Upon walking into Cassatt's one Saturday night, diners and the musically curious were treated to a brief history lesson on Piedmont blues.
Rick Franklin, the clear leader of this four-piece ensemble, explains that this particular style of music originated in the middle part of the commonwealth, as a way for news and stories to be passed along from town to town.
"You use your thumb to play alternating bass on a six-string guitar, and you use your three fingers melody or rhythm," Franklin explained. So simple, and yet the lines are intricate, not watered-down.
Along with drummer Rick Usilton and bassist Tom Cox, Franklin has been playing the third Saturday of each month at Cassatt's since 2004, and the group has amassed a loyal following who welcome the group with shouted requests and loud rounds of applause after favorites like "That'll Never Happen No More" by Blind Blake, who just happens to be one of Franklin's Piedmont blues heroes, and "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" by Hank Williams.
And just when things started to get swampy fun, and sounding a little like the soundtrack to "O! Brother, Where Art Thou?" and this newfound fan half expected to see a moonshine jug complete with three x's across the front, the night got even better.
Jim Lande, who occasionally sits in with the band on saxophone and clarinet, broke out the washboard.
This is the perfect kind of music for a simmering summer Saturday night, or a long drive down sun-soaked, dusty country roads.
And the Delta Blues Boys were having a great time belting out the tunes. At one point, Usilton was leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, as if letting the music happen with his arms as merely the conduit.
The next few numbers--Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," Martin Bogan & The Armstrong's "You'll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me" complete with a ukulele, and "Joliet Bound", a Memphis Minnie song that would've sounded just right if sung by Johnny Cash in his "Folsom Prison Blues" era--had the nearly packed house clapping and singing along.
Franklin said he started playing with Usilton about 30 years ago. The two met at a party and learned they had daughters roughly the same age. As the girls grew up together, the men, joined by Cox in 2006, started playing some gigs in the area.
For him, playing Piedmont blues is as much entertainment as educational, as he explains the style of play and its role in Virginia's oral history during most performances.
There were three styles of music native to the commonwealth, Franklin said--Tidewater, which features more call-and-response songs; and Appalachian, which was strong on story and what we know as bluegrass.
"Piedmont-style blues is strong in the African American tradition, originally used as dance and party music in the 1920s," he said. "Because it was usually a single person playing, it's built around a single guitar. I've added percussion because it works."
The music was a way for news to travel from town to town, to convey gossip as well as important events. There were a handful of songs written about the sinking of the Titanic, for example, or coal mining disasters.
Most of the songs have a ragtime feel to them, which makes sense as ragtime music was a popular style in the early 20th century.
Franklin also played a rotating series of farmers' markets, on Columbia Pike, in Crystal City and at USDA's offices downtown. He also spent a few weeks on what he believes was his "third or fourth" trip to England to teach a class on American blues music at the University of Northampton, followed by a three-day blues festival in Croatia.
A busy schedule? Nothing out of the ordinary for this crooner.
At the end of the evening, after two 45-minute sets, the gentlemen close with a favorite, "Goodnight Irene," swaying gently together and singing softly. A perfect ending.
Rick Franklin and the Delta Blues Boys will be playing like a bunch of guys who know their way around blues music and Cajun food Saturday, from 7-9 p.m. at Cassatt's on Lee Highway.