Blind Blake – Georgia Bound

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.

About Mokai

Fingerpicking Fool

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to Blind Blake – Georgia Bound

  1. Theo June 5, 2009 at 2:43 AM #

    As a kid in 1970, when I heard Blind Blake or Blind Lemon recordings I had the feeling I was listening to someone from another age in the far far distant past, as if they were part of an ancient civilization. This feeling was amplified tremendously by the fact that there was only a single black and white photo of each man, and by the scratchy sounding recordings, which really did sound like they were unearthed by an archaeologist working patiently on his knees with a small trowel and a toothbrush.

    But of course both men recorded in the 1920s, and while that seems long long ago to some of us, it was really no greater difference in time (45 years) than for a kid that listens to the Beatles today. And the Beatles weren’t THAT long ago….

    So I think there is a tendency to see the pre-war bluesmen and women as coming from an older time than in fact they were. As a nation state America really has no ancient history, but perhaps we have a need to imagine one. Coupled with the tremendous progress in audio recording and photography that occurred during the 1920s and afterward, it gives me the impression of looking at Blind Blake and Blind Lemon through a long reversed telescope, where with every year that I get closer to 1920, time stretches to fill decades and even centuries.

    I find it interesting that you focus on Blake’s songwriting, which has always received less attention than his magnificent guitar playing. But I’m confused when you describe his songwriting as modern in subject matter and style, and I’m not sure what you mean. Blake WAS modern, so why shouldn’t he sound modern? In addition I don’t really see the relationship to topical material a la Woody Guthrie. Blake’s lyrics, to me, sound pretty representative of other blues artists of the period. In the case of Georgia Bound, we should ask ourselves also whether he was purely writing lyrics that pleased him, whether he was writing something that he thought would be popular, or whether he had received direction from the recording company to write a song about nostalgia for southern life. It’s hard to know.

    And while Georgia Bound’s accompaniment is less jazzy or syncopated than some of his other material, this doesn’t necessarily mean he is playing the simple Piedmont Blues of his youth. Maybe Georgia Bound’s accompaniment is just as modern as his other material, but with a slightly different aesthetic.

  2. Mokai June 30, 2009 at 1:22 AM #

    Seems we’ve both thought about this a bit. You tend to comment on the things I plan to bring out in subsequent posts. In fact, that whole riff about listening to the Beatles today is equivalent to the Beatles listening to the pre-war blues back in the 60s is one of my classic bits that I use when talking to people about early blues. Maybe you’ve been to one of my workshops?

    What is interesting though, is that music changed very rapidly in the 20th century, perhaps more rapidly than it does now. People were very quick to move on to the next thing, and the players of the pre-war era were quickly outmoded, and needed to change to survive. Big Bill Broonzy did, but never replicated his earlier success until he returned to more traditional music in his later years as an elder statesmen to the first folk revival. Lonnie Johnson did, leaving fingerstyle behind and using a plectrum to invent the guitar’s role in jazz along with Eddie Lang, only to end up working in kitchens in his later years.

    I get that, in the late 1920s, Blind Blake’s riffage emerging from a victrola was as modern as listening to the latest hits on your ipod for those experiencing it at the time. The modernity of Blake and Lemon Jefferson is apparent in the level of sophistication in their work. But still, their songs harken to the country, to simpler times, and to rhythms from the pre-recorded era. The ragtime in Blake’s music was antiquated in New Orleans by the time he was recording in the north, but gave just the right nostalgia to the music for the people it was intended for. There’s something to the cadence in Lemon’s playing that is inimitable, that comes from hearing music in a different way, unaffected by anything like the conformity of tempo and rhythm in today’s music. We would be shocked to actually hear the music of a hundred years ago, or medieval times for that matter, since it would all sound slightly off to us because our ears are formed by what we know.

    Unfortunately for the blues, some of this conformity came too soon, with the shuffle rhythm becoming ubiquitous and many of the fascinating and charming variations on the 12 bar blues that Blake displays fading away or only surviving in a less raw form in the II-V changes found in jazz.

    So, I do wonder if I’m projecting this, but I hear something of what Blake does in ‘Georgia Bound’ that has me thinking he’s trying to playful give some hints of earlier cadences he had absorbed, while at the same time sprinkling in some of the most modernistic riffs he ever played. I don’t know where there is a genealogy of sorts of Blake’s repertoire, but I don’t personally know of another of his tunes that puts it together in quite this way.

    As to his songwriting, it seems he is really a musician who had it all, so to speak, the playing, the writing, the singing–as does Stevie Wonder–and like Stevie, didn’t really go for the gut-busting, in-your-face vocal all the time, but finessed things. His lyrics might evoke some of the classic blues tropes, but there’s not much of the repeating standard lines from the tradition (in fact, many younger blues players based songs on Blake’s.) When I say there’s a modern aspect, I’m saying, that unlike his playing–which was both rich in tradition and pushing the envelope at the time he was recording, Blake’s lyric writing was ahead of his time. One of the contributions of the early bluesmen was the concept of the singer-songwriter, though it was not called that, but to be a bluesman meant to have original material. Meanwhile, in the mainstream, and even in the more dignified ‘classic blues,’ professional songwriters wrote the songs for singer’s to sing. However for most bluesmen, singing the blues often meant free-standing lyrics around a loosely defined theme–a string of (possibly very evocative) non-sequiters. Blake’s songs open with a premise and build upon that premise to a conclusion. This is the essence of modern ‘artistic’ songwriting of a kind that did not really occur in the decades between the 30s and the 60s when the Beatles and Dylan, students of the bluesmen, followed their lead and broke with ‘Tin-Pan Alley,’ record label approved lyrics. Blake and blues singers in general defined singing of personal emotions in an unvarnished way, and Blake does an exceptional job of writing at a professional level. All of this in an under-recognized, in fact at the time, barely tolerated medium.

Leave a Reply