There are so many reasons Blind Blake is an exceptional artist.
He arrived in the recording studio fully formed, playing at a highly developed level, singing songs in a warm, intimate voice that spoke directly to the people of his day. Much is made of his guitar playing, with good reason, but as a popular songwriter, he was capable of writing well-crafted songs that took distinct themes and developed them fully over several verses, often with good use of imagery. Compared to folk songs or even mainstream recordings of the era, his songs are strikingly modern in their subject matter and style, more like the kind of topical chronicles that we associate with more modern writers like Woody Guthrie. When Blake writes about the life of African-Americans in the northern states in the 1920s and 30s, there is the sense of him having been there and lived it himself, even if he merely observed the lives of the workers he writes about.
In the song “Georgia Bound“, Blake is in fine form as he sings evocatively of the Eastern Seaboard region known as the Piedmont, where he was from. Probably one of the main reasons northern record producers got involved in selling country blues records was the hope they could cash in on nostalgia for the south on the part of southern blacks working in the north. Blacks in the north gained some freedom from the harsher forms of segregation in the southern states, but were still second class citizens in a more carefully segregated world. As hard as conditions were in Chicago and Detroit, it’s still difficult to imagine blacks had that much love for their former home, where their parents were enslaved. But to hear Blake sing longingly of “Chicken on the roof, babe, watermelons on the vine” and “Potatoes in the ashes, possum on the stove”, one would think the south was a paradise. Obviously, some of the lyrics are overly sentimental, it’s hard to believe a line like “Got the Georgia blues for the plow and hoe” but the reality is brought home in the next line: “Walked out my shoes over this ice and snow”. Clearly, for these rural people, life in the industrial north was a form of exile.
I think I’m also drawn to this piece because I feel Blake at the height of his powers, a few years before alcohol robbed him of the precision that, on this track is practically preternatural, even in comparison to his own impressive output. Recorded after Blake was more experienced in the studio, I get the sense that he’d heard himself now, and he was bringing that awareness to his performance–that he had realized the power of the medium to speak directly to people. I feel him talking to the listener in a special way, and letting the microphone do the work for him, an inkling of the mic technique developed by modern singers. This awareness of the emotional impact he wants to have is reflected in his guitar work. He departs from his standard riffs for the key of C and plays more downhome. While there’s still plenty of excellent riffage, it’s not as in your face and jazzy as his flashier pieces. I feel he’s not trying to be all that–Blind Blake, the hippest cat in town–but bringing out the sounds and rhythms of his youth, the real Piedmont blues he had learned as a kid.
His signature double bass pluck is in full effect–where he plays a pick-up note on a lower string right before the down beat, and lands on the 1 on the next string. While there is use of alternating bass in passages, the piece departs regularly from a straight alternating bass, as Blake employs a number of syncopated rhythms, arpeggio rolls, bent-note single string runs, and 16th note licks. The inventiveness of this stuff never ceases to amaze me, or provide for inspiration for my own playing.
On this historic pre-war blues record, Blind Blake, one of the nation’s first wide selling recording artists, shows how its done–how to sing movingly about something people care about in the most musical way.