The great blind musicians of the blues.
The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863 declared that all persons held as slaves would, henceforth, be free (although this only applied to the 10 rebellious states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution freed all slaves in the USA, some 4 million. Unfortunately this did not have quite the desired effect. The slaves were now free but had no form of income while the plantation owners had land but no labour. The answer, or at least the system that became dominant, was sharecropping.
Basically the landowner let the labour force work the land and in return the crop was shared between worker and owner. The sharecropper made purchases all year from the local merchant's comissary and sold the crop to the merchant to, hopefully, pay off his debt. In most cases the sharecropper only got one third of the crop value. Even though they were destitute the sharecropper still had more control over what they could do with their lives. Clapboard churches and ramshackle meeting places soon popped up all over the South. The churches produced gospel, the cotton fields produced work songs or 'hollers' as they were known, while the meeting places often became juke joints where an amalgam of African folk songs, gospel, hollers and plaintive tributes to unrequited love gave birth to the blues.
The Thirteenth Amendment notwithstanding, racial discrimination was endemic to the South and there is virtually no documentation of the roots of the blues but by 1900 that was all about to change. Many of the early blues artists remember hearing the blues in this period although the only recordings by Paul Oliver have been completely lost. A large number of these early bluesmen were blind, showing great musical skill and considerable empathy with the music.
Born 1896 (or maybe 1893) in Jacksonville, Florida (or maybe not, his death certificate says he was born in Newport News, Virginia) Arthur (as he was probably called) was born blind. By 1926 he was recording, in Chicago, for Paramount Records for whom he cut about 80 tracks over the next six years, when the label went out of business. Unable to find consistent work after that he died in 1934 from pulmonary tuberculosis.
Blind Blake was a brilliant musician, one of the top exponents of his genre, he could make the guitar sound just like a ragtime piano. His work is being reassessed now and has provided inspiration for the current Piedmont Blues revival. His complex and intricate finger picking has inspired Reverend Gary Davis, Jorma Kaukonen, Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth, John Fahey, Ralph McTell, Leon Redbone and many others.
William Johnson was born in 1897, near Brenham in Texas. He was not born blind but his childhood is like something out of Grimms Fairy Tales. His mother died when he was very young and his father remarried. When he was five he told his father that he wanted to be a preacher and made himself a cigar box guitar (cigar boxes, which back then held 25 or 50 cigars, were popular as a basis for guitars). When he was seven years old his father caught his step mother cheating on him and beat her. In revenge for the beating she threw lye in Willie's face and blinded him.
His father often left him on street corners to sing for money. He honed his skills, using either a fast rhythm picking style or slide guitar (rumour had it that he used a knife as a slide but a picture shows him using a bottleneck). He laid down 30 tracks for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930. Many of his recordings have been covered by such luminaries as Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. His music has been used in a number of soundtracks, including the Blues Brothers, while the song 'Dark was the night, cold was the ground' is the penultimate track on the selection of music sent on the Voyager Space Probes.
He remained true to his convictions all his life, a poor preacher, and in 1945 his home, the House of Prayer in Baeumont Texas, burned down. The Reverend W. Johnson, having nowhere else to go, slept in the ruins, in a wet bed to fight the Texas heat. He contracted malarial fever, his second wife, Angeline, took him to the nhospital but being blind and black he was turned away to die in the streets.
Born 1893, again in Texas, Lemon Henry Jefferson has been called the Father of Texas Blues. His parents, Alex and Clarissa Jefferson, were sharecroppers. Lemon was the youngest of seven (or maybe eight) children and was born blind. In his early teens he learned the guitar and made money playing on the streets, outside barbershops and hotels, or for the local hustlers "They were rough. Men were hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night... he'd start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning... mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night."
He made a reasonable living from these performances and in 1925 Paramount Records took him to Chicago and gave him a car in exchange for the rights to his music. Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the early blues stars, along with Ma Rainey and Blind Blake. He had an intricate guitar style which incorporated the sounds of the street and the oil rigs. He also had an impressive vocal range. At the time few were able to emulate his virtuosity but he was immensely influential on the next generation of bluesmen including T-Bone Walker. He played with and became a friend of Leadbelly, a blues legend and activist.
