Blind Blake

Blind bluesman's intricate, syncopated style of guitar playing led him to be dubbed "King Of The Ragtime Guitar."

Arthur Blake, b. 1895 in Jacksonville, FL, d. 1934 in Milwaukee, WI. Little is known of Blake's life. Promotional materials from Paramount Records indicate he was born blind and give his birthplace as Jacksonville, Florida, and he appears to have lived there during various periods. He seems to have had relatives in Patterson, Georgia. Some authors have written that in one recording he slipped into a Geechee or Gullah dialect, suggesting a connection with the Sea Islands. Blind Willie McTell indicated that Blake's real name was Arthur Phelps, but later research has shown this is unlikely to be correct. In 2011 a group of researchers led by Alex van der Tuuk published various documents regarding Blake's life and death in Blues & Rhythm. One of these documents is his 1934 death certificate, which indicates he was born in 1896 in Newport News, Virginia, to Winter and Alice Blake, though his mother's name is followed by a question mark. Nothing else is known of Blake until the 1920s, when he emerged as a recording musician.

Blake recorded about 80 tracks for Paramount Records from 1926 to 1932. He was one of the most accomplished guitarists of his genre and played a diverse range of material. He is best known for his distinct guitar playing, which was comparable in sound and style to a ragtime piano. He appears to have lived in Jacksonville and to have gone to Chicago for his recording sessions, at one point having an apartment at 31st Street and Cottage Grove. According to van der Tuuk et al., he apparently returned to Florida for the winter. In the 1930s he was reported to be playing in front of a Jacksonville hotel.

Blake married Beatrice McGee around 1931. In the following year he made his final recording at the Paramount headquarters in Grafton, Wisconsin, just before the label went out of business. For decades nothing was known of him after this point, and he was rumored to have met a violent death; Reverend Gary Davis heard he had been hit by a streetcar in 1934. The research of van der Tuuk et al. suggests that Blake stayed in Wisconsin, living in Milwaukee's Brewer's Hill neighborhood, where Paramount boarded many of its artists. He seems not to have found work as a musician. In April 1933 he was hospitalized with pneumonia and never fully recovered. On December 1, 1934, after three weeks of decline, Beatrice Blake summoned an ambulance. He suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage and died on the way to the hospital. The cause of death was listed as pulmonary tuberculosis. He was buried at the Glen Oaks Cemetery in Glendale, Wisconsin.

Blind Blake Biography by Uncle Dave Lewis

Blind Blake is a figure of enormous importance in American music. Not only was he one of the greatest blues guitarists of all-time, Blake seems to have been the primary developer of "finger-style" ragtime on the guitar, the six-string equivalent to playing ragtime on the piano. Blake mastered this form so completely that few, if any, guitarists who have learned to play in this style since Blake have been able to match his quite singular achievements in this realm. Blind Blake was the most frequently recorded blues guitarist in the Paramount Records' race catalog; indeed, Paramount waxed him as often as they could, as he was their best-selling artist. By the time the Paramount label folded in the fall of 1932, Blake had recorded an amazing 79 known sides for them under his own name and had contributed accompaniments to Paramount recordings by other artists such as Gus Cannon, Papa Charlie Jackson, Irene Scruggs, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox to name only a few.

One would surmise, given Blake's importance, celebrity status, popularity and sizeable recorded output that we would know something about the man. And after more than five decades of searching conducted by experts on behalf of Blind Blake, we still don't know anything verifiable about Blake which he doesn't tell us on his records. Practically all of what is "known" about Blind Blake outside of that is a combination of conjecture, rumor, slander and nonsense. At one point a theory was advanced that Blind Blake's true name was "Arthur Phelps" and it is under this name that Blake's entry is filed in Sheldon Harris' Blues Who's Who. But the theory is easily debunked by Blake himself, who states on his 1929 recording "Blind Arthur's Breakdown" that his name is "Arthur Blake." He briefly breaks into Geechee dialect during the course of "Southern Rag," and this advanced a theory that Blake was really born in the Georgia Sea Islands and spoke Geechee as a first language, accounting for his "uncomfortable negro dialect" on records like "Early Morning Blues." But there is nothing wrong with Blake's "negro dialect," thus it was easy to disprove this ridiculous notion.

Blind Blake is known to have had family in the area of Jacksonville, Florida and was likely born there; Blake may have grown up in Georgia. Blake was first seen in Chicago in the mid-1920s. His birth date is assumed to be sometime between 1895-1897, as the only existing photo of Blind Blake, taken at his first Paramount session in August, 1926, shows a man of about thirty. Interviews with some of the musicians personally acquainted with Blake only reveal that he had a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for liquor. No one has discovered any reliable account of what happened to Blind Blake after his last Paramount session in June 1932. The story that has Blake murdered in Chicago shortly after his Paramount date did not hold up after an intensive search of local police files. The most reasonable notion about what might've happened to Blind Blake after 1932 is that he drifted back to Jacksonville and lived a few years more, with 1937 suggested as a possible date of death. In the summer of 1935, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle led an Archive of Folk Song expedition into the area where Blake is likely to have resettled and canvassed it for black musicians, yet never encountered him.

Many of the recordings made by Blind Blake are singled out as classic early blues performances, too many to be listed in detail here. But a few that stand out include "Early Morning Blues," "Too Tight," "Skeedle Loo Doo Blues," "That Will Never Happen No More," "Southern Rag," "Diddie Wa Diddie," "Police Dog Blues," "Playing Policy Blues" and "Righteous Blues." Several of Blind Blake's original tunes are by now country-blues standards, and judging from the further developments in Atlanta-based Piedmont blues, Blake's influence there must've been formidable, even if it came only by way of recordings. Anyone who hears Blind Blake can't help but be astonished by his sincerity, his gentle, off-the-cuff humor and the sheer effortlessness with which he plays some of the most treacherously complex finger-work on the face of creation.

Blind Blake is not to be confused, incidentally, with Blake Higgs, a Bahamian Calypso artist who also recorded as "Blind Blake."