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Monday, March 12, 2012

Blind Blake: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1 (1926-1927)


1) Dying Blues; 2) Ashley St. Blues; 3) Early Morning Blues; 4) West Coast Blues; 5) Early Morning Blues; 6) Too Tight; 7) Blake's Worried Blues; 8) Come On Boys Let's Do That Messin' Around; 9) Tampa Bound; 10) Skeedle Loo Doo Blues (take 1); 11) Skeedle Loo Doo Blues (take 2); 12) Stonewall Street Blues; 13) State Street Blues; 14) Down The Country; 15) Black Biting Bee Blues; 16) Wilson Dam; 17) Buck-Town Blues; 18) Black Dog Blues; 19) One Time Blues; 20) Bad Feelings Blues; 21) Dry Bone Shuffle (take 3); 22) That Will Never Happen No More; 23) Brownskin Mama Blues (take 2); 24) Hard Road Blues; 25) Hey Hey Daddy Blues; 26) Sea Board Stomp.

Arthur Phelps, a.k.a. Arthur Blake, a.k.a. «Blind» Blake (because, back in the day, what was a blind black boy to do but to play blindingly blisterous blues guitar?), only recorded for Para­mount for eight years (1926-1932), before the Depression drove him out on the road, where he either drank himself to death or got run over by a streetcar (accounts differ). I would be lying like a dirty dog, or a surprisingly exalted fanboy, if I told you that everything he recorded during those years deserves to be heard. Yet Blind Blake is still a tremendously important figure in the early growth of country blues; anyone interested in this type of music at all is obliged to have at least a one-disc collection (the 23-track long Best Of Blind Blake will do nicely).

The Document series did a good job of collecting all of the man's known output on four discs, though (with the usual reservation about sound quality: everything here is quite crackly-hissy, not as awful, perhaps, as on Charley Patton records, but still, reflecting the usual lack of quality con­trol for Paramount). The first volume goes heavy on filler, since on several of the tracks Blake is simply heard as a backing player for urban blues performer Leola Wilson — a Bessie Smith wan­nabe with a smaller set of lungs and an annoying nasal twang. And, honoring the contract, per­haps, Blake honestly does nothing but back up the singer — his playing on these slow numbers is utterly by the book, in fact, it almost seems as if he did not have any major liking for this type of music, simply playing for cash while he had the chance.

The first glimpse of Blake's greatness comes with ʽWest Coast Bluesʼ, jammed in between two takes of the much more straightforward 12-bar ʽEarly Morning Bluesʼ. It is the first example of his «ragtime blues», essentially a transferral of the genre's piano chord sequences to a guitar-based setting, which gives the music a decidedly rustic, rather than urban, flavor, but preserves all the toe-tappiness and playfulness. A «throwaway» instrumental dance number with a number of Blake's own spoken «directions» to the dancers, it shows a level of technicality that was quite rare even from jazz players at the time.

Then come the fully worded tunes — ʽCome On Boys, Let's Do That Messin' Aroundʼ, which, true to its name, already shows Blake «messin' around» with the chords as they go (showing his famous ability to «scatter» a musical line and then quickly pick it up together from the pieces for the next bar); and ʽSkeddle Loo Doo Bluesʼ, which does the same, but with an increase in tempo. With more and more confidence gained in the process, the man even starts to show off on others' records — ʽWilson Damʼ, on which he backs Leola Wilson again, already has the player eclip­sing the singer, as he changes keys in between verse lines and plays arrogant little flourishes even as Leola is singing, pulling away the attention.

Instrumental diversity is not the key here — one of the tracks features a lonesome kazoo accom­panying the guitar, and there are a couple of instances of «rattlebone» percussion — but every time Blake picks up speed, that ceases to be an issue. It all culminates in the last track on the disc, ʽSea Board Stompʼ, where the man pulls all the stops: sometimes slipping into one-bar long waltz tempos, sometimes spinning sentimental folksy phrasing, then effortlessly going back into rag­time mode, then showing a bit of sliding technique, then going into a brief bluesy interlude, then «scattering» the melody and picking it up again — basically, this is everything you need to know about Blind Blake rolled into one.

ʽSea Board Stompʼ alone would have earned this early collection a thumbs up; the fact that it is loaded with about a dozen not-too-interesting slow blues numbers (and even these tend to be «de­corated» by the end of the disc) should certainly be disregarded, since Blind Blake was a man of his times, and recorded what the people of his times wanted to hear — and the demand for gene­ric 12-bar blues was greater back then than it has been ever since. Well, maybe not «greater», but «holier» or something, if you get my drift.

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