Blind Lemon Jefferson died in December 1929 of a heart attack, the cause of which became the stuff of many stories from blizzard to robbery. 'Matchbox Blues' was voted one of the 500 most influential songs on rock and roll, while 'See that my Grave is Kept Clean' has been covered by a galaxy of stars including Bob Dylan, B.B.King, Peter Paul and Mary, Lou Reed, John Hammond and the Grateful Dead.
William Samuel McTeir was born in 1898, blind in one eye, in Thomson, Georgia, by late childhood he had lost his remaining vision. He attended schools for the blind in the states of Georgia, New York and Michigan and showed proficiency in music from an early age, first playing harmonica and accordion, learning to read and write music in Braille, and turning to the six-string guitar in his early teens. His father left the family when McTell was still young, and, when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering musician, or "songster".
He started recording on the Victor label, in Atlanta, in 1927 and went on to record on lots of different labels under a host of pseudonyms; Blind Willie McTell, Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Barrelhouse Sammie and Pig & Whistle Red among them. The Pig and Whistle was a diner in Atlanta where he often played in the car park. Like his fellow songster Lead Belly, who began his career as a street artist, McTell favored the somewhat unwieldy and unusual twelve-string guitar, whose greater volume made it suitable for outdoor playing. In 1934 he married Ruth Kate Williams who often appeared and recorded with him as Kate McTell.
In 1940 John Lomax recorded a two hour session with Willie in Atlanta for the Library of Congress Folk Music Archive. These recordings document McTell's distinctive musical style, which bridges the gap between the raw country blues of the early part of the 20th century and the more conventionally melodious, Ragtime-influenced East-Coast Piedmont blues sound. He died of a stroke in 1959. The Allman Brothers made 'Statesboro Blues a classic and Bob Dylan immortalized him in "Blind Willie McTell'. The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival is held annually in Thomson, Georgia.
Armenter 'Bo Carter' Chatmon was born in 1893 in Bolton, Mississippi. Little is documented of his life although he was a very popular and prolific musician. He had an unequaled capacity for creating sexual metaphors in his songs, specializing in such ribald imagery as "Banana in Your Fruit Basket," "Pin in Your Cushion," and "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me."
One of the most popular bluesmen of the '30s, he recorded enough material for several reissue albums, and he was quite an original guitar picker, or else three of those albums wouldn't have been released by Yazoo. (Carter employed a number of different keys and tunings on his records, most of which were solo vocal and guitar performances). Carter's facility extended beyond the risqué business to more serious blues themes, and he was also the first to record the standard "Corrine Corrina" (1928).
He also managed and performed in a family group called The Mississippi Sheiks comprising of his brothers, Harry Chatmon on piano, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and sometimes Sam Chatmon on bass along with a friend Walter Vinson on guitar and lead vocals. It was a musical family, the boys had learned to play from their father, an ex-slave who played fiddle, and their mother, Eliza, who played guitar. From 1927 on he laid down 110 tracks as a solo artist. Bo Carter went partly blind in the 1930's but continued to perform in between life as a farmer. He died of a stroke in 1964.
John Adam Estes, better known as Sleepy John Estes, was born in 1899 in Ripley, Tennessee. In 1915, Estes' father, a sharecropper who also played some guitar, moved the family to Brownsville, Tennessee. Not long after, Estes accidentally lost the sight in his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him. At the age of 19, while working as a field hand, he began to perform professionally. The venues were mostly local parties and picnics, with the accompaniment of Hammie Nixon, a harmonica player, and James "Yank" Rachell, a guitarist and mandolin player. He would continue to work on and off with both musicians for more than fifty years.
