American Blues Singer and Guitarist (born c.1893 — died c.1933)
It’s a curious paradigm that so many of the great American Blues artists who recorded between the two World Wars remain to this day enigmatic. Their tradition, of course, was home-grown and basically unschooled. They were itinerant. Most were descended from slaves. And for many of them, for the felons, the wife-stealers, the gamblers, the addicts and the drunks, a certain anonymity could be considered a measure of job security: one man (or woman) might record under numerous aliases to stay ahead of the law, or to render recording contracts moot.
One thing, however, is certain: there was always money to be made from so-called “race records.” Companies such as Vocalion, Okeh, Emerson, Victor Talking Machine, and—especially—Paramount turned out millions of 78 RPM “sides” until the Great Depression laid waste to their audience’s purchasing power.
Blind Blake was Paramount Records’ biggest star. Between 1926 and 1932 he recorded 110 “sides,” releasing at least one new record for the mostly-mail-order company every month. Nevertheless, the artist’s birthdate, place of birth, the date of his death and where, exactly, he died are all unknown. Paramount Records, for that matter, was even unsure of his first name, though studio logs occasionally list it as “Arthur.” Blake also recorded as Gorgeous Weed (!), Billy James, Arthur Phelps, and Blind George Martin. Exactly one photograph of the man exists.
Blind Blake was a guitar virtuoso. He played in a seemingly effortless ragtime-based style that has influenced countless musicians since. The Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Furry Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, John Cephas, Stefan Grossman, Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Dylan, Ralph McTell, and Ry Cooder have all extended his legacy. Modern Blues musician and archivist Roy Book Binder posits that Blake invented the Piedmont Blues style all by himself:
“A lotta people call it the Piedmont style from Virginia,” says Book Binder, “but I don’t believe in all that. Blind Blake was from Jacksonville I believe and he recorded in the early 20’s, went up north to Chicago through the Carolinas and everybody started to play like Blind Blake, or tried to. Nobody really caught it as well as he did. Nobody hit it quite like Blake, who was from Florida and it should really be called Florida guitar pickin’ and not Piedmont style.”
Call it what you will, the fact is such exquisite and complex sounds did not exist before Blind Blake. From his first solo recording in 1926, Early Morning Blues, backed by his famous West Coast Blues on the B-side, Blind Blake was, inarguably, the greatest of all finger-picking guitar stylists.
And yet we know nothing, really, about him, aside from the music, ALL of it lovingly compiled and remastered in All the Published Sides by JSP Records in 2003. A brilliant sideman as well, Blake accompanied such artists as Leola Wilson, Elzadie Robinson, and Papa Charlie Jackson. Included in the five CD set are Police Dog Blues, Diddy Wah Diddie, Too Tight Blues, He’s in the Jailhouse Now, Chump Man Blues, Blind Arthur’s Breakdown, That’ll Never Happen No More, and Hey Hey Daddy Blues, blues standards all of 'em.
Did the musical magician we’ve come to know as Blind Blake really grow up wandering through Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, playing on the streets, at rent parties, at fish frys and church socials? Or did the man some knew as Arthur Phelps spring from “Geechee” roots, born in the Georgia Sea Islands, since he sang in that dialect in Southern Rag? Might he have played the vaudeville circuit with his friend George Williams after Paramount went bust in the early 30’s, and did he have a son who’s never been found? Could he possibly have drunk as much as people say? Big Bill Broonzy said Blake died in Joliet about 1932. Josh White thought he was murdered in Chicago. Tampa Red told Blind John Davis the pianist that Blake died in St. Louis and the The Reverend Gary Davis heard he was killed by a streetcar in Manhattan in 1934, though there are no records to the effect.
My elder son, a hip-hop artist now, but very young and very deep in thought once upon a time, looked up one day and asked me “How come so much music is by black guys who are blind?” In his innocence I suppose he hit upon a truism: It was the Depression. They were black. They were blind. What other work could they possibly find? And whoever, do you suppose, would ever think to write it all down?
All we have now is the music and the mystery.
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