In the history of American folk music, the guitar was a late-comer to the party. It only found its way into many rural parts of the country with the advent of mail order catalogs like that of Sears & Roebuck. When the guitar did finally arrive it seems from the old records that players spent many years trying to make it sound like something else, something already familiar to audiences like a fiddle, banjo, or piano.
Third Man Records will be releasing vinyl editions of some great early blues sides, among them Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell. These two players are good examples of the guitar’s identity crisis in early American music. The great early blues players were part of a process of understanding what the guitar could do like nothing else by understanding what it could do like everything else. On these early recordings, players showed just how the guitar could approximate another, more popular instrument like a fiddle or piano and in doing so they laid the path for others to find what made the guitar unique.
Blind Willie McTell was a great player of the ragtime guitar style known as Piedmont Blues. Pianos were hard to come by in many parts of the country, and they have always been expensive. Blues artists like McTell, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt can be heard playing guitar in a style that mimics ragtime piano where the thumb keeps a steady, ragtime style rhythm on the lower and middle strings while the leftover fingers pick out melodies on the highest strings.
The Delta Blues is considered distinct from the Piedmont style of Blind Willie McTell and Charley Patton is considered “The Father of The Delta Blues.” Many of his songs have a driving rhythm without many chord changes and he often used a slide. I haven’t spent a lot of time with Charley Patton’s recordings in some time, and maybe I’ve just been listening to too much old-time music in the intervening years, but when I heard a clip of Third Man’s Records release of “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” at NPR Music I thought to myself, “That sure does sound like a fiddle tune.” The stomping, the slide and the droning harmony are very typical of old-time fiddle tunes.
Have a listen to “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” from Third Man Records. Then compare old-time fiddle great, Tommy Jarrell’s version of “Boll Weevil.” And enjoy them both!