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Thin Blue Line

Born From Both Country and Gospel, Between Bluegrass and R&B, the Piedmont Blues of Maryland's Warner Williams and Jay Summerour Finds a Home on Blues Highway

Road Dogs: (from left) Warner Williams and Jay Summerour show off Maryland's branch of the piedmont blues on their new album.

By Sam Hopkins | Posted 5/19/2004

The Piedmont region runs from Maryland to Georgia, sprawling from the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains out to the Atlantic coastal plain. During the days of slavery, white slave owners in the region operated on a smaller scale than the massive plantations of the Deep South. After Emancipation, many former slaves stayed to work the land for themselves, and due to the proximity of their farming plots to small white-owned farms, newly free blacks frequently interacted with their white neighbors. Community hoedowns became mixings of white string ensembles and black gospel choirs, and both storytelling traditions intermingled. And the resulting fusion became the area's folk music, the Piedmont blues.

The Smithsonian's Folkways record label has incorporated the Piedmont sound in past releases, primarily featuring Piedmont masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. That duo recorded several albums, and their work has been the Piedmont token in many wide-sweeping blues compilations (such as the excellent ongoing series Classic Blues). Now, the label advances the modern variety of Piedmont with a full-length by Maryland natives Warner Williams and Jay Summerour. Blues Highway features Williams on guitar and lead vocals, with Summerour primarily on blues harp. Compiled from live recordings made from 1993 to '95, Blues Highway is an extraordinarily pleasant taste of the Piedmont sound.

Harmonica player Jay Summerour, 54, has toured with Starland Vocal Band (of '70s smash "Afternoon Delight"), the Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra, and his current partner Williams. Despite the travel and his marketable blues harmonica skill, Summerour has always come back to the Free State. Now living in Potomac, the seasoned musician drives a school bus for a living and has parlayed that gig into blues workshops he hosts at the local high school.

Williams grew up in the 1930s in Takoma Park, near the Piedmont area's northernmost reaches. One of 11 children, he took up the guitar at 6; the Williams children learned to sing in the church choir, and each played at least one stringed instrument. For black country folk, the spiritual gospel style of the Sunday church service crossed paths with local white traditional music to such an extent that many of Piedmont blues' standards are actually adaptations of Anglo-American ballads. That same white-black cross-pollination has served the Piedmont style well in recent years, providing artists like Williams and Summerour with steady gigs at folk-music festivals throughout the country.

"Country music is blues," Summerour says over the phone about the Piedmont revival and its largely white audiences. Summerour grew up with the Piedmont style, and to him the "blues" means Piedmont--there are no subtle stylistic differences separating the idioms. It's why he doesn't speak in terms of Piedmont--and why, when he says "country music is blues," he suggests that the Piedmont style he and Williams play in is a little bit country. Piedmont guitarists learn a multipart guitar technique based on the piano melodies of 1920s and '30s ragtime. Piedmont artists thus have little need for more than two people onstage, since the guitarist alone can play bass, rhythm, and lead parts simultaneously. The music's finger-picking tradition continues to draw bluegrass enthusiasts, and marks a profound difference between Piedmont and electric blues styles in terms of intimacy and mind-set. A Piedmont blues duo like Terry and McGhee or Williams and Summerour is at home at twilight in a backyard with food on the grill, not in a smoky juke joint after midnight.

"People aren't used to seeing duos up onstage," Summerour says. "The crowd really responds to it, and they relax."

Though the sounds on Blues Highway are not original to Williams and Summerour, they seem fresh. They display the diversity of influences that created Piedmont, and the duo adds a personal flair to old standards. Lead track "Step It Up and Go" opens with Williams' thumbed bass scale sauntering up and down the strings alongside Summerour's harp punctuating the downbeats like a train scooting out from the station. Immediately, the music marks itself as blues: a story of criminality interrupted by a police bust. Just as quickly, though, the lighthearted Piedmont element takes over and gives a reassuring pat on the back that everyone will get away just fine.

The pleasant nature of Piedmont lyrics should not be mistaken for pap. To the contrary, many songs feature extended double entendres. "Digging My Potatoes," for example, is not about tubers; it's about adultery and shotgun justice. While the lyrics are menacing, the melody remains peppy and joyful. And "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" might make Williams sound like a pederast, if not for his promise to Mama and Papa that he's "a little schoolboy, too."

For more direct appeals to emotion, listen to "I'm Confessing That I Love You," a sweet Tin Pan Alley composition that Williams learned from the radio. "Hey, Bartender, There's a Big Bug in My Beer," Williams' adaptation of a 1950s country hit, features white country guitarist Eddie Pennington playing a hollow-bodied electric in perfect complement to Williams. Pennington and Williams met on the folk-music festival circuit through a mutual friend and decided to play together after recognizing the similarity of their styles.

Blues Highway is a trip, for sure. The music is instantly recognizable, though you may never have heard Piedmont blues or any of these songs, and it's a welcome musical nourishment, whether you lean toward R&B or bluegrass. Perhaps most importantly, this blues is native to this area and speaks to a still-alive contemporary regionalism.

"The blues won't ever die," Summerour says, "because people will always have the feelings that blues music is made of."

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