Barry Lee Pearson, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, is on a mission to promote the Piedmont blues.

"When Americans think about the blues," says Pearson, also a blues singer and guitarist, "they generally think about electric Chicago blues or electric West Coast blues. We don't know that much about the acoustic Piedmont or East Coast tradition. Recently, there was a very fine book called 'Red River Blues' by Bruce Bastin that shed some light on the music, but other than that the subject has been untapped in many respects."

Which is why Pearson set out to write the newly published "Virginia Piedmont Blues -- The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen" (University of Pennsylvania Press). The second of three volumes devoted to the blues idiom, the book focuses on the lives, music and philosophy of Archie Edwards and "Bowling Green" John Cephas. Drawing on the extensive oral histories he has collected over the years, Pearson allows both musicians to tell their stories in their own words, stories that span several generations and touch on everything from nearly lost rural traditions to the current blues revival.

Long before Pearson set pen to paper, however, he was familiar with many of those reminiscences. He befriended both musicians after he moved to the Washington area from Chicago in 1976 and he has performed often with them. He even toured Africa and South America with Cephas and his longtime partner, "Harmonica" Phil Wiggins.

Still, Pearson admits, he wasn't instantly drawn to their music. He remembers attending the National Folk Festival in Washington in the late 1970s and spending time with Mississippi Delta bluesman "Honeyboy" Edwards. "Honeyboy looked at John Jackson playing and turned to me and said, 'That's not blues.' At the time I shared his perspective. It took me a while to understand and appreciate the local tradition."

Pearson, who helped found the D.C. Blues Society in 1987, has a theory as to why most scholars have discounted the Piedmont tradition. "I think many of them thought it was a diluted version of the blues, but recent scholarship strongly points to its African heritage. It's also interesting because it combines some of the older string band characteristics. It's essentially a rural phenomenon, though it certainly prospered in small cities like Raleigh and Durham {N.C.}. It's acoustic, involves a fairly complex finger-picking approach, and can be quite difficult to play because of its ragtime influences."

Published in 1984, Pearson's first book -- "Sounds So Good to Me: The Bluesman's Story" -- dealt primarily with the public personas adopted by numerous blues musicians from around the country. For the new book, though, he "wanted to get behind the masks. Since I've known both Archie and John for so long, it just made sense to choose them as subjects. What I wanted to do was merge their detailed autobiographies with their distinctive repertoire and philosophy on life. I wanted to present a more in-depth picture of these Piedmont musicians. I think they're ideal representatives of the tradition, and besides, they're great storytellers."

Pearson examines Edwards and Cephas's differences as well as similarities. A friend and protege of "Mississippi" John Hurt, Edwards has developed a similarly genial sound. Cephas, on the other hand, was raised in the church and has a booming baritone voice to match his more fluent and percussive guitar style. Within the Piedmont tradition popularized by the Rev. Gary Davis, "Blind Boy" Fuller and other artists who recorded in the '20s and '30s, Pearson points out, there was always a lot of room for individual expression.

"You know, we're in the middle of a blues revival at the moment," he volunteers. "You can turn on the television and it won't be long before you're assaulted by some blues-related commercial. Unfortunately, what we often see in the media is a different style of blues -- a weaker, although highly amplified, form. I think Archie and John bring us the grassroots tradition on one hand, and also something much closer to the aesthetic center of blues. You can still sense their environment and upbringing in the sound of their music."

Pearson is already at work on the third volume of the series, which will have a broader geographical scope. "It'll focus strongly on the relation of the musicians to the family, church, house parties, juke joints, minstrel shows etc.," he explains. "The musicians I've talked with over the years have been more from Mississippi and Chicago than probably any other place, with Virginia as a follow-up. But I make little distinction in my mind between rural and urban blues. I guess you could say that most of the musicians I'm dealing with play a version of the down-home blues."