Estes made his debut as a recording artist in Memphis, Tennessee in 1929, at a session organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records. Estes was a fine singer, with a distinctive "crying" vocal style. He frequently teamed with more capable musicians, like "Yank" Rachell, Hammie Nixon, and the piano player Jab Jones. Estes sounded so much like an old man, even on his early records, that blues revivalists reportedly delayed looking for him because they assumed he would have to be long dead, and because fellow musician Big Bill Broonzy had written that Estes had died. By the time he was tracked down, by Bob Koester and Samuel Charters in 1962, he had become completely blind and was living in poverty. He resumed touring and recording, working with Nixon on tour and on works released on the Delmark Records label. His later records are generally considered less interesting than his pre-war output.
Many of his original songs were based on events in his own life or on people he knew from his home town of Brownsville, Tennessee, such as the local lawyer ("Lawyer Clark Blues"), local auto mechanic ("Vassie Williams' Blues"), or an amorously inclined teenage girl ("Little Laura Blues"). "Lawyer Clark Blues" referenced the lawyer, and later judge and senator, Hugh L. Clarke. Clarke and his family lived in Brownsville, and according to the song let Estes 'off the hook' for an offense. He also dispensed advice on agricultural matters ("Working Man Blues") and chronicled his own attempt to reach a recording studio for a session by hopping a freight train ("Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)"). His lyrics combined keen observation with an ability to turn an effective phrase. Estes suffered a stroke while preparing for a European tour, and died on June 5, 1977, at his home in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Fulton Allen was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, in 1907 to Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. He was one of a family of 10 children, but after his mother's death he moved with his father to Rockingham. As a boy he learned to play the guitar and also learned from older singers the field hollers, country rags, and traditional songs and blues popular in poor, rural areas. He married Cora Allen when he was young and worked as a labourer, but began to lose his eyesight in his mid-teens; the doctor thought it was a result of snow-blindness. A 1937 eye examination attributed his vision loss to the long-term effects of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis. By 1928 he was completely blind, and turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets.
By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and the "live" playing of Gary Davis, Allen became a formidable guitarist, and played on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, NC, Danville, VA, and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following which included guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, as well as harmonica player Saunders Terrell, better known as Sonny Terry, and washboard player/guitarist George Washington. He started recording for ARC in 1935 and did over 120 sides in the next five years. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics explicit and uninhibited as he drew from every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind Black person on the streets—pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death—with an honesty that lacked sentimentality.
Fuller's repertoire included a number of popular double entendre "hokum" songs such as "I Want Some Of Your Pie", "Truckin' My Blues Away" (the origin of the phrase 'keep on truckin'), and "Get Your Yas Yas Out" (adapted as "Get Your Ya-Yas Out" for the origin of a later Rolling Stones album title), together with the autobiographical "Big House Bound" dedicated to his time spent in jail. He died of pyemia brought on by excessive drinking, in 1940. He was so popular when he died that his protégé Brownie McGhee recorded "The Death of Blind Boy Fuller" for the Okeh label, and then reluctantly began a short lived career as Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 so that Columbia Records could cash in on his popularity
Cortelia Clark was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1907. We know very little of his early life. Clark lost his sight after an operation in the mid-1950s, and began playing and singing blues songs on street corners in Nashville. He also sold shopping bags, on 5th Avenue between Church and Union Streets, among other locations. Around 1964, Mike Weesner, a student at Peabody College, made a demo tape of Clark at Globe Studio. This came to the attention of Bob Ferguson and Chet Atkins of RCA Nashville. Felton Jarvis, Elvis Presley's producer, was enlisted to produce the album.
In December 1965, Weesner and Jarvis persuaded RCA to record Clark on the sidewalk, complete with prominently featured (but overdubbed) street noises and interactions with city dwellers. Clark performed both original songs and variations of familiar pop, country and blues tunes, including the Everly Brothers' hit "Bye Bye Love", Blind Boy Fuller's "Truckin' My Blues Away", and "Walk Right In" as popularised by the Rooftop Singers.
