BLIND BLAKE (By Dominic Turner)
Born Arthur Phelps, circa 1893, South Newport, Georgia
To say that Blind Blake's biographical details are shrouded in mystery is something of an understatement. The great man's birthplace is disputed by blues historians, and the dates of his birth and death have been the subject of no little controversy. Only one known photograph exists of the man, a Paramount Records publicity shot of Blake sitting cross-legged on a bench, guitar across his knees. Even his real name remains in doubt; copyright documentation for his songs gives variations on Blind Arthur Blake, but other sources suggest it may well have been Arthur Phelps. All pretty extraordinary when you consider that we're talking about an artist credited with no less than 81 recordings on the Paramount label, several of which were very successful, and a musician cited as an inspiration by guitarists of all genres.
For the sake of argument then, we'll say that Blind Blake was probably born in Jacksonville, Florida, in the early-to-mid 1890s. At least, this is the birthplace indicated by Paramount Records.but an early Paramount poster states that he hailed from Tampa. And that's not all: blues sociologists have speculated that Blake may have originated from the South Georgia Sea islands (or at least spent much time there), due to his fluency in the Geechee dialect as displayed on songs such as "Southern Rag"! Still with me?
The information we have about Blind Blake's life is patchy to say the least. Blind at birth, Blake soon began earning a living by playing the guitar on street corners, at local dances and fish fries, and even at medicine shows. He immediately made a name for himself regionally, and was indeed one of the better-known travelling musicians, spending a long period in Atlanta in the early '20s. But it was when he headed for Chicago in the early 1920s that Blake became a key figure on the blues scene. Mayo Williams, a black entrepreneur with a keen eye for talent from the South, acted unofficially as a scout for Paramount Records. When a Jacksonville trader drew his attention to Blind Blake, Williams wasted no time in getting him to sign a recording contract for Paramount in 1926. Blake's debut release for the Wisconsin-based label, the celebrated Early Morning Blues / West Coast Blues, was an instant success.
In addition to his own records, Blake also played guitar during the late '20s with other Paramount artists of the calibre of banjoists Papa Charlie Jackson and Gus Cannon, singers Ma Rainey and Ida Cox, and pianist Charlie Spand. During this period, he hit upon a complex fingerstyle blues guitar technique that still baffles students of the instrument to this day. But to pigeonhole Blake as a bluesman fails to do him justice. Perhaps the most overwhelming feature of the 80+ sides cut by Blake is their sheer diversity: classic Piedmont blues, swaggering instrumentals, ragtime, skiffle-jazz workouts with drummer Jimmy Bertrand (often doubling on xylophone or slide whistle) and clarinettist Johnny Dodds... Blind Blake could do it all. Moreover, the guitar wizardry was often complemented by lyrics laced with risqué double entendres.
Blake toured with the vaudeville show "Happy-Go-Lucky" during 1930-31 before returning to the Paramount studios in Grafton for his last recording session in 1932. This proved to be the end of Blake's career, and effectively coincides with Paramount's bankruptcy.
If reliable information about Blind Blake's life is hard to come by, little or nothing is known of his death. No one is really aware of what became of him after that final Paramount session. Inevitably, there are rumours of Blake being murdered, or of falling victim to the alcohol binges which appear to have flawed his later recordings. Other reports (some substantiated by fellow bluesmen) claim that Blake was run over by a street car. A more likely hypothesis (and one that most people would prefer to believe) is that he moved back to his beloved South once the Depression had wrecked the race record industry, and died peacefully a few years later.
Blind Blake was one of the most accomplished guitarists of his era, and probably the most versatile of them all. Indeed, his guitar-playing on classics like "Diddie-Wah-Diddie" and "Police Dog Blues" almost defies belief. Blake's influence on the folk/blues revival of the sixties was huge, and his brilliant and intricate fingerpicking was touted by guitar geniuses such as Josh White and Rev. Gary Davis, who went as far as to declare him "the best ragtime guitarist ever heard on record". Modern exponents such as Jorma Kaukonen, Ry Cooder, and Ralph McTell are equally quick to recognise his importance, and Blake's songs have been covered by a host of contemporary acoustic musicians, including Dave Van Ronk and Leon Redbone. His records were a favourite amongst East Coast bluesmen, and "Diddie Wah Diddie" in particular remains a staple of Piedmont artists.
Given the condition of the American negro in the first half of the last century, I'm often moved to wonder how many great black blues guitarists must have simply slipped through the net. There are so many accounts of acclaimed country and hillbilly musicians learning their first chords from "unknown" black sharecroppers - for every Blind Blake who managed to land a recording contract, how many other virtuoso bluesmen probably passed unnoticed? The Blind Blake story is full of unanswered questions. but at least we are lucky enough to have his recording legacy.
"Ragtime Guitar's Foremost Fingerpicker" [Yazoo, 1990] - 28 tracks that illustrate perfectly Blind Blake's extraordinary guitar technique
The four "Complete Recorded Works" volumes on Document Records contain all 84 recordings made by Blind Blake, spanning the years 1926-32
"Best Of Blind Blake" [Collectables, 1995] - an 18-track collection for the more casual listener.
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