Between 1890 and 1895 – Between 1933-1940
Arthur Blake, a.k.a. Blind Blake, was a prolific and talented guitarist who is often referred to as ‘King of the Ragtime Guitar.’ His complex and intricate fingerstyle techniques and diverse repertoire have influenced and inspired generations of players, including
Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie McTell. His style is very distinctive and difficult to imitate, owing to his original ‘rolling thumb’ technique that basically doubles his accompaniment rhythms. He probably owes more to the piano than to any of his guitar contemporaries. Very little is known of his life, and there is only one known photograph in existence.
His birthplace is listed as Jacksonville, Florida by Paramount records, but even this can’t be substantiated, others argue he was born on the Georgia Sea Islands. Nothing is known of his death, and even his name has been disputed, some claim his real name was Arthur Phelps.
Blake reportedly moved to Georgia in his late teens and made a living as a street performer, also traveling between Florida and Ohio playing parties, picnics, fish fries and suppers. He began his recording career in 1926, cutting two sides for Paramount Records, West Coast Blues and early Morning Blues, both sold well. He became so popular that Paramount would sometimes release numerous records under his name every month and he eventually went on to record some 80 sides, his best known piece today is arguably Diddy Wah Diddy. When sales began to dwindle in 1929 he began touring with a vaudeville show owned by his friend George Williams called Happy-Go-Lucky, he continued doing this until the early 30’s. He recorded his final songs for Paramount in 1932, when the company went bankrupt.
Details of his death are sketchy, even the year and place can’t be confirmed. There are many different first hand accounts of his demise, ranging from alcoholism, to getting hit by a streetcar, to murder. All that is certain of this mysterious and incredible talent is that he died way too young.
As with a lot of the musicians we discuss here, its hard to identify any one album as ‘definitive,’ they all have something unique to offer, and as you know Blind Blake didn’t release albums per se, these are all collections of sides. Here are a few recommendations which highlight some of the highlights, and contain great combinations of his recordings.
The Best of Blind Blake
There are really only two routes to go when embarking on a Blind Blake collection, the ‘best of’ way or the ‘completist’ way. There are various collections available; we feel that this is one of the better best of compilations because it contains some of his best known material, as well as a good selection of lesser known songs. This is the perfect album for discovering this one-of-a-kind talent.
For your money, you can’t do any better than this collection from JSP Records. Five CDs containing everything he ever recorded, and nearly the same price as the best of compilations. JSP albums have a tendency to disappear quickly, so if this is what you’re looking for order it as soon as you can. The other option is to collect these as single CD’s through the Complete Recorded Works series, but unless you’re looking for a few specific songs not included on the JSP collection, this is way gets a little too expensive.
For Further Study
Blind Blake by Stefan Grossman/Early Masters of American Blues Guitar (Book & CD)
The Guitar Of Blind Blake by Woody Mann (DVD)