Freddie Vanderford, Last of the Piedmont Blues Artists
Piedmont Blues Like You've Never Heard It
I met Freddie Vanderford about 11 years ago when I was asked to do a project in Union County, South Carolina. Freddie is from the small town of Buffalo, which sits inside of Union County. He came to see about playing music for the play I was going to write about that region. A big fan of the blues, I was thrilled to know he wanted to work with me. Then he started telling me his story of how he came to play the harmonica and harp, and I was blown away. Not only would Freddie end up playing music for the play I was writing, but he became a key character within the play. His unmatched skills on the blues harp has earned him one of two 2010 Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Awards at the South Carolina State House. He was presented the award by Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and District 42 Representative Mike Anthony of Union.
I'm lucky enough to know the story behind the award, full of hard times, hard work, and everything that goes in to making the blues. I'm going to share the story about this important musician in American Music. He's perhaps the last of the great Piedmont Blues artist, doing his best to carry on a tradition.
Where The Story Begins
Freddie Meets Blues Great, "Peg Leg Sam"
When Freddie was very young, he learned to play the harmonica from his grandfather.It was very Chicago-blues oriented, and he became quite good by the time he was a teenager. As he started playing in local places, people kept referring to a man Freddie hadn't heard of before. "You ain't heard nothing 'til you heard Peg Leg Sam".
Peg Leg Sam was an old time Piedmont Blues musician, who ran a Medicine Show for years. Freddie hadn't heard of him, because by the time Freddie was coming up, Peg's show had long since retired. His legend, however, had not. Any blues player in the region was compared to Peg. Or better to say it, no blues musician in the region could compare with Peg. He was the best. The tricks he could do with his harmonica were thrilling to audiences. It wasn't just his distinctive style of playing, it was his showmanship that made Peg great.
The more Freddie heard about Peg Leg Sam, the more he knew he had to meet him and learn from him. So Freddie began his quest to find Peg Leg.
Peg Leg Sam in One of His Last Appearances
In this short clip, you can hear and see the amazing Peg Leg Sam, and even watch him dance on one leg. You'll soon see why Freddie would do anything to mentor under this blues great.
Cutting Wood and Carrying Water
Peg Leg Sam was known best for his song "Born To Bad Luck". When Freddie went down the side roads, past a place called "No Man's Land" in Union, a field which separated the white part of town from the black, he came upon an old man, sitting in his yard in front of his humble home. It had no running water and no electricity, and Peg Leg Sam, with his one leg, would amble to the woodpile, or out in the woods to chop wood for a fire to cook on. He would go down to the creek and carry water to drink, bathe and cook with. It was a hard life for an old man. But it was nothing new for Peg Leg Sam. It was the life he'd always had.
Freddie, a young white man, who grew up with considerable more privilege, was only a little surprised by the lifestyle. After all, there were plenty of homes in his white part of town that had no running water or electricity yet, either. Still, there was something there that was not the same. The sense of hope, perhaps. Or lack of it. Freddie looked around and saw the blues. He felt the blues. It was all around him. He told Peg that he was a harmonica player. And he'd like to learn from him. Peg said, "Well, first, I want you to go cut me some wood and carry some water up to the house." And Freddie did so. But Peg didn't play.
Every day, Freddie would get home from school, cross no-man's land, and cut wood and carry water. And every day, he would go home without having heard, let alone received a lesson, from Peg. This went on for weeks.
Freddie said, "He wasn't gonna start teachin' me 'til I proved to him I was serious."
And went on to tell me his story.
"He worked me, yeah, but I liked goin' over there, after I got over bein' scared I'd get killed out there. It was like, I don't know, like no place I'd ever been. I'm not talkin' cause it was in "No Man's Land". It was beyond that. I mean, no "excuse me" or "thank you". It was people sayin' what the hell they wanted and it came out lyrics. A poker game was a song, each player took turns with the verses. A moonshine run was a ballad. I chopped wood, and listened. Piedmont Blues. Best time of my life. Then, after, I don't know, twelve cords of wood, he started teachin' me."