Cortelia Clark was born in Laurens, South Carolina (in the heart of Piedmont country) in 1896 - strange how many of these great bluesmen were born in that decade. Gary was the only one of eight children his mother bore who survived to adulthood. He became blind as an infant. Davis reported that his father was killed in Birmingham, Alabama, when Davis was ten, and Davis later said that he had been told that his father had been shot by the Birmingham High Sheriff. He recalled being poorly treated by his mother and that before his death his father had given him into the care of his paternal grandmother.
He took to the guitar and assumed a unique multi-voice style produced solely with his thumb and index finger, playing not only gospel, ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original tunes in four-part harmony. In the mid-1920s, Davis migrated to Durham, North Carolina, a major center for black culture at the time. There he taught Blind Boy Fuller and collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene including Bull City Red. In 1935, J. B. Long, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists, introduced Davis, Fuller and Red to the American Record Company. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis' career. In the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline and Davis migrated to New York.
The folk revival of the 1960s re-invigorated Davis' career and included a performance at the Newport Folk Festival and having Peter, Paul and Mary record his version of "Samson and Delilah", also known as "If I Had My Way" which is originally a Blind Willie Johnson song that Davis had popularized. He died in New Jersey in 1972.
Roosevelt Graves was born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1909. Very few biographical details of Blind Roosevelt Graves' life are known. He and his brother Uaroy (the only known occurence of this name, for many years people believed that this was an example of poor penmanship) began playing juke joints in the Mississippi Delta in the early '20s.
In 1929, the two brothers cut a number of sides for the Paramount and American Record Companies, which all appeared under Blind Roosevelt's name often as 'Roosevelt Graves and brother'. Uaroy was almost completely blind as well. They would continue to record until 1936. In the mid-'30s, the pair formed the Mississippi Jook Band with pianist Cooney Vaughn. The band recorded for the American Record Company in the mid- and late '30s. After leaving behind these handful of recordings, Graves disappeared in the early '40s. It is not known where he settled, nor is his death date known.
Blind Boys of Alabama first sang together in the glee club in 1944 at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama. Aged around nine-years-old at the time, the founding members were Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Fields, George Scott, Velma Bozman Traylor, Olice Thomas, and J.T. Hutton (the only sighted member). The earliest version of the group was known as The Happy Land Jubilee Singers and originally performed for World War II-era soldiers at training camps in the South.
The group’s first professional performance was June 10, 1944. In 1945, the members began touring the gospel circuit. During the 1960s and 1970s, soul music gained popularity at the expense of gospel music. Given that Blind Boys of Alabama was a traditional gospel group, its popularity waned during these decades. Soul music was spiritual and socially engaged pop music, and its sales quickly exceeded those of its gospel forerunners. As a result, a number of gospel artists switched over to soul music. However, Blind Boys of Alabama made the choice to retain their focus on gospel music.
Even though societal trends were shifting, Blind Boys of Alabama continued to be active in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the span of these two decades, the gospel group released thirteen more albums and worked with several different record labels, including recording for the Vee-Jay label from 1963 to 1965. In the 1960s, the group's hard-driving gospel sound could be heard from musicians such as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Marvin Gaye. In 1969, Fountain left the group for a decade to try to make it on his own. In the late 1970s, the group re-formed with all the original members. The band also joined the civil rights movement during the 1960s, performing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From 2000 onwards they have regained their former popularity winning numerous Grammy Awards.
Saunders Terrell was born in 1911 in Grensboro, Georgia, another Piedmont Blues master. His father, a farmer, taught him to play basic blues harp as a youth. He sustained injuries to his eyes and went blind by the time he was 16, which prevented him from doing farm work himself, and in order to earn a living Terry was forced to play music. He began playing in Shelby, North Carolina. After his father died he joined the trio of Piedmont blues-style guitarist Blind Boy Fuller.
When Fuller died in 1941, he established a long-standing musical relationship with Brownie McGhee, and the pair recorded numerous songs together. The duo became well known among white audiences, as they joined the growing folk movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This included collaborations with Styve Homnick, Woody Guthrie and Moses Asch, producing Folkways Records (now Smithsonian/Folkways) classic recordings. In 1938 Terry was invited to play at Carnegie Hall for the first From Spirituals to Swing concert, and later that year he recorded for the Library of Congress. In 1940 Terry recorded his first commercial sides.
