The King Of Ragtime Guitar: Blind Blake & His Piano-Sounding Guitar

NOTE: The following article is copyrighted by Jas Obrecht and may not be duplicated in any form without his permission. For More on Blind Blake and other articles by Jas Obrecht, see his music blog.

The Big Book of Blues

During the mid 1920s, the unexpectedly strong sales of Blind Lemon Jefferson's Paramount 78s sent record scouts scrambling to sign male blues artists. One of their best discoveries was Blind Blake, a swinging, sophisticated guitarist whose warm, relaxed voice was a far cry from harsh country blues. Some of Blake's 78s cast him as swinging jazzman or jivey hipster, while others walked the long, lonely road to the gallows. The man with the "famous piano-sounding guitar" is still regarded as the unrivaled master of ragtime blues fingerpicking.

"Lord have mercy, was he sophisticated!" says Jorma Kaukonen, who helped introduce Blake's guitar style to rock audiences during the '70s. "He would have been sophisticated in any era. I really like the completeness of his piano-style playing, his left- and right-hand moves. He could play a complete band arrangement by himself. That appealed to the lone-wolf mentality that I aspired to when I was learning his songs. Later on, it gave me depth for playing double-guitar and piano-guitar stuff with other people. It taught me a lot about putting music together."

"Blind Blake is a great player, a great musical figure," echoes Ry Cooder. "In the years where he was on top, he was fabulous. Blind Blake just had a good touch. He played quietly, and he didn't hit the guitar too hard. He had a nice feeling for syncopation. He's from down there in the Geechie country, and all those people have a real nice roll to what they do. He was a hell of a good player, and he had a lick that was great. And Blind Blake played all over the place, with all kinds of people, including Johnny Dodds, which is just way too much for me."

Not much is known of him. The single surviving photo shows a dapper bantamweight in a neatly pressed three-piece and bow tie, finger-picking a small-faced guitar beneath closed eyes and a frozen Buddha grin. With its deep body and distinctive bridge, the guitar in the photo is likely a Chicago-made Harmony, a good guitar then.

The Paramount Book Of Blues, a 1927 promotional booklet, provided this strangely punctuated bio:

"We have all heard expressions of people 'singing in the rain' or 'laughing in the face of adversity,' but we never saw such a good example of it, until we came upon the history of Blind Blake. Born in Jacksonville, in sunny Florida, he seemed to absorb some of the sunny atmosphere--disregarding the fact that nature had cruelly denied him a vision of outer things. He could not see the things that others saw--but he had a better gift. A gift of an inner vision, that allowed him to see things more beautiful. The pictures that he alone could see made him long to express them in some way--so he turned to music. He studied long and earnestly--listening to talented pianists and guitar players, and began to gradually draw out harmonious tunes to fit every mood. Now that he is recording exclusively for Paramount, the public has the benefit of his talent, and agrees, as one body, that he has an unexplainable gift of making one laugh or cry as he feels, and sweet chords and tones that come from his talking guitar express a feeling of his mood."

Paramount's ads in the Chicago Defender, a popular African American newspaper, emphasized Blake's guitarmanship: "He accompanies himself with that snappy guitar playing, like only Blind Blake can do," read copy for "Bad Feeling Blues." The company claimed that "Blind Blake and his trusty guitar do themselves proud" on "Rumblin' & Ramblin' Boa Constrictor Blues," while "Wabash Rag" was "aided by his happy guitar."

Some believe Blind Blake was born Arthur Phelps, but during the recording "Papa Charlie And Blind Blake Talk About It," Papa Charlie Jackson asks him, "What is your right name?" Blake responds, "My name is Arthur Blake." The name on the copyrights for "C.C. Pill Blues" and "Panther Squall Blues" is Arthur "Blind" Blake, which strengthens the case for Blake being his given name. He had a pronounced Southern accent and reportedly worked in south Georgia, Kentucky, along the East Coast, and in Bristol, Tennessee, before landing in Chicago.

