The legacy of the blues is often set in Delta juke joints or on the urban streets of Chicago’s Southside. But faraway Durham, N.C., plays its own important role.
At the turn of the 20th century, the city was an epicenter for Black arts culture and entrepreneurial ambition. That drew blues musicians to Durham’s downtown, as warehouses buzzed with tobacco-related activity, and to the historic Hayti neighborhood.
Farmers both white and black brought in their harvests. Newly flush with cash, they’d while away the time listening to a homegrown form of music later known as Piedmont blues which crossed its own color and musical lines.
Well described by the Los Angeles Times as “a lighter, ragtime-influenced version of the somber Mississippi Delta blues, it is distinguished by complex two-finger guitar-picking.” Banjos and fiddles would accompany the hard-won tales of poverty, displacement and inequity that always defined this music.
Yet many might still be surprised when they come across a historical marker celebrating “Bull City Blues” that was erected in 2001 by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History at the intersection of Fayetteville and Simmons in Durham. A colorful mural by Cameron Kramer on the front of the Blue Note Grill on Washington also pays homage to local legends Blind Boy Fuller, John Dee Holeman and the Rev. Gary Davis.
Today, when figures like Fuller, Davis, Elizabeth Cotten, Sonny Terry or Floyd Council are recognized, their connection to the area is too often overlooked.
“During the 1920s-1940s,” the historical marker reminds, “Durham was home to African American musicians whose work defined a distinctive regional style. Blues artists often played in the surrounding Hayti community and downtown tobacco warehouse district. Prominent among these were Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen, 1907-1941) and Blind Gary Davis (1896-1972), whose recordings influenced generations of players.”
Other important figures in the Piedmont style include Blind Willie McTell, James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, Bull City Red and Guitar Gabriel, among many others. Etta Baker, Holeman and Algia Mae Hinton carried the torch into the modern era, and others have run with it.
Along the way, Piedmont blues also played a similarly underrated role in rock music. Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead covered Cotten, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 as a key influence. Arlo Guthrie’s famous “Alice’s Restaurant” was heavily influenced by the Piedmont blues. The Grateful Dead covered Davis. Dylan also wrote a song titled “Blind Willie McTell.” The Rolling Stones named their album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out after a Fuller single, and “You Gotta Move” from Sticky Fingers was credited in part to Davis.
“The standard story of the blues is that it was born in the Mississippi Delta and then came to Chicago and then the U.K., where the British picked it up,” says Tim Duffy, co-founder of the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Music Maker Foundation. “But it’s a bigger story than that.”
And Durham is right in the center of it.