NC Piedmont Music


North Carolina Piedmont

Of North Carolina's three distinctive regions, the Piedmont is the largest, most urbanized and densely populated, with a diverse economic base of agriculture (including small, family-operated farms), financial services, manufacturing, technology, government, and research. This diversity creates a rich breeding ground for cultural exchange and innovation in styles.

PineCone's programming is a celebration of the folklife of Piedmont North Carolina. PineCone presents both traditional artists - those whose family or community has mastered a particular folk art form - and "revivalists" - those who are exemplary artists, but do not share the overall cultural background from which their folk art is derived.

North Carolina's population is composed of people whose ethnic origins represent every part of the world. All of these people carried with them the "cultural baggage" of their ethnic origin that included language, customs, arts, skills, music, dance, and rituals. In North Carolina, these differing traditions were borrowed, blended, and assimilated into local and regional cultural heritages.

Until the late 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, North Carolina was primarily a state of small farmers. Most families produced their own shelters, food, clothing, medicines, and entertainment, often with the help of neighbors. These were skills of survival, often learned through informal apprenticeship and drawing upon generations of knowledge acquired by culture and community. And, in North Carolina, these skills were frequently obtained, augmented and improved by borrowing from the diverse cultural groups that either passed through or settled into the region.

This traditional and informal process of acquiring and transmitting culture and knowledge is folklife. Folklife is the common heritage that all Americans share and that our community draws on for its vitality and spirit.

PineCone programs strive to highlight the variety of cultural expression found throughout the North Carolina Piedmont region. These programs will enable some to reaffirm their cultural roots and encourage all of us to discover and understand our common cultural heritage in music.

Piedmont Music Traditions

"Traditional" music is the grassroots musical forms found in communities today. This music has a direct connection to people and place, and to history and heritage.

Traditional music in its myriad derivations conveys a sense of familiarity and helps bring complex cultural ideas, values, beliefs, and aesthetics into greater focus. Traditional music acts as a conduit for helping us understand and connect with others because it is music made by all people and for all people. It is music that is grounded in the artfulness of everyday life and of ordinary people where all activity--both labor and leisure--is conducted with grace and spirit. Traditional music is a lively, dynamic force that is as varied and nuanced as the individuals and communities from which it originates. It is heritage music, connecting people to place by content and style.

The organic nature of traditional music allows for flexibility to adapt to new cultural landscapes and survive over generations. Some of the performance traditions/styles found in North Carolina's Piedmont region today include:


Ballad singing




Folk (music and dance)


Gospel Quartets





Native American


Old Time

Piedmont Blues


Rhythm & Blues


Shape Note Gospel



Western swing

World music traditions


The fiddle traditions of the British Isles passed into North Carolina with the first white settlers. There is evidence of fiddle conventions in the Southern colonies as early as the 1720's. In the mid-1800's, a cultural swap that was to influence the history of Southern fiddle music occurred. Black slaves brought with them to American the prototype of the banjo. To this instrument they added the fiddle. There is written evidence of Black string bands providing music at white dances, particularly in the plantation environment, such as Mordecai in Raleigh. Around 1830 or 40, the banjo passed into the white music culture and what is now called the old time string band was born. The fiddle-banjo combination remained the essence of the string band until the easy availability of the Spanish guitar from mail order houses made the guitar a basic string band instrument.

The string band provided the music for the circle and square dances that were the most popular social entertainment in rural North Carolina until the introduction of the television. This basic dance tradition had begun to change in the 1920s, however. The popularity of the record player attracted the infant recording industry to "hillbilly recordings." In fact, the industry's first million dollar seller was "The Wreck of the Old 97." Written lyrics then became an important element of the once all-instrumental dance tunes of the string band.

In the string band "revival" of the second half of the twentieth century, which is still growing and gaining strength today, perhaps no musicians have been as widely influential and popular as those from the area between Mount Airy, North Carolina, and Galax, Virginia. Hundreds of recordings by musicians from this region have caught the ear of old-time music fans around the world, who in turn come to the Mount Airy and Galax fiddle conventions by the thousands every year, and aspire to the region's distinctive sound. Even more important to the vitality of this music is the way people born and raised in the area continue to treasure it. WPAQ has broadcast live, local string band music out of Mount Airy since 1948, and countless bands on both sides of the state line continue to play and transform the music that their ancestors loved.