"No matter where Blake was from, he ranks as a musical curiosity," wrote Steve Calt and Woody Mann in the liners for Yazoo's Blind Blake collection. "His records betray no basic musical orientation, and it's anyone's guess as to whether blues, guitar instrumentals, or even pop ditties were his original specialty. How he actually made his livelihood as a performer is another enigma. While most blind guitarists were soloists who used the helter-skelter phrasing of the street dancer, Blake's blues phrasing had the strictness of a dance or band musician. It is likely that ensemble playing (perhaps with a jazz band) had a real impact on his music."

Blind Blake made his first records for Paramount during the summer of 1926, playing solo guitar behind Leola B. Wilson's lazy vaudeville blues. "Mayo Williams, the Paramount scout, says that Blind Blake was sent up from Jacksonville by a dealer," reports blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. "That's how he first got on record, and his records sold very, very well." Blake showed nerves of steel his first time before the recording horn at Chicago's Marsh Studios, playing outstanding solos on Leola's "Dying Blues" and "Ashley St. Blues."

A month later Paramount cast him as a solo artist. "Early Morning Blues" was a grim "leaving blues" reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, while the 78's flip side, the brilliant "West Coast Blues," was a ragged dance tune injected with spoken asides such as "Whoop that thing" and "I'm gonna satisfy you if I can." Blake's releases no doubt astonished and influenced other blues guitarists, such as William Moore, who patterned his Paramount 78 of "Old Country Rock" on "West Coast Blues."

Blind Gary Davis likewise studied Blake's 78s. "The guitar was being played like a piano in almost all the areas of America except the Delta," explains Stefan Grossman, "meaning that the left hand was literally doing that boom-chick, boom-chick pattern. Blake was able to use his right-hand thumb to syncopate it more, like a Charleston. He was very, very rhythmic and incredibly fast--I don't know anyone who can get to that speed. That's Blake's real claim to fame, because his chord progressions are nothing fancy. But the thumb work is fantastic, and what he's doing with his right hand set him apart from everyone. Rev. Gary Davis said Blake had a 'sportin' right hand.' Davis took that and got into even more complicated modes."

"I suspect Blind Blake was a three-finger picker," offers Kaukonen, "and I have a sneaking suspicion he wore picks, because he had such a snappy, percussive sound and he's not popping the strings the way bare-finger players do. His favorite keys were C, G, and E, although I'm pretty sure he could play in any of them if he wanted to."

At his October 1926 solo session, Blake balanced down-and-out blues songs with the good-time hokum of "Too Tight" and "Come On Boys Let's Do That Messin' Around," which has an early example of a scat solo. He flexed his guitar prowess on his next 78, "Skeedle Loo Doo Blues" and the double-time sections of "Stonewall Street Blues." Paramount summoned Blake and pianist Jimmy Blythe to Leola Wilson's November session, which produced a pair of fine 78s. Less than six months after his entry into the record biz, Blake was playing behind the great Ma Rainey on "Morning Hour Blues," "Little Low Mama Blues," and "Grievin' Hearted Blues."

Early the next year Paramount featured kazoo--probably played by Blake himself--on "Buck-Town Blues" and brought in a bones percussionist for "Dry Bone Shuffle" and "That Will Never Happen No More." Blind Blake cut another seven songs during October '27. The smoothly syncopated "Hey Hey Daddy Blues," the hip horn imitations of "Sea Board Stomp," and the tour de force "Southern Rag" suggest that he woodshedded on guitar during his half-year recording hiatus.

"I'm goin' to give you some music they call the Geechie music now," Blake announced at the beginning of "Southern Rag," which is laced with images of planting rice, sugar cane, cotton, and peas. Some authors suggest that Blake slips into the Geechie and Gullah accents of Georgia's South Sea Islands during the track, but Wardlow disagrees: "I don't think he intentionally goes into the Geechie accent, but he was down from around that part of the country--South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida."

