A powerful form of secular African American musical and cultural expression, blues developed in the South around the turn of the twentieth century, a product of the large plantations and rail-road, mining, and logging camps where black workers congregated. With thickly idiomatic, metaphorically charged lyrics, early blues songs confronted everyday life with humor and resilience but also reflected the oppression and social isolation faced by African Americans during the Jim Crow era. While blues has evolved into an international art form played in a multitude of styles, its musical essence lies in the use of “blue” notes or tones to convey emotion and the role of instrumental accompaniment—usually guitar, piano, or harmonica—to punctuate or “second” the singer.
As blues spread throughout the South in the early decades of the twentieth century, regional styles and traditions developed. In South Carolina, the hotbed was the Greenville-Spartanburg area, where a coterie of talented guitarists contributed to a style that became known as the “Piedmont” or East Coast school of blues. While versatile in its scope, the Piedmont sound is typified by ragtime influences, intricate finger-picked guitar playing, shrill and raucous harmonica blowing, and playful lyrics.
Widely acknowledged by his peers as the most dexterous of the early Greenville-Spartanburg blues musicians, the blind guitarist Willie Walker (1896–1933) left a legacy of only two recorded songs, his 1930 pairing of “South Carolina Rag” and “Betty and Dupree.” While he preferred sacred lyrics to secular, one of Walker’s Greenville contemporaries, the virtuosic guitarist Rev. “Blind” Gary Davis (1896–1972), played an even larger role in shaping and spreading the East Coast blues style. A mentor to North Carolinian Blind Boy Fuller, one of the most popular bluesmen with African American audiences of the 1930s, Davis later influenced a younger generation of musicians during the folk revival of the early 1960s, among them Bob Dylan. Josh White (1914–1969), yet another gifted guitarist living in Greenville during the 1920s, also became a prominent figure in folk music circles after establishing himself as a blues and gospel recording artist for the African American market in the 1930s.
While Davis and White furthered their musical careers in New York City, other South Carolinians kept the blues tradition alive back home. One of the most accomplished of these artists was the guitarist Pinkney “Pink” Anderson (1900–1974), a songster with a repertoire of blues, rags, gospel, and ballads who traveled widely with medicine shows, recorded albums, and became well known on the folk circuit in the early 1960s. Anderson got his start on the streets of Spartanburg accompanying the blind guitarist Simeon “Simmie” Dooley (1881–1961). Among Anderson’s later musical partners were the talented guitarist Charles Henry “Baby” Tate (1910–1972), a Georgia native who moved to Greenville as a child, and Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson (1911–1977), an inventive harmonica ace and medicine show veteran, hobo, and storyteller who returned regularly from the road to his home in Jonesville.
Of the many African Americans who were born in South Carolina but left the state as children during the large migrations to northern cities, some were notable performers who made careers in various styles of blues. These artists included the vaudeville singer Clara Smith (1895–1935), who was born in Spartanburg and began recording in New York in the 1920s; the classic blues vocalist Bertha “Chippie” Hill (1905–1950), a native of Charleston who moved to New York in her teens; and the influential guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell (1903–1962), who grew up in Indianapolis after leaving rural South Carolina. Among later expatriates were two Blackville natives: Joseph Benjamin “J. B.” Hutto (1926–1983), who made his name as a slide guitarist in Chicago; and Marvin Sease (b. 1946), a popular soul and blues vocalist who based his career in New York after starting off in Charleston-area gospel groups.
During the 1980s and 1990s and into the twenty-first century, South Carolinians of all races continued to enjoy blues performances at nightclubs and festivals. The state’s most prominent resident artists included Bishopville guitarist Drink Small (b. 1933), an eclectic stylist of blues, gospel, and soul music; Pomaria vocalist Nappy Brown (b. 1929), a veteran rhythm-and-blues entertainer; and the blind Greenville guitarist Cootie Stark (b. 1927), an Abbeville native who learned from Baby Tate and others in the Piedmont a blues style that once thrived on the street corners of Greenville and Spartanburg.
Bastin, Bruce. Crying for the Carolines. London: Studio Vista, 1971. ———. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1986.