“Most all of these North Carolina blues singers are singing experienced things. If they didn’t live that, somebody they know lived it. That’s what most of their songs are made up of, life experience.”
– George Higgs
The blues became marked as a distinctive musical genre around the turn of the 20th century, developing throughout the Southeast as a synthesis of the African American music traditions which preceded it, including work songs, field hollers, dance tunes, minstrel songs, and spirituals.
Blues lyrics often captured the hardships of the oppressive era of Jim Crow racism, segregated society, and civil rights injustices in addition to chronicling the joys and sorrows of daily life. The blues remain an outlet for the expression of personal and shared experience.
Early blues musicians sought out varied tonalities by tuning their guitars to an open D or E chord, and by using a bottleneck or knife as a slide. Initially blues songs varied in length, form and style, but overtime as the blues became popularized, the song form was standardized, taking on the twelve bar structure we now know.
Eastern North Carolina is home to the Piedmont Blues, a finger-picking style of blues guitar, influenced by earlier traditions of ragtime, parlor guitar, and string band music. The Piedmont Blues style was prominent among the musicians who played for the large crowds at North Carolina tobacco auctions, where native North Carolina blues artists John Dee Holman and George Higgs tell of first seeing the blues performed.
In this video, Etta Baker performs and discusses the techniques used to play the Piedmont Blues.
“…Rock is really rhythm and blues music.”
— Bill Myers
Rhythm and blues (R&B) is a term that has been used to describe many African American music genres, including electronic blues, soul, funk, disco, and contemporary pop. The term has taken new meaning with each generation but was originally coined in the late 1940s to refer to a genre developing out of jazz (primarily swing and be-bop), and the blues. Older musicians may testify that the original term was “rhythm in blues. Early R&B ensembles commonly included a vocalist, electric guitar, saxophone, and a full rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. Hit songs were upbeat and danceable, with a familiar feel due to the apparent influence of previous music traditions. The call and response form associated with gospel, for example, could often be heard in the dialogue between saxophone and vocal lines.
R&B first thrived in urban areas such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles but soon influenced musicians throughout the country, and eventually gained international recognition. North Carolina R&B artists tell of bringing their music to international audiences while away on military leave, participating in international ministry, and while working as touring musicians.
In the 1940s North Carolina residents heard some of the early stars of R&B play in the tobacco warehouses of eastern North Carolina, just as today you might catch a similar sound at the weekly jams in Goldsboro, at First Fridays on the Lawn in Wilson, or even at a high school band performance. In 2011 the Monitors, a North Carolina R&B band for more than 50 years, attended and played at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC.
“Funk is something that one feels, and everybody has the ability to feel it. The irony is the more one thinks about it, the harder it is to get the feel of the funk. It’s just done.”
– George Clinton, of Kannapolis, North Carolina
Where gospel, soul, jazz, R&B, and Afro-Cuban rhythms collide, funk is made. It is the marriage of syncopated base lines, a heavy beat, repetitive rhythmic vocals, extended stays on single chords, and the interwoven melodies of the Hammond organ and horn section.
Many credit James Brown for popularizing Funk in the late 1960s and early 70s, when it began to permeate the commercial music industry as well as the homes, night clubs, and tobacco warehouses of North Carolina. Accomplished jazz and R&B musicians from Kinston, N.C., such as Maceo and Melvin Parker, Nat Jones, Dick Knight, and Levi Raspberry, became key players in the development of the funk sound in their work with the James Brown band.
More a feeling than a definable genre, Funk is a proudly uninhibited, dance inspiring groove; a groove that filled the soundtrack of the waning civil rights movement. Songs like James Brown’s Say it Loud, Parliament’s Chocolate City and Funkadelic’s One Nation Under the Groove celebrate and inspire the empowerment of African American communities. Funk became one of the most significant foundational genres in the development of hip-hop music.
“[In] the African American experience when you’re in pain and you’re suffering you always go to God. You know, you go to church and you sing and you cry and you moan and you pray and all of those kinds of things.”
— Sherry Winston
Gospel music has played an important role in the musical upbringing of many North Carolinians. It is the music that has filled not only the churches, but also the homes, street, schools, and radios of eastern North Carolina, making music an integral part of life for the faithful. Small communities of eastern North Carolina, known for their strong heritage of gospel music, have been home to nationally known gospel artists such as the Reverend Faircloth C. Barnes, his son, Luther Barnes, the Anointed Jackson Sisters, the Reverend Malkarska Williams and the Williams Family.
The term gospel is used to describe a variety of music styles of praise and worship. The African American gospel tradition found in eastern North Carolina emerged around the turn of the 20th century, alongside ragtime, jazz, and blues. While drawing upon the syncopated rhythms and call and response form of African American spirituals, early gospel was also profoundly influenced by the secular music styles of the time.
The dialogue and interchange between sacred and secular music has continued to redefine gospel over the years. In the first half of the century, blues artists such as Blind Willie Johnson were known for playing gospel songs alongside blues guitar. Also gaining popularity at the time were a cappella gospel quartets, featuring energetic lead vocalists, four-part harmony, and syncopated clapping. Gospel ensembles today vary greatly in form and style but maintain in common their roots in these past traditions. Ensembles today commonly feature a lead vocalist, choir, Hammond organ, tambourine, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and share stylistic qualities with contemporary R&B, soul, and blues.
“ …The Blue Notes did whatever was popular on recordings in the pop and rock and funk and soul music.”
— Melvin Parker
Soul music is a hybrid of the sacred and secular, of gospel and R&B. The two genres share many acclaimed musicians, such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. The influence of gospel on soul is evident in musical form and performance style.
Popularized in the 1950s and early 60s, soul was characterized by an emphasis on a firm supporting beat, as well as smooth, polished melodies, punctuated by emotive and unrestrained vocal ornamentation.
Ensembles carry a lead vocalist, three or four backup singers, a horn player and drummer. Call and response is heard between the lead and back up singers as well as between the lead singer and horn player. Soul lyrics cathartically reveal the disillusionment and hardship of unrequited love, heartbreak, and other intimacies.
“And that’s the thing that’s so great about jazz: it’s a lineage, and that lineage is being passed on. Everything I got from him [Dr. Billy Taylor], I try to share with my students”
– Professor Carroll Dashiell Jr.
Eastern North Carolina has witnessed jazz in its many transformations, from its emergence in the late 19th century, to its contemporary incarnations. From ragtime to big band swing, bebop, and contemporary jazz, North Carolinians have seen it, played it, and danced it.
Definitions of Jazz tend to be illusory. Despite this, there are a number of common threads that link the varied styles of Jazz music into one cohesive genre. Jazz has from its inception emphasized improvisation and the player’s personal interpretation of a tune, rather than valuing an exact playing of a score. In general, Jazz features syncopation, polyrhythms, extended chords, and blue notes. And, it is often a collaborative music experience, in which players engage in improvisational dialogue to create a song. Conversely, jazz standard compositions, such as Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, have become a major part of American culture. Some jazz scholars and aficionados refer to jazz as American Classical Music.
Jazz moves beyond concert stages and into the homes, churches, and high schools of Eastern North Carolina. It is a tradition that has been passed down generationally by music educators and individual players, and continues to inform much to the region’s music today.