In November, Gus Cannon joined in on banjo for the minstrel tune "He's In The Jailhouse Now." During the 1950s Sam Charters asked Cannon for his memories of Blake. According to the book Sweet As The Showers Of Rain, Cannon responded: "We drank so much whiskey! I'm telling you we drank more whiskey than a shop! And that boy would take me out with him at night and get me so turned around I'd be lost if I left his side. He could see more with his blind eyes than I with my two good ones." Mayo Williams also reported that Blake liked to get drunk and fight.

In the spring of 1928 Blind Blake cut his most ambitious records. Jimmy Bertrand manned xylophone for "Doggin' Me Mama Blues" and warbled slide whistle on "C.C. Pill Blues," while the great Johnny Dodds soloed on clarinet. "Oh, that record!" enthuses Ry Cooder. "That's it, see. That's the whole thing right there. That's all you need to hear. And then you know: There's a whole world we've all missed and will never know." (The "C.C." stood for "compound cathartic.")

Dodds and Bertrand provided more crazy horn and percussion accompaniment on Blake's raggy "Hot Potatoes" and the swinging "Southbound Rag." Bertrand, Dodds, and Blake were also teamed on "Elzadie's Policy Blues"/"Pay Day Daddy Blues" with Elzadie Robinson, a cabaret singer and chorus girl from Logansport, Louisiana. Blake was soon back in the studio with blues moaner Bertha Henderson and gospel crooner Daniel Brown. Bertha's "Let Your Love Come Down" featured Blake playing stride piano with rocking solos. Working solo, Blake simultaneously played guitar and harmonica on "Panther Squall Blues."

Blind Blake may have earned up to $50 per Paramount side, but Little Brother Montgomery claimed that the guitarist's regular source of income during the late 1920s came from playing South Side Chicago house rent parties. With its piano in the living room, Blake's apartment at 31st and Cottage Grove became a gathering place where Montgomery, Charlie Spand, Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and other musicians could slam moonshine and jam blues.

"I met Blind Blake in Chicago," Ishman Bracey told Gayle Dean Wardlow, "but I couldn't second him. He was too fast for me. Blind Blake, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, and Scrapper Blackwell--all of them guitar players was buckin' one another. Blind Blake was too fast."

Blake's 1928 releases such as "Ramblin' Mama Blues," "Back Door Slam Blues," "Cold Hearted Mama Blues," and "Low Down Loving Gal" suggest he had bitter feelings towards women. His anger took a scary turn on "Notoriety Woman Blues," during which he sang, "To keep her quiet I knocked her teeth out her mouth." By contrast, Blake's final recording that year, "Sweet Papa Low Down," was a bouncy Charleston with piano, cornet, xylophone, and Blake's own happy jiving.

The guitarist journeyed to Richmond, Indiana, in June '29 for a series of sides with Alex Robinson on piano. "Slippery Rag" rocked the house with driving chords and mind-boggling solos. "Fightin' The Jug" reinforced his reputation for being a heavy drinker:

"When I die, folks, without a doubt,
When I die, folks, without a doubt,
You won't have to do nothin' but pour me out"

That August, Blake was recorded at the height of his powers. He blasted toe-to-toe with Charlie Spand, Detroit's premier piano boogieman, on "Hastings St. (Hastings St. Boogy)," named after a street in the city's old black section. John Lee Hooker, who describes this track as "the real blues," speculates that Blake may have lived in Detroit at some point, since Blake mentions a specific address, 169 Brady, during the song and then says, "Must be somethin' there very marvelous, mm, mm, mm. I believe it's somethin' that'll make you feel oh boy and how!"

"Yeah, Brady was right off of Gratiot," Hook explains. "Detroit was jumpin' then, and Hastings Street was the best street in town. Everything you wanted was right there. Everything you didn't want was right there. It ain't no more now. It's a freeway now, called Chrysler Freeway. But that was a good street, a street known all over the world."

