The following essay is courtesy of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Follow this link for more details on the Bull City Blues historic marker, and all the other historic markers across North Carolina.
South Carolina harmonica master “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson in 1975 told folklorist Glenn Hinson, “If you called yourself ‘playing the blues,’ then you had to come to Durham, ‘cause that’s where the music was really at.” The tobacco industry—offering employment to black workers during the Depression and proximity of an audience—drew blues players to the Bull City. Disabled musicians, forced to rely on music for their livelihood, were among the most creative, productive, and respected.
Music historians contend that North Carolina’s Fulton Allen was as significant to the “Piedmont blues” as Mississippi’s Robert Johnson was to “Delta blues.” They contend that Allen has gone without the public recognition due him in his home state. Born in Wadesboro, young Allen moved to Winston-Salem where he played on the sidewalks for shift workers in the tobacco factories. In 1926 he married Cora Martin; a year later he lost his sight due to disease. In 1929 Allen, soon to take the name “Blind Boy Fuller,” moved to Durham, living in the city’s Hayti area, first on Colfax Street and later on Massey Avenue. He played a steel-bodied National guitar that acted as a natural resonator in the age before amplification.
Along with Blind Gary Davis (later known as the Reverend Gary Davis), Fuller was the dominant figure on the Bull City’s blues scene, attracting and influencing many other musicians. In July 1935 Fuller, accompanied by white merchant J. B. Long, went to New York for the first of many recording sessions with the American Recording Corporation. “Step It Up and Go” and other songs, 135 all told, were released on Vocalion, Melotone, and Decca 78s. He was the most prolific and best selling of all East Coast blues recording artists. His last recording session was in March 1940. He died from a kidney ailment on February 12, 1941, and was buried in Durham’s Grove Hill Cemetery. His grave was unmarked and today is lost. Extending the association of Durham with the blues to a later generation were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Shirlette Ammons isn’t interested in staying in her lane. Best known for her work as a musician, she is also a poet, filmmaker, and activist who claims both rural and urban. Her childhood in the tiny eastern North Carolina community of Beautancus influences her creative voice just as much as Durham, the town she now calls home. In an interview for the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50 for 50 project, Shirlette reflected on how those places shape her sound.
You grew up in eastern North Carolina. Will you talk about the creative context you grew up in and how it shaped your identity as an artist?
I have a twin sister and we grew up in rural North Carolina. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of open space, and we were really imaginative. My first performance was for a corn field that we imagined as an arena of people, so I’ve always been creative and always had that outlet.
I grew up in church, and I always sang in the choir and recited Easter speeches as we call them – [they are] poems in essence. I always wrote short stories and drew, so I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. Probably the best thing about growing up in eastern North Carolina is space…open land…and the ability to look out over the span of nothingness for miles and think. I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for becoming a creative person.
You are now a Durhamite. Will you speak to what makes Durham a good community for you to work as an artist?
I love Durham. It’s like any place that has its complexities, but for me it’s been a wonderful place to challenge myself as an artist…to reach beyond my own personal safety zones and work outside of the genres that I’ve been prescribed that I never actuallyreally ever claimed myself. Coming to Durham gave me an opportunity to really shake loose those labels that I didn’t want to own and meet creatives who I otherwise wouldn’t know, who I would not have had the opportunity to work with.
Every song on my last record Language Barrier has a different artist on it. Every artist is of boundless genres, and I’m into that. That’s kind of how I envision my life being [with] these really malleable boundaries that Durham has helped me decide how and when to challenge. I think that’s the spirt of Durham — not just musically, but also in terms of social activism. A lot of folks I know here in Durham are both those things. They are artists, and they are activists, and they negotiate both things in everything they do and celebrate those things in everything they do.
Arts are important to elevating people’s voices. The arts are important to cultivating new ideas, and also to bringing people together – not in this superficial “we’re all the same way,” but in a way that celebrates all the differences that make us unique and important and valid. That’s something I think is inherent to a democratic society. I think that’s part of any framework of a place that is required to support and celebrate humanity. There’s no way you can support the intellectual growth of a place without supporting the creative growth of a place.
Durham is complicated. There’s a really strong history of black artists who have come through here to perform. The Chitlin’ Circuit ran through here. That’s important history to be familiar with. I’m proud to claim Durham, and I think it’s up to us as artists to really make sure that what we create here is reflective of everybody and the Durham we want to see and leave behind.
You can probably name a few, like James Taylor’s “Going to Carolina” or Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up.” These are the songs that compel folks to embrace or dance with the nearest person who is also bursting with state pride. It’s fair to say that in 2017, G Yamazawa’s “North Cack” ascended to the pantheon of North Carolina anthems.
The song, accompanied by a viral music video directed by fellow Durhamite Kid Ethnic, electrified the internet and compelled the rapper and poetry slam champion G Yamazawa to a national stage.
There’s something special and downright appropriate that our latest state anthem was written by a first-generation American. G Yamazawa grew-up in a family that immigrated to North Carolina from Japan, and in our latest artist profile, he invites us into his universe of North Carolina music.