Clyde “Pop” Ferguson was one of the last practitioners of traditional blues in the North Carolina foothills. The son of a guitar-playing Holiness preacher, Clyde was steeped in the music of the African American community of North Wilkesboro. He got his start playing for revivals with a family group that included two sisters on drums and piano and his brother on trumpet. Clyde fell in love with the blues, which upset his father. While playing with his family group at a revival, Clyde started playing a riff from “Step It Up and Go,” during a performance of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and his father threw him out of the tent. “To this day, I have no idea how he knew,” Clyde recalled. “Those chords just didn’t sound right to him.”
Clyde continued to learn blues in secret, practicing behind a woodshed and listening to radio shows and other blues musicians in the community. Around 1941, when Clyde was thirteen his father moved the family to Lenoir, where Clyde met local guitar legend Max Moore, a blues musician who had a disfigured face. “A lot of women were sort of scared of him, how he looked, but that man could play some guitar,” Clyde remembered. “I didn’t care how he looked; he taught me some chords.” Around this time, Clyde started playing in local quartets and on the streets.
After a few years in the Army, where Clyde played the blues in the special services, he returned home. “It’s my home, but I wasn’t there,” Clyde said. “I was traveling around mostly, playing.” His travels took Clyde to juke joints, fish fries, and street corners across the country, especially in the Northeast. He played from the coalfields of West Virginia to Baltimore and Detroit, often sharing the stage with blues legend Papa John Creach. During the 1970s, while back in Western North Carolina, Clyde was introduced to Etta Baker, whom he admired for playing “that good old blues.” He performed with Baker throughout the Southeast.
In his early years, Clyde played chiefly in the local Piedmont blues style, using his thumb and finger, and sometimes playing in open Vestapol tuning. During his travels, he adopted more popular and urban blues techniques and tunes into his repertoire. Clyde started using a flat pick, though he continued to incorporate the two-finger style he learned as a boy. He could move between playing songs like Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” on electric guitar and picking Carolina blues standards like “Step It Up and Go” or “How Long” on his acoustic guitar, or “hollow box,” as he called it. He understood the evolution of the blues and could demonstrate the ways that people played when he was first learning. He also developed his own style of traditional blues gospel that he performed in churches throughout the region.
Clyde loved performing with a full band that included his son, Clyde, Jr., on bass. Clyde, Jr. also plays bass in the Laytown Mennonite Brethren Church in Laytown, where he grew up. “Most of our blues is from 1920 to 1950,” Clyde, Jr., says. “We work on a couple pieces that range back beyond 1900, back to 1850. For Pop, that’s what he grew up with and for Pop we try to keep it pure with all the old blues that we can.” Though Clyde left his life on the road behind, he still loved to play. “I’m 80 years old, and I’ve never bragged on myself because God gave me the talent to play,” he said. “But I never learn too much that I don’t try to learn some more.”
Clyde “Pop” Ferguson passed away on April 30, 2018 at the age of ninety.