Sunday, January 11, 2009

Song of the Week: "Rope Stretchin' Blues", Blind Blake

Very little is known about our Song of the Week artist. He recorded under the name of Blind Blake and was probably born as Arthur Blake, though some claim his name was Arthur Phelps. Where he was born, when he was born (late 1800's is all we know) and where and when he died are all a matter of vagueness. The only fact known for sure about Blind Blake is that he recorded 79 songs for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932. Further, we can confirm the one and only known photograph of a nattily dressed Blind Blake was taken at his first 1926 session when he recorded Early Morning Blues and West Coast Blues for the regional label.

Beyond that, here is what is known about our hero: Blind Blake was one of, if not the best darn purveyor of Piedmont Blues ever. The only man or woman whom I can think of to challenge for the mythical "Piedmont King Crown" would be the Reverend Gary Davis. Now, what is Piedmont Blues you ask? Good question, I'm glad you asked. The Piedmont Blues is a style of finger-picking blues that closely approximates or is deeply influenced by the pre-jazz ragtime piano work of people like Scott Joplin. Generally upbeat, fast and complex, it incorporates at it's soul, an alternating bass line played with the thumb while the melody is played on the top three strings with one or more fingers. The I-IV-V blues structure that is the norm today, is not adhered to in any way. Piedmont Blues gained favor on the Eastern Seaboard south from Washington, DC to Orlando, Florida in the early 20th Century and is named after the soil rich Piedmont Plateau which stretches along the Eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains through the same area. The music was rendered obsolete by the time World War II ended and remained an obscurity played by only a handful of men and women until the early 1960's when folklorist such as John Lomax, and his son, Alan Lomax, began recording finger-pickers such as the aforementioned Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Elizabeth Cotten.

Back to Blind Blake and onto the conjecture and rumors that fill out a vague profile. There are enough nuggets of information to suggest that Blind Blake may have been from one of the the Sea Islands off of the South Carolina or Georgia coast where a Creole-like culture known alternately as Geechee or Gullah flourished replete with it's own language. Blake makes a reference to late night Geechee dances and music and even briefly sings in the Geechee language in his song, Southern Rag. Further, his accent on such words as "dance" and "match", suggests a Creole-like drawl. Geographically, Blake makes numerous references to Georgia in his songs and in one song names two streets (and one address) that are both located in the port town of Savannah, Georgia. We know that he went to Chicago and Detroit for a while and the prevailing wisdom is that he returned to the South (hear his Georgia Bound for clues on this) where he died in the 1930's. People who knew him, Such as fellow blind itinerant bluesman, Reverend Gary Davis, have said that Blake had an insatiable appetite for liquor and some have suggested that this was likely the cause of his early death.

And to our Song of the Week, Blind Blake's Rope Strething Blues. I was turned onto this song not long ago by a friend of mine who used to play this often. Ironically, the song is not terribly reflective of Blind Blake's other work. It's slower and musically less complex than other of his songs such as Police Dog Blues, Diddie Wa Diddie, or Skeedle Loo Doo Blues. As a result Rope Stretching Blues stands out from the others. Most notably because of his dramatic use of minor chords, trills and relatively minimal flourishes. It's the tale of a man who catches a backdoor man speaking sweet nothings to his woman, kills the man, lays "him out cold with his heels in a tub", gets arrested by the Sheriff and is now contemplating "...if a women worth it now." The song reaches it's dramatic pinnacle, not with words, but with, at 1:09, the A-minor to E7 trills that release into the beautiful guitar break in C-major. "Mmmmm, Rope Stretchin' all day long. And just a few more days, I'm gonna be able to sing my song."

I hope you can get past the scratchiness of the 80 year old 78rpm record, and enjoy the music beneath the pops and hisses. I think it's worth it.


  1. Really good stuff. I love the way that he seamlessly alternates between the standard rhythm picking, single note lines, and the Django-ish gypsy strumming (I think this is what you referred to, perhaps more accurately, as 'trills'). For an 80-year-old recording this has amazing audio clarity, and Blake's performance strikes a nice balance between technical facility and gut-bucket emotion.

  2. This is super good stuff man. I had heard a local musician here in Antwerp who does some of blind Blake stuff. But I hadn't heard him for myself before. Keep this authentic blues coming to us.

  3. Thanks for stopping by Joren. On this post and on the Blind Willie post. We hope you hang around long enough to get comfortable and maybe have a beer.