Blues music in North Carolina likely developed in the period around the turn of the twentieth century. It developed at a time when Black people in the South were faced with increasing hardships, where there was a rising tide of racism and Jim Crow legislation.

1900 was the year when Black people 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 Cotten, 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 1880'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.

John Dee Holeman (1929-2021) was an innovative traditional bearer of the Piedmont Blues style. He lived, worked and performed in and around Orange and Durham Counties.
John Dee Holeman (1929-2021) was an innovative traditional bearer of the Piedmont Blues style. He lived, worked and performed in and around Orange and Durham Counties.

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.