Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records. He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history. Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities. With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.
Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896. Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia. Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life. Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg). Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387. He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson. Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634). Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137. To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day). Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again. He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression. Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.
Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on subsequent generations of blues guitarists, particularly on the style of blues playing that has since come to be associated with the Piedmont, and he exerted a direct influence on more than a few prominent musicians hailing from that region, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—on countless other musicians from around the United States, and even abroad, in the decades since. Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar. [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.” In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.” Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.” Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”
Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively. It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”. On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording. Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music. To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume. As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.
First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive. Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.
On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect. “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”
Updated with improved audio on February 21, 2023.