The string band music of the Mount Airy - Galax region is not so much one cohesive style as a mosaic of musical and familial legacies, closely interrelated but highly varied. Certain hallmarks define this as a regional style, like powerful blues influence in both rhythm and melody, and a blurring of the line between bluegrass and old-time styles that can give rigid musical taxonomists fits, but that makes for a powerful and exciting band sound. But this is also a region of great musical innovation, where individual artists and bands have, over the course of the last hundred years, pioneered styles that continue to influence old-time musicians today - the gentle heart songs of Ernest Stoneman and his family, and Eck Dunford, recorded in the 1920s and '30s; the elegantly filigreed bowing of fiddlers Emmet Lundy and Luther Davis; Kilby Snow's passionate "double-clutch" autoharp picking; Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham's tight fiddle-banjo duets, as syncopated as the best funk tracks; the wildly careening full-band sound of the Smokey Valley Boys and the Camp Creek Boys. Old-time music is far from a fading art in and around the North Carolina Piedmont.


Blues music in North Carolina likely developed in the period around the turn of the twentieth century. It developed at a time when Southern blacks were faced with increasing hardships, where there was a rising tide of racism and Jim Crow legislation. 1900 was the year when blacks in North Carolina lost the right to vote. At the same time, the tobacco and textile industries in North Carolina were booming and the population of urban areas was beginning to swell. Factories and warehouses provided audiences of workers willing to spend the pay in their pockets on musical entertainment after working long hours. Workers, farmers and others who came together in centers such as Durham, North Carolina, were both black and white, and the music which developed and evolved there and in the surrounding countryside has its roots in both cultures. North Carolina is home to many major exponents of the Piedmont blues, including "Blind Boy" Fuller, the Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker, and John Dee Holeman, among others.

The roots of the blues in the black tradition can be found in worksongs, spirituals, black preaching, field hollers and black ballads. Musical influences from the white tradition include string band music and the use of the guitar. Ragtime piano music of the 1890's and 90's provided a model for the guitar style, especially in southeastern blues. Minstrel shows, medicine shows and vaudeville troupes served as a medium of exchange between black and white performers and brought developing styles of popular and traditional music to rural as well as urban communities. The dissemination of blues through records, and later, radio, did not mean the end of traditional blues any more than it meant the end of string band music; instead it re-circulated material back into oral tradition and had a mixing effect on regional styles.

Even so, different styles of blues can be identified: down home or country blues, closest to the original blues of the rural South; vaudeville or "classic" blues from the 1920's performed by female singers backed by jazz musicians; hillbilly or mountain blues, the form adapted by white rural singers; city blues and rhythm and blues, developed primarily after World War II. Southeastern Piedmont blues, as opposed to Mississippi Delta blues, is characterized by a light, finger style guitar picking with a ragtime flavor. In the Piedmont finger style, the thumb picks a regular, alternating bass string pattern while the fore-finger(s) picks out a syncopated melody on the treble strings. The resulting sound is a highly-rhythmic walking beat comparable to ragtime piano styles.

Much of North Carolina Piedmont blues falls under the country blues category, as it was played at weekend house parties, country "frolics," corn shuckings, wood choppings and other community events. Syncopated dance pieces are as much a part of the tradition as slow drag blues. The outlook of the music is not overly heavy or pessimistic; it is personal and emotional. Buckdancing, a short of improvised, solo tap dance, is also part of the tradition of blues playing in the North Carolina Piedmont.


In the late 1930's and early 1940's, other changes appeared in the string band sound as bands tried to create a distinctive sound for their records. Experiments with new methods of playing the traditional instruments resulted in a fast paced music that emphasized vocals and solo instrumental leads. This new sound was called bluegrass after one of the most influential bands, Bill Monroe and his Kentucky Blue Grass Boys. In 1945 Bill Monroe put together the famous "original" Blue Grass Boys that included Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and Shelby, NC, native Earl Scruggs on banjo. Scruggs brought with him a sensational three-finger, rolling banjo style that rejuvenated the 5-string banjo, made his own name preeminent among country and folk musicians, and helped to establish bluegrass as a national phenomenon. A musical style is usually the product of an evolutionary and adaptive process, and Scruggs' banjo technique represented a modification and perfection of traditional banjo styles that existed in the Piedmont region of North Carolina; where it was played by local banjoists as well as professional performers such as Snuffy Jenkins, of Harris, NC, and Wade Mainer, who was based in Raleigh for a period of time.

The Blue Grass Boys drew liberally on the old time string band sound but, reflecting Monroe's early influences, also incorporated elements of the blues, ragtime, jazz, and gospel into a hard-driving style that was different from the string bands of the 1920's and 30's. All of the instrumentalists in the band took solos a t various times, while the rest of the group provided rhythmic and melodic backup. Within this framework of soloist and band, Monroe's virtuosic musicians performed a variety of songs: slow and medium tempo blues, fast breakdowns, religious pieces, medium to fast tempo love songs, and waltzes. They frequently played fast and clean, and sang with impeccable harmony that included Monroe's high, lonesome sound.


