Blind Blake – the Stevie Wonder of the 1920s

Blind Blake was an important American recording artist at the dawn of the recording industry.

Traveling to the north from the Piedmont region of the eastern seaboard, he recorded for Paramount Records, the premiere label marketing ‘country blues‘ music to black audiences in the late 1920s. Because he was one of the first widely heard players, his highly developed style influenced a generation of guitarists. His melodic and rhythmic figures can be heard in the playing of Blind Boy Fuller and Josh White among others.blind-blake-piedmont-blues Blake was a highly developed, virtuosic player, with almost no peer in his style. As soon as he began to record, he sold well, and he was used as an accompanist to a number of the label’s female vocalists. As an early example of country blues, Blake’s recordings bridge from the overly stylized ‘classic blues‘ of the early 20s, and the later, rawer urban blues of the 30s and 40s.

Almost nothing is known about Blake. It can be assumed he performed on the street at first, according to the custom of blind performers being supported by the donations of their communities. At one time every region of the south had blind musicians who would perform on the streetcorners and at parties. While the culture and the musicianship in these communities was rich and varied, there seems to be no explanation for, not just the virtuosity of Blake’s performances, but where and how he internalized all the harmonic complexity of jazz and ragtime and transposed them onto the guitar at a time when these guitar styles were first being developed. Blake’s blues and guitar rags display an advanced use of moving voices, chromaticism, and melodic counterpoint.

As examples of the Piedmont Blues, Blake’s arrangements bear certain hallmarks which are not present in more downhome versions of the blues, but continued on in jazz blues. One example are the many variations of multi-chord turnarounds, where Blake specialized in guitar flourishes in the eleventh and twelfth bars of a 12 bar blues. Because of the nature of fingerstlyle guitar, with the guitarist limited in the number of notes of an altered chord he can include, some of these passing chords are only hinted at, but the theory is solidly behind everything Blake does. His use of II7, III7, #V7 chords, as well as diminished chords and chromatic runs–all come from the rich tradition of ragtime and early New Orleans jazz. His arrangements mirror piano styles of the era, and some comparison has been made between the proto-blues played on banjo in the late 19th century, and the development of early 20th century styles like piedmont fingerpicking and stride piano.

Other guitarists in the 20s working in this vein included Lonnie Johnson, who went on to create some of the defining early jazz guitar sounds with Duke Ellington. Big Bill Broonzy was active during Blake’s career, playing Hokum and Barrelhouse, but many of the rhythms and changes are similar, which makes sense, seeing as how they were playing for the same audiences and the dance steps of the time. Blake and Broonzy could have easily crossed paths and even jammed together. Now that would be something.

Blind Arthur Blake is an unsung American hero. One of the first successful artist of the modern era, he died unnoticed outside of African-American society. His remarkable songs are musical masterworks. His first sides, where he burst fully formed onto the stage with flawless performances, display so much virtuosity they still leap of the record 80 years after the fact. In addition to his stellar guitar playing, Blake’s singing is finely modulated, full of pathos and humor. His poetry builds on the standard metaphors of the blues, and the way his themes are developed lyrically and with imagery is really astonishing in the depth and breadth of his perspective. He writes about women and whiskey, but then writes about hard times and sings nostalgically of the rural south, encapsulating the longing of his compatriot southern blacks, exiled in the north. He evocatively chronicles their lives seeking a livable income in the steel mills and the Detroit automobile factories.

Given that many people of his generation listened to his music as the soundtrack of their lives, and that he set a musical high-water mark that influenced future musicians, he is really on the level of a Stevie Wonder, someone who embodies the musical impulse of his generation and gives voice to their humanity. But like so many black musicians in this country, he was never fully repaid for his gifts to us.

About Mokai

Fingerpicking Fool

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4 Responses to Blind Blake – the Stevie Wonder of the 1920s

  1. Theo June 10, 2009 at 4:22 PM #

    I love everything about Blake’s music, the bounce, the playfulness, the way inventions on a theme flow effortlessly, the sunny sound, the stories, the hipness, the vocal phrasing when speaking and singing. In the style he developed he’s the incomparable reference, like an archetype, the source of our notion of what it is to play this music perfectly.

