Piedmont Blues Preservation Society co-founder Penn Martin passed away on July 2. His love of the blues and live music led him to partner with Bill Mitchell to launch PBPS in 1985. He is survived by this wife, Freddie, his children and grandchildren.
Penn’s relationship with Bill started when he was listening to the Blues Hangover, then broadcast from WQFS at Guilford College before moving to NC A&T’s WNAA. The mid 1980’s saw a resurgence of national interest in blues music, reflected by the launching of blues societies throughout the United States. Bill and Penn embarked on the journey to form the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, an organization that has kept the blues alive in the Triad for over 35 years.
Penn and Bill launched the blues society in late August 1985 with a PBPS-sponsored show at College Hill Sundries on the corner of Mendenhall and Spring Garden in Greensboro. Learning that Mississippi blues woman Jessie Mae Hemphill was touring, Penn put up the money to pay Jessie Mae’s fee and the blues society was begun. An article in the News and Record with a picture of Penn, Bill and Logie Meachum gained the attention of local blues lovers like myself. Soon the blues society adopted the University Inn (now a Greensboro College dorm) on the corner of Mendenhall and Market as its home for monthly blues shows. Early shows featured Piedmont blues legends John Jackson, Cephas and Wiggins, John Dee Holman, and Greensboro bluesman Guitar Slim (James Stephens).
Penn became the ambassador for the blues as he attended every blues and live music event in bars and clubs in Greensboro. He became a walking advertisement for the blues society and through his friendly disposition built a network of blues enthusiasts that PBPS needed to carry out its mission.
In the spring of 1986, through Penn and Bill’s initiative, the core of PBPS volunteers met with the North Carolina Arts Council. Having no office, we met at a pavilion in Country Park and embraced the arts council’s project of promoting the North Carolina Piedmont Blues. To that end, the first Carolina Blues Festival became a reality. With the help of a grant from the arts council, it was held at the Carolina Motor Lodge downstairs ballroom. The line up included: John Dee Holman and Friz Holloway, Guitar Slim, Etta Baker, Algae Mae Hinton, Big Boy Henry, the Badgett Sisters and was headlined by Nappy Brown, with the man who is now a fixture at the Carolina Blues Festival, Bob Margolin. It was a hell of a show! The festival was a success with 350 in attendance. (The Greensboro Motor Lodge, located across from the News and Record on Market Street, is now a parking lot and is the site of the main stage of the North Carolina Folk Festival.)
For the next six years, PBPS-sponsored monthly shows were held at the University Inn. Penn and Freddie lived just a few blocks away, and Penn negotiated with the hotel management to hold the shows there. The small room in the basement held about 100 chairs, but when it was packed you couldn’t see the band. So Penn, carpenter that he was, built a stage that we carted back and forth in his red Toyota pickup from my garage to the venue. I mention this because every detail of