Despite their fame as "pure" folk artists, in the 1940s, Terry and McGhee fronted a jump blues combo with honking saxophone and rolling piano that was variously billed as Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers or Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five. He also appeared in The Colour Purple directed by Steven Spielberg. With Brownie McGhee, he appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk. Terry collaborated with Ry Cooder on "Walkin' Away Blues" as well as a cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" for the 1986 film Crossroads. Terry died from natural causes at Mineola, New York, in March 1986, three days before Crossroads was released in theatres. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame that same year.
Ray Charles Robinson, "The Genius", was born 1930. Ray was blind from the age of seven. His musical curiosity was sparked at Mr. Wylie Pitman's Red Wing Cafe, when Pitman played boogie woogie on an old upright piano; Pitman subsequently taught Charles how to play piano himself. Charles and his (biological) mother were always welcome at the Red Wing Cafe, and even lived there when they were experiencing financial difficulties. Pitman would also care for Ray's brother George, to take the burden off Aretha. George drowned in Aretha's laundry tub when he was four years old, and Ray was five.
Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was completely blind by the age of seven, apparently as a result of glaucoma. Broke, uneducated and still mourning the loss of Charles' brother George, Aretha used her connections in the local community to find a school that would accept blind African American students. Despite his initial protest, Charles would attend school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945. Aretha died in the spring of 1945, when Charles was 14 years old. Her death came as a shock to Ray, who would later consider the deaths of his brother and mother to be "the two great tragedies" of his life.
From age 14 on he played piano to earn money though he often went without food for days. Things started to look up in 1953 when he began recording with Atlantic. In 1954 they released 'I Got a Woman', his first hit. Heroin use, including three arrests and a crossover to pop caused a decline in his popularity through the sixties and seventies, but following his signing with Columbia in 1983 he became a much revered star. He died of acute liver disease in 2004.
William Christopher Handy, the 'Father of the Blues', was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama. The log cabin has been preserved. Handy's father, a pastor, believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil. Without his parents' permission, Handy bought his first guitar, which he had seen in a local shop window and secretly saved for by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap, he was ordered to take it back but later bought a cornet.
He worked on a "shovel brigade" at the McNabb furnace, and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore. "With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable...It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated." He wrote, "Southern Negroes sang about everything....They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect..." He would later reflect that, "In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues". Handy organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes.
Later, Handy organized the Lauzetta Quartet. When the group read about the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way. They arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World's Fair had been postponed for a year. In 1902 Handy traveled throughout Mississippi, where he listened to the various black popular musical styles. The state was mostly rural, and music was part of the culture, especially of the Mississippi Delta cotton plantation areas. Musicians usually played the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano. Handy's remarkable memory enabled him to recall and transcribe the music heard in his travels. In describing "blind singers and footloose bards" around Clarksdale, Handy wrote, "[S]urrounded by crowds of country folks, they would pour their hearts out in song ... They earned their living by selling their own songs – "ballets," as they called them—and I'm ready to say in their behalf that seldom did their creations lack imagination."
In 1909 Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they started playing at clubs on Beale Street. The genesis of his "Memphis Blues" was as a campaign tune written for Edward Crump, a successful Memphis mayoral candidate in 1909 (and future "boss"). Handy later rewrote the tune and changed its name from "Mr. Crump" to "Memphis Blues." The 1912 publication of his "Memphis Blues" sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues; it was credited as the inspiration for the foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle, a New York–based dance team. Some consider it to be the first blues song. Handy sold the rights to the song for US$100. By 1914, when Handy was 40, he had established his musical style, his popularity increased significantly, and he composed prolifically.
The genre of the blues was a hallmark of American society and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. So great was its influence, and so much was it recognized as Handy's hallmark, that author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his novel The Great Gatsby that "All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor." Handy went blind after a Harlem subway fall in 1943. He died of pneumonia in 1958 with nearly 200,000 people gathering for his funeral.