Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blind Blake

One of my very favorite pre-war Blues musicians is Blind Blake, who recorded 70-some sides for Paramount circa 1926-1932. You may or may not be peripherally aware of him as part of the background story in Lee Child's Killing Floor, the first of the Jack Reacher novels.

I first got introduced to his music when I lived briefly in New Orleans and went on a spree immersing myself in the works of Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Charlie Patton, Barbecue Bob, Henry Thomas, Scrapper Blackwell, Sam Collins, Kokomo Arnold, Peg Leg Howell, Blind Boy Fuller, Son House, Furry Lewis, Washboard Sam, Tampa Red, The Hokum Boys, Memphis Jug Band, Frank Stokes, Georgia Tom Dorsey, Black Ace, Papa Charlie Jackson, Sleepy John Estes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Josh White, Robert Nighthawk, etc. Many of his songs including Hastings Street, Come On Boys Let's Do That Messin' Around, Diddie Wa Diddie, and He's In The Jailhouse Now were a huge influence on me during my own roving "lost years" as a street-busking "Creeps Music" songster.

But of all the obscure and unknown blues musicians out there, of whom we know so very little, it never ceases to amaze me how little we know about Blind Blake, who was a successful recording artist in his day. But there's scarcely even convincing evidence that Blake even existed, at least as he was presented. Only one photograph is known to exist of Blind Blake, seen in a Paramount Records catalog with an obviously fraudulent signature.

According to William Barlow's book Looking Up at Down, Blind Blake's real name was Arthur Blake, and he was born in Jacksonville, Florida. As part of the odd spate of blind blues singers during this period in American history, he traveled widely in the south by himself, performing his music. Reportedly he moved to Chicago in the late 20s, where his apartment was said to be a popular hangout for many of the city's legendary bluesmen. In 1932, reports Barlow, Blind Blake joined a travelling minstrel show - and then vanished, never to be heard from again.

This is all complicated by reports of a few sources (including Blind Willie McTell, who knew Blake personally) that his real name was actually Arthur Phelps - but on the record "Papa Charlie Jackson and Blind Blake Talk About It", Jackson directly asks Blake his real name and Blake replies, "my right name is Arthur Blake." More complicated still, a 1934 death certificate from the Milwaukee, WI area lists Newport News as his 1896 birthplace, not Jacksonville, Florida. My own theory is that perhaps Blake attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and may have lived in nearby Jacksonville for a time. The Paramount Records biographers, not known for their attention to exacting detail, may have confused Blake's having been "from Jacksonville" in his youth with specifically being born there.

And is the grave under the name Arthur Blake in Glendale, Wisconsin (Evergreen Cemetery/Glen Oaks Cemetery), grave #72, Range #115, really Blind Blake? I'm not really seeing a chain of evidence, aside from the identical name and the fact that that death certificate lists his occupation as "artist/musician". And what was he doing in Wisconsin anyway, married to a woman named Beatrice? Some theorize that Paramount Records was hosting him, but Paramount had already gone out of business by that time.

As if these issues don't muddy the waters enough, there's two, maybe three other people who used the Blind Blake name - one was white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang who was credited as "Blind Blake" on some sides. Another was Alphonso "Blind Blake" Higgs was one of the most popular musicians in The Bahamas in the 1950s, leading the house band at the Royal Victoria Hotel. Why he chose to use the "Blind Blake" name is unclear. Thirdly, Stefan Grossman and Gayle Dean Wardlow have suggested that Blake's final record, "Champagne Charlie is my Name", is not even really Blake but some imposter.

Even if Blake wasn't actually born in Florida, we are pretty sure he passed through these parts anyway, evidenced by references to it in songs like "Tampa Bound".

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