performing on the street corners.

Blind Boy Fuller, an American blues guitarist and singer. (Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

The most talented of the street musicians would get invited to play at often-raucous weekend house parties where dancing and gambling were encouraged, and alcohol and food were for sale. 

According to George Washington University ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell, some of these parties were informal, non-professional bashes that provided not just entertainment but an opportunity for the host to make a few extra bucks selling food and booze. These parties were frequently referred to as “sellin’s.” Music was essential, and guitar players could earn good money from tips. 

The Piedmont blues was central to the repertoire of many of the region’s guitarists, but it wasn’t the only style they played. Many started out playing gospel, and most could play all sorts of pop tunes and even the Scottish reels popular in the countryside. They were ready for whatever their audience, white or Black, wanted to hear, and would tip them for.

Other house parties were commercial operations run by bootleggers where the musicians would receive a flat fee. But by the 1940s, live musicians were being replaced by Piccolos, the brand name for the original jukeboxes.

Still, the most important venues in the Piedmont were the annual tobacco auctions in Winston-Salem and Durham. During the several weeks of the auctions, Durham seemed more like a county fair than an industrial city. 

To Piedmont musicians, the auctions meant money, visibility, and opportunity. Each fall, Black and white sharecroppers and tenant farmers would transport their crop to the tobacco warehouses and collect payment, likely for the first time since the prior year’s auction. The Piedmont musicians would converge there, too, and perform in the giant warehouses and on street corners for tips from the recently paid farmers.

Richard Trice played at the Durham auctions with some of the genre’s most popular musicians: his brother Willie Trice, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Bull City Red, and Blind Boy Fuller.

“See them people were neighbors, them farmers,” Trice said in the documentary Shine On: Richard Trice and the Bull City Blues. “And they sat in the back and they’d—some of them—would get charged up, man. And they were loose with the money, you know. They wanted to hear something.”   

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Rebranded as Blind Boy

According to a study Lornell conducted, about 30 percent of the Piedmont region’s blues musicians who recorded the style between 1924 and 1941 were in the Durham area.

Among them was a blind guitarist originally from Wadesboro who became the most popular, commercially successful, and prolific figure in the genre and one of the most popular and influential guitarists of the era: Blind Boy Fuller.  

Fuller, whose real name was Fulton Allen, became blind in 1928 around the age of 21. He had worked as a laborer but was then forced to rely on playing guitar for tips outside tobacco factories and on street corners.

J.B. Long was the white manager of the candy and hosiery departments in Durham’s United Dollar Store on Main Street. He was also an American Record Corporation talent scout. In 1935, he discovered Allen and soon rebranded him as Blind Boy Fuller. 

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In an interview with Lornell for a 1976 edition of Living Blues Magazine, Long recalled the first time he came upon Allen: 

“As I went around the warehouses tryin’ to see some of the farmers, get ‘em to come to the store and trade you know, and I saw this blind fellow, colored boy, man, he had on a blanket-lined overall jumper. … I told him ‘I’m down here at the United Dollar Store  department store. Come by and see me. I want to talk to you. You’ve got a pretty good voice, and I’d like to talk to you about going in making records if you can do it.’”

Fulton Allen accepted Long’s invitation. By the time of his death in 1941 at age 37, he had recorded a stunning 130 sides—a 78 RPM record could hold 3 to 5 minutes of music per side—for the American Recording Company and Decca Records.

One of the most important bluesmen of the 20th century, Fuller is buried in Grove Hill Cemetery on Durham’s Fayetteville Street, but the precise location of his grave is not known. The dormant cemetery is now the site of Fayetteville Street Elementary School and a small office building.

Although Fuller was the most popular Piedmont musician of the era, it was another Long discovery, the Reverend Blind Gary Davis, who was widely regarded as among the most skilled. By most accounts, Davis was Fuller’s instructor and mentor, and his music is viewed as more creative and original. 

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Davis “never let a string be still,” bluesman Willie Trice, who played the Durham streets with his younger brother Richard, told blues historian Bruce Bastin in an early 1970s interview. He was “the playingest man I ever saw. … He could make 500 chords while I was trying to play two.”

In July 1935, Long drove Fuller and Davis—along with a Durham washboard player who Long dubbed Bull City Red—to Manhattan for their first recording sessions, lasting four days. 

The New York trip launched Fuller on a prolific recording career, but it was not a good experience for Davis who felt that Long cheated him. Often cantankerous, stubborn, and suspicious, Davis didn’t record again for a decade and a half.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, Davis was ordained as a Baptist minister, devoted himself to the church, and often insisted on playing only spirituals. He moved to the Bronx in 1944 where he scraped together a living largely by preaching and singing on street corners—until, that is, the folk revival of the late 1950s and ‘60s brought him new opportunities. 

