I’m not going to apologize for that. Think about it. I didn’t start this shit about blind guitar heroes.
And the Lord said “So you got everything?”
Moses. “Yes Lord.”
“The tablets you swear to not destroy, or break, or whatever?”
“There is something I need you to do. It could be a hard and long task.”
“If it doesn’t involve collections of animals and a weird boat I’m in.”
“You must find a black musician…um, yes a blind black musician, who shall transform ragtime piano for the guitar.”
Moses spent the rest of his years wandering in the desert. To be fair it took the Creator of All another three or four thousand years to find a blind black musician who would transcribe ragtime piano for the guitar.
Arthur Blake was born in 1896 somewhere in the Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast of North Florida/ Georgia. There is a great deal of conjecture concerning his life and whereabouts in his short stay with us, but two things are known. He was born blind and he played the guitar like none before and few since.
I’ve explored and talked in this space of the kids who took the pain of slavery out of the cotton fields and barrios of America and created the art form that Ma Rainey would call the Blues. I am always enthralled and indebted to their voices. But primarily the instruments accompanying the voices and especially the guitar were crude, haunting possibly, like the extraordinary slide work of Willie Johnson who was a contemporary of Blake’s, but not the main focus of the music.
Before that stuff came out of the fields, other folks were taking classical piano styles and creating something new dubbed ragtime. This was a sound all its own and influenced Blake in a profound way. You can’t talk seriously about the finger picking style that Blind Blake created without talking about Scott Joplin.
Joplin was the son of musicians posing as laborers in the Deep South of post-Civil War Texarkana. As a young student he would have been exposed to the thrilling marches of the day being composed by John Philip Sousa. Joplin’s genius was in taking those straight ahead marches and playing them on piano in a ragged time phrasing. Joplin’s first published song was "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899. In fact, what we have here is a recording of this new ragtime style done for a commercial piano roll by Scott himself.
It’s interesting to note how Sousa, Joplin, and Blake overlapped so closely. Sousa wrote "Liberty Bell" in 1893 which was eventually used as the opening theme of the highbrow British television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Joplin published "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 when Arthur Blake was maybe 4 years old but Arthur would soon after conceive this crazy idea to adapt ragtime piano for the guitar.
Blake would play some traditional blues like his first recording, for the legendary Paramount Records in Grafton Wisconsin, "Early Morning Blues" which showed his humor that ranged throughout his music. But his real contribution was his adaptations of ragtime for guitar. "Southern Rag" was recorded in 1927 and is remarkable for his unbelievable guitar style along with his ability to vamp vocally over the top.
Ok that’s ridiculous. Usually when we explore early instrumental styles, and especially in blues, we chuck head pontiffs have to remind the dear reader to focus on how innovative the particular style was at the time, in its moment. Not in the case of Arthur Blake. There isn’t a modern guitar player out there who won’t listen to that and be amazed and in fact inspired to learn how to play like that. And on top of what he’s doing he’s talking to his audience! Crazy.
Blake’s straight blues included the rag style and showed licks copied forever by the best like Ry Cooder and Jorma Kaukonen. I won’t go into those guys but you need to look them up. You’ll be surprised that you actually already know who they are. Point is, we still study these runs and thumb pumping mimicking the left hand of the stride piano players.
This is "Black Dog Blues" recorded at the same session as "Southern Rag".
I love this next one because it shows the humor his audiences loved over the top of what would ordinarily be a sad blues tune. "Rope Stretchin Blues" comes from one of his later recordings for Paramount. Really.
Blind Blake died young like most of these clowns, but his influence will always be underestimated. So many players have developed this finger picking style after listening to Hot Tuna, Doc Watson, or Taj Mahal without realizing the styles came absolutely from Arthur "Blind" Blake. His recording career only lasted from 1926 to 1932 and he was gone by 1934. But he left us with stuff like "Seaboard Stomp". Enjoy.