One especially important development during the early part of the twentieth century was the major migration of many rural folk to the cities. Travelling shows, including the minstrel, tent and medicine shows, moved between urban centers and rural areas to maintain a constant transmission of pop and folk material and show business practices. No one was totally immune from these musical trends as they evolved. The list of "country" entertainers who learned about show business through the travelling shows is long and impressive and includes Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Clarence Ashley and Hank Williams.

By the 1920's, the railroad and automobile, and most especially, the radio, exerted a powerful influence in bringing farm and city closer together. With WSB in Atlanta, WBT in Charlotte and WSM in Nashville leading the way, radio stations all over the South started featuring country talent. By the 1930's, the "Grand Ole Opry" began to develop an audience all over the southeast and the "National Barn Dance" built a similar following in the Midwest. Powerful border radio stations in northern Mexico, carrying American country music, broadcast their signal to an even wider area.

The styles of many popular groups and individuals borrowed heavily from 1920's string bands for their material, while other musicians borrowed from pop, jazz and blues. Brother duets, and along with them, close vocal harmonies and tight instrumental licks, became increasingly popular. The vocal styles owe much to gospel music, both black and white, and instrumental styles traded back and forth within the wider circle of country and bluegrass music. The appealing, if conflicting, impulses of the independent rambler and the stable, old-time family were represented by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, respectively. Not surprisingly, a growing emphasis on western themes and attitudes developed, since farming and rural life were becoming less attractive as cowboy themes became more and more romanticized.

The economic prosperity following World War II allowed for the emergence of country music as a big business in the late 1940's and early '50's. Traditional sounds continued to merge with commercial ventures and country music flourished. A Grand Ole Opry unit even played Carnegie Hall in 1947. The world of show business in country music became more sophisticated and stardom began pushing away the music's down-home quality. One such star who had unrivaled public appeal was Hank Williams. Crossover between country and pop music in more recent years has made country music highly successful; it has become a multi-billion dollar industry, yet it still manages to retain at least an image of, and perhaps even true, country styles and values. Learn more about North Carolina's country music heritage


The emergence of gospel quartets in rural North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century can be traced to a number of earlier influences such as congregational and church choir singing of spirituals and hymns, the singing of traditional African-American songs while at work in the fields or with family members in the home, and the appearance of new kinds of performing groups that ranged from the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Institute Quartet to local groups of male singers who sang in their churches and at prayer meetings. Called "quartets," the first of these Church-based groups often consisted of more (and sometimes even one person less) than four members. "Quartets," observes folklorist Glenn Hinson, "incorporated the close harmonies of workers singing in the fields, the falsetto of the hollers, the bass phrasings of the rhythmic worksongs, and the syncopated beat of congregational handclapping into a unique musical sound that is still the basis of modern gospel music."

Gospel performers have had an important role in the African-American community, especially in the South. "Black gospel song," Daniel Patterson wrote, "is an interdenominational movement" with much of its activity taking place "in religious concerts held in churches, school and municipal auditoriums, and community centers. Its stars become nationally known recording artists, but the movement rests on the base of extremely active local music making in virtually all communities with a strong black presence."

By Allen Tullos, Daniel W. Patterson, and Tom Davenport. Originally published in the North Carolina Folklore Journal, Vol.36, No. 1, Winter-Spring 1989.


Shape Note Gospel is a Southern rural tradition. Originally designed in order to teach largely illiterate congregations from song books, shapes were substituted for notes on the staff and the melody was sung "by the shapes" before putting the words into song. The songs are sung a cappella, without accompaniment, with four distinct parts - tenor, bass, treble, and alto. The Sacred Harp book was first published in 1844 and continuously updated since then. Its tunes are folksy in nature and the words frequently come from 18th century hymn writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. The book includes more than 500 hymns, odes, and anthems, with most of the texts religious in nature. The term "sacred harp" is a poetic reference to the human voice.

Shape note singing is a participatory art form, not intended as performance for an audience. At a shape note gathering, singers sing for each other and for the joy of singing. Singers in this tradition sing without accompaniment and sit arranged by vocal part in a hollow square. The "hollow square" is divided into four parts. Men or women can sing any part. The melody is always in the tenor. These singers don't formally rehearse or perform; they sing to each other. They can see all the faces of their friends and hear all the harmonies. Whoever wants to can call a tune, and everyone turns to the page. The tunes are sung at full volume in an exuberant outpouring of sound and feeling, the rich 3- and 4-part harmonies filling the room.