He was convinced to return to the studio, where he recorded both secular and religious music. But regardless of which he played, the Piedmont style from his days in Durham could be clearly heard.

Durham also launched the internationally successful 35-year partnership of guitarist Brownie McGhee and harmonica virtuoso Sonny Terry. Originally from Greensboro, Terry began playing with Fuller at the Durham warehouses and street corners in the mid-1930s and frequently recorded with him. 

A few months after Fuller’s death in February of 1941, McGhee and Terry recorded together for the first time. But as interest in the Piedmont blues style faded in the South, the pair moved to New York City in 1942, where there was still a vibrant blues scene in the massive black community that had migrated northward and a budding interest in folk music among affluent educated whites.

Throughout the revival, the duo recorded, played folk clubs and festivals, made television appearances, and ultimately performed in night clubs and concert halls around the world as a headline act. By the end of their careers, they had become the most famous and celebrated exponents of the Piedmont style.

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Back to the Future

By the early 1940s, musical tastes were changing and the Piedmont blues was disappearing. Other factors upended the musical landscape, including a strike called by the American Federation of Musicians banning new recordings and shuttering recording studios. And the shellac used to make records was needed by the war effort. When the recording industry recovered, Black and white listeners converged on rhythm and blues and doo-wop, and the world was heading toward rock ’n’ roll.

Years later, folklorists, most notably from UNC, set out to find surviving forgotten Piedmont artists. A few were “re-discovered” early enough to participate in the folk revival movement. Music festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival, launched in 1959, introduced them to predominantly white urban audiences far larger than they experienced back in the genre’s rural heyday. But by then, the Piedmont blues had faded away as the popular indigenous African-American folk music of the southeastern plateau.

Today, several North Carolina-based nonprofits and academic institutions are leading the way in preserving this music.  

One of the most significant not-for-profit initiatives is the Music Maker Foundation, founded in 1994. From its headquarters in Hillsborough, Music Maker has been working to preserve and promote original indigenous American music—“roots music” —in all its forms: blues, gospel, folk, jazz, Appalachian string band, Native American music.

Music Maker helps book and promote live performances, releases and promotes recordings, and provides financial support to struggling artists.

Its Next Generation program connects young, talented, up-and-comers with skilled old-timers, resulting in collaborations that would have never otherwise happened. That’s how Lakota John became involved. More recently, Music Maker facilitated the connections that enabled him to get on the bill at this September’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in Colorado, one of the most prestigious blues venues in the nation.

“Even Alan Lomax, who spent his whole life documenting indigenous music, much of it African American music, he didn’t even touch the very tip of this huge iceberg,” Music Maker Foundation co-founder Tim Duffy told The Assembly

In rural southern communities, Duffy said the descendents of the Piedmont blues creators “are picking up this music, learning it and bringing it forward. And we don’t know who it will influence 50 years from now. The main thing is to get it documented.”

“Everyone likes to say, oh that’s something that happened in the past. But the past is not past. The past never really passes. It’s in the future,” he said.

That’s clear to anyone who’s listening. Legions of recent American and British artists have acknowledged the influence of the pre-war Durham guitarists, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal, Hot Tuna, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Harry Chapin, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, David Bromberg, and Keb Mo’.

“That music they played is in the root system of American music.”

Jon Shain

At least 33 artists have recorded their own versions of Blind Boy Fuller’s biggest hit, “Step It Up and Go,” including Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Bob Dylan, and Earl Scruggs. The name of the Rolling Stones’ second album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, is a lyric from one of Fuller’s songs.  

Pink Floyd coined its name from two 1930s-era Piedmont guitarists: Floyd Council from Chapel Hill, who often played with Fuller, and South Carolina’s Pink Anderson.  

Eric Clapton learned to play guitar partly by listening to recordings of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Hot Tuna, Jackson Browne, and the Grateful Dead are just a few who covered songs written and performed by the Reverend Blind Gary Davis. 

Davis was so skilled that a long litany of acclaimed musicians famously trekked to his home in the Bronx to take guitar lessons, including singer-songwriter David Bromberg, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Steve Katz of Blood Sweat & Tears, singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, and Pete Seeger collaborator Tom Winslow. 

The musicians that the Durham guitarists directly influenced are now influencing a new generation of music makers—people like Jon Shain and Lakota John who will, in turn, influence the music of their successors.

“The blues is a spirit,” said Duffy. “The Piedmont blues will never die. It keeps appearing. It’s something that’s in people’s DNA.”

Wilmington resident Marc Farinella is the senior adviser to the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.