Freddie Finds His Own Style
Freddie mentored under Peg Leg Sam, learned some remarkable skills, and most of all, an appreciation for a style of music from his own Piedmont region. A style that was almost lost. Freddie immersed himself in the riches of his newfound heritage and culture. Instead of immitating his mentor, Freddie went on to take this "new language" Peg had taught him, and began to speak it his own way. When Freddie plays, you hear the past, and you hear something else, too. You hear the world we are living in today. Freddie's masterful style of Piedmont playing doesn't relegate him to some lost period of time in music. It propels him ever into the next moment. The blues are an expression. The style he is playing may have been developed in another time, but the feelings that went into making those blues are still around today. Freddie's job as an artist was to make Piedmont Blues relevant to himself, first. And when he did that, he made it relevant to audiences everywhere. We hear a blend of history and contemporary when Freddie lets loose playing and singing. For a musician to evoke the past and present and future all at once- That is just good art.
From The Spartanburg Convention and Visitor's Bureau:
Armed with a harmonica, washboard and guitar, Freddie Vanderford can interpret most any blues, folk, soul, Americana or Rock and Roll song. With astounding harmonica licks taught to him by the late medicine show performer and Piedmont blues harpist, Peg Leg Sam, Vanderford can immediately captivate any audience.
Freddie Becomes Piedmont Blues Artist and Advocate
Freddie came to not only learn the Piedmont Blues style, but mastered it. He is now one of the greatest Harmonica players in the country, and like Peg Leg Sam, continues to call Buffalo, South Carolina, his home. He continues to play gigs around the country, and also teaches the Piedmont style of blues to younger musicians, in an effort to keep alive what was almost lost. Freddie has just released a new solo album, and on it are some favorite of mine he used to play for me, when I'd invite him over. While I cooked dinner, he would play, among other favorties, his very popular rendition of "Greasy Greens". My children delighted in the miniature harmonica necklaces he gave them.
Freddie and I enjoyed collaborating together, and did several projects together-- two plays and a radio show in Union, South Carolina, as well as making guest appearances on a staged radio show-style production at the Yoder Barn Theater in Newport News, Virginia. He also performed in some of my Theater Productions at Cotton Hall in Colquitt, GA.
His solo music career would begin to take him far. Folks from all over began to take note of this rising star on the blues scene.
Blending backwoods country, folk, blues and sheer cult of personality he has delivered a rural classic
that just gets better with each listen. Mixing traditional tunes with some originals and well chosen covers, he takes us on a musical journey that we might have never taken. His instrument of choice is harmonica and his base sound is rooted in the Piedmont style of blues. He’s the type of artist that you would find in a music issue of Oxford American magazine, or as a feature chapter in an update of Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train.” You heard about it here first.— Village Records
Even When Freddy Covers a Song, He Makes It His Own
- She Can Cook Good Sallet
Another Freddie Vanderford Favorite. You'll Love This Version When You Click on It.
Freddie Regularly Plays Festivals With Other Blues Greats
Blues Singer and Actor
For a time, Freddie divided his time both playing music gigs as well as starring in theatrical productions with music. In Colquitt, Georgia, he starred in "Gospel of the Rock" as a pretty scary character at the Cross Roads. My favorite image of him from that play was as he stood singing at the crossways of two bright lights, in front of a sign with two directions pointing "Thou Shalt" and "Thou Shalt Not".
Freddie Vanderford's Latest Music Video - Greasy Greens
Freddie's popularity is only rising. This past year, Freddie was asked to make his first music video, which has recently made its debut.
Freddie Gets Recognition
Freddie Vanderford accepting the 2010 Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Awards at the South Carolina State House. He was presented the award by Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and District 42 Representative Mike Anthony of Union.
Freddie is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Piedmont Blues. He frequently teaches and lectures on the subject. And you'll never find him without his harp.
Listen to Freddie's Music on his Website
Freddie Vanderford has a new website, featuring all of the songs on his new album. They are not yet available on iTunes. They are really worth a listen, so if you're ready for some down home Piedmont Blues now, just click on his link.
- Freddie's Music
Follow this link to listen to more of Freddie's Music