    You mention Blake’s arriving on the scene fully formed. This also adds to the impression of his being somehow larger than life. Too Tight and West Coast Blues are among the first several sides recorded.

    You wonder how he learned, and from whom. Sadly because so little is known about him, I doubt we can expect a Hollywood version of “Ray”, “Bird” or “Walk the Line” on The Life of Blind Blake. Now that would be a great film project…

    • Mokai June 10, 2009 at 5:11 PM #

      I too am more and more appreciative of BB lately, this after listening to him for decades. I think it is pretty well established among those who care just how Blake, like Blind Lemon, set the bar for what followed, as far as the history of the blues–truly making them ‘archetypes’.

      But, in reality very few care. Most people think of the blues as ‘shuffle’ blues, and the nuance and complexity of piedmont style are seen as quaint as opposed to deep. You have to listen past the surface noise on the recordings and past how it had been cleaned up (only what whites approved was recorded.) It really makes the imagination soar to imagine life back then. It would make quite a movie. Not likely to happen.

      How Blake was at such a high level of development the day he walked into the studio? First, blind musicians at that time started playing music early and would play for hours a day on the streets, at parties and events non-stop for years. We know more about Blind Lemon’s ‘lead-boys’, and he spent a lot of time on the streets. I read one account by an old player how there were at times blind performers on “every street corner”.

      But there’s something very polished about Blind Blake. I read something saying he was brought to Paramount by a talent scout, and that it was inferred he was a professional musician in bands in his home region. It would be likely that he played 4 string, or possibly 6-string banjo in such bands, and could have used any number of obscure banjo techniques that were then translated to the guitar. Some accounts have it that banjo picking of this style included a moving bass line, and that such techniques could have descended from african banjo styles. In any case, Blake would have been immersed in it all: ragtime, minstrel, vaudeville, novelty, dance-music like 2-step, cakewalk and even what we call square dance, and aware of charleston and habenero rhythms. Notice there’s no folk music in this list. He was a popular, main-stream (of black culture,) modern artist.

  2. Theo June 11, 2009 at 1:49 AM #

    Where did you hear that Blake may have also played banjo? Now I’m totally lost. But if Django did, and Blake did, it means I’ll almost have to go back to square 1 and start all over again by learning (wince) banjo.

    A friend of mine has one of the old banjo mandolins from the early part of the last century hanging on his wall. You know from that time when whole orchestras were made of banjos: from banjo mandolins to banjo basses. That banjo mandolin has got to be the most impossible, horrendous sounding instrument ever devised. And I’m being kind. He also has a beautiful Gibson A1 from about 1925, which sits in its case now that he has a Stiver F. He feels guilty to neglect the Gibson, saying he can’t abide the thought of having an instrument around his house that isn’t played. I said “Well, what about that banjo mandolin – it’s not really being played.” His whole body shuddered and contracted and I heard a small groan come out from somewhere inside him.

    • Mokai June 11, 2009 at 2:22 AM #

      You bring up so much I want to respond to, I don’t know where to start. 1st: Do you know what the difference between harmonica and banjo is? (see answer at the bottom of this post.)

      2nd, now you want me to actually keep track of everything I read on the web and provide sources? This is a blog. It’s somewhere in my bookmarks. But it’s safe to assume that Blind Blake would have known his way around a banjo, though what tuning or style, who knows? There were a lot of string bands in those days–mando bands, parlour quartets. It’s kind of scary to imagine a banjo band. But one of the influences in piedmont style is from ragtime music that was preserved and danced to in the rural area by regional bands after it had passed out of fashion in New Orleans. ‘Ragging’ the blues was also a regional style. It’s in this kind of setting that Blake could have been playing professionally, on guitar, banjo and perhaps other instruments.

      Rev. Gary Davis played banjo and used voicing from banjo on the guitar. Ernie Hawkins talks about RGD pulling out standards in Eb on him. These guys were sophisticated and talented.

      Most important: a lot of the moving voices in jazz and blues that we think of as guitar changes we inherit from the banjo, where it was first worked out. But then this is all stuff I planned to have come out in posts, but just as well here. I just love talking about this stuff.

      [Answer to “Do you know what the difference between harmonica and banjo is?” = One only sucks on every other note.]

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