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. 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.