Ladies sing the blues at ArtsWestchester

In Sept. 25, ArtsWestchester in White Plains will present a blues concert as part of its 2015 Jazz Fest. But if that has you conjuring images of the Mississippi Delta, Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters, think again.

The concert is “Women of the Piedmont Blues,” which is different from what we probably think of when we think of the blues and rhythm and blues.
“Rhythm and blues is urban music played on an electric guitar,” says Frank Matheis, concert producer and ArtsWestchester board member. “The Piedmont blues is traditional music that comes out of rural African-American culture and is played on acoustic guitar and other regular instruments at home. The Piedmont region stretches from the Appalachian Mountains to the Tidewater, from New Jersey to Georgia, so the music is also called the East Coast blues.”

The blues in general grew out of African-American slavery and would go on to influence jazz. Part of what distinguishes the Piedmont blues is a kind of guitar playing characterized by fingerpicking and alternating lead and bass lines.

“In comparison to the Delta blues, which has a rapid attack and is very rhythmic, the Piedmont blues is gentle, kind of lighthearted.”

The lyrics, though, are classic blues subjects — love, sex, murder — as these songs were a way to communicate news in the 19th century, Matheis says.

“My affiliation with this music is deep,” he says. Matheis, a Pawling resident, is the publisher of thecountryblues.com and a contributing writer to Living Blues magazine, which is associated with the University of Mississippi and is considered the premier blues publication. Previously, ArtsWestchester presented a successful concert of East Coast blues. Working again with Tom Van Buren, the arts council’s director of folk arts and performance programs, Matheis has come up with a program that features some of the foremost women carrying on the tradition — Eleanor Ellis, Resa Gibbs, Jackie Merritt and Valerie Turner. These musicians were trained by John Cephas, an important Piedmont blues player out of Washington, D.C., the center for this kind of music for the last half-century.

The four will be joined onstage by Bettina Wilkerson, better known as Gold, a Poughkeepsie-based poet, songwriter, performer and activist whose words are influenced by the Piedmont blues.

It is still, however, a male-dominated art form, with only 20 women committed to it worldwide, although the number of Piedmont blues musicians overall is shrinking.

Still, Matheis says, the Piedmont blues has transcended gender and, wherever it could in the Jim Crow era, race as well — another example of the transformative power of art.

“Women of the Piedmont Blues” will be presented at 8 p.m. Sept. 25 at ArtsWestchester’s headquarters, 31 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains. Tickets for the concert are $20. For more information, visit artswestchester.org

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