Blake's next selection, "Diddie Wa Diddie," is a classic ragtime blues, with each break a minor masterpiece. Blake masterfully heightened the song's rhythmic intensity by rushing to the root of a new chord an eighth-note before the next downbeat. With its beautiful lines, harmonic chimes, and bluesy bends, "Police Dog Blues" also showcases his consummate guitarmanship. He recorded "Chump Man Blues" at the same session. "Blind Blake was basically a ragtime guitar player," notes Stefan Grossman, "but then he had things like 'Chump Man Blues,' which is a blues in D. It's not as exciting as his playing in C or G, but it has an almost Bahaman, Joseph Spence sound."

Blind Blake made a few more sides in Chicago later that summer--a 78 featuring Tiny Parham or Aletha Dickerson on piano, the agile instrumentals "Guitar Chimes" and "Blind Arthur's Breakdown." "Papa Charlie And Blind Blake Talk About It," the first Blake 78 recorded at Paramount's new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, joined two musical giants in a stuttering shuck-and-jive routine. With its exaggerated vocals and Jackson's utilitarian banjo strums overwhelming the arrangement, the song wasn't far removed from blackface minstrelsy. Blake was in fabulous form backing Irene Scruggs (billed as Chocolate Brown) during his next Grafton trip. Her "Itching Heel" no doubt struck a resonant chord among many women attached to bluesmen:

"He don't do nothing but play on his old guitar,
While I'm busting suds out in the white folks' yard"
Blake, in turn, responded to her verbal jabs with sped-up guitar parts.

Beginning with his May '30 solo sides, the sheen was mostly gone from Blind Blake's playing and singing. "When he started to drink too much--you can hear it towards the end--it just doesn't work anymore," observes Cooder. "He's physically past it, because you've got to be sharp to sound that good." He rekindled the old fire in "Righteous Blues" that December, and made a final appearance as a sideman in May '31 behind Laura Rucker. Blake cut three 78s under his own name that year, but no copies of "Dissatisfied Blues" /"Miss Emma Liza (Sweetness)" or "Night And Day Blues"/"Sun To Sun" are known to survive.

His two-part "Rope Stretchin' Blues" tells the woeful tale of a man who catches a stranger in his house, busts his head with a club, and winds up hanging for it.

The final Blind Blake release, the old Victorian music hall standard "Champagne Charlie Is My Name" backed by "Depression's Gone From Me Blues," which recycles the "Sitting On Top Of The World" melody, was recorded in Grafton during June 1932. But is it Blake? "Even though it says Blind Blake on the label on both sides," says Gayle Dean Wardlow, "it seems like that last record's a split side--one side is him, and one side is not him. 'Depression's Gone From Me Blues'--that's Blake. I think 'Champagne Charlie' is by someone else--it doesn't sound like Blake to me." Grossman concurs: "That 78 doesn't have his taste, his feel. Who knows? It might have been somebody else, even a different Blind Blake."

The bluesman's final fate is uncertain. "Blind Blake--now, that's another one that's a mystery," reported Georgia Tom Dorsey during the 1960s. "How he got out of the show [business], I don't know. But he was a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with, as far as I'm concerned." After Paramount folded in '32, Blake never recorded again. "I figure he went back to Jacksonville when his recording contract was over," says Wardlow. "No one's ever found out what happened to him. Gary Davis said that Blake was hit by a streetcar, and that's the only rumor of his death that I know of. Maybe he got robbed and killed, 'cause he was blind."

For a while, though, Blind Blake's records sold almost as well as Blind Lemon's, and he had a tremendous impact, especially in the Southeast. Personally, I'd like to believe Blind Blake lived the lines he sang in "Poker Woman Blues":

"Sometime I'm rich, sometime I ain't got a cent,
Sometime I'm rich, sometime I ain't got a cent,
But I've had a good time everywhere I went"
Victrola and 78 Journal Issue 9