Rough Guide Series Honors Blind Blues Legends

The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Lemon Jefferson – Rough Guide to Country Blues Pioneers (World Music Network, 2013)

The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Willie Johnson – Rough Guide to Gospel Blues Legends (World Music Network, 2013)

The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Blake – Rough Guide to Ragtime Blues and Hokum (World Music Network, 2013)

It seems odd to release a series of albums whose theme – beyond genre – is blindness, but that is what connects the past three releases in Rough Guide’s Blues Legends series. In a series that includes such notable names as Leadbelly, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, and John Lee Hooker, the addition of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Blind Blake speaks volumes to the importance of these three artists beyond the novelty factor. It also raises interesting questions about changing perceptions of disability and musicianship, especially in light of the tragic, early ends that all three men met with.

It was not uncommon to assign the blind to musical life, a practice that was found in Europe (in the case of both cathedral organists and street musicians), parts of Africa, and East Asia (Confucius discusses blind master musicians in The Analects). This conflation of blindness and musicianship accompanies the idea of those without sight having a keener sense of hearing, and in some cases even supernatural or spiritual powers that manifest in music.

In the case of Blind Willie Johnson, this connection between the spiritual and musical was pronounced: he sang and preached the gospel, lived and died tragically in a church. Blind Lemon’s music tended to stay in the sensual world with the exception of his ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’ which takes on uncanny proportions in due to the fact that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Chicago upon his death in 1929 (which was memorialized some sixty years later with a proper headstone). Of the three, the absolute heathen was Blind Blake, known for both his staggering virtuosity and hard drinking ways, which lead to his death at the age of 40.

The musical surprise of the three is Blind Blake. While most guitarists cite Robert Johnson as the premier blues guitarist, the perfect mix of vocal expression and lightening fingers, Blind Blake’s playing is at a completely different level. His up-tempo Piedmont finger style guitar playing and ability to simultaneously hold melody and accompaniment are astounding and unparalleled. The album also features duets with a bones player and work with a small trio where Blake’s guitar is let loose.

The accompanying CD, despite its rather unfortunate title, has some excellent tracks, including Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot’ and Charley Patton’s ‘Hang it on the Wall’. Most importantly, both Blind Blake and Ragtime Blues and Hokum are part of a subtle but important movement to revive the ragged sounds of early African-American culture (referred to as ‘bug music’ by woodwind prodigy Don Byron) as important, virtuosic, and deeply meaningful music, rather than music to accompany cheap cartoons and chintzy commercials.

Blind Lemon was by far the best known of the three, labeled as the ‘Father of the Texas Blues’ by Paramount Records, and receiving relatively large sums of money for his recordings. In the late 1920s, a boom time for blues and race records, he owned two cars, was driven around by a chauffeur, and lived well. He recorded lascivious blues odes like ‘Black Snake Moan’, gospel blues like ‘He Arose from the Dead’ and any number of stories of tragedy, foreboding, and heartache. His influence reaches from Robert Johnson, whose music utilizes the wide vocal range and rhythmic interplay of Jefferson, to rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins and the Beatles (‘Matchbox Blues’ was covered by both artists).

The accompanying CD, a greatest hits collection of country blues legends, is an education in itself. While somewhat shy on female artists – Memphis Minnie is the only one – it contains a who’s who of early blues artists, some obscure, some who continued on to star in the blues revival of the 1960s and beyond. All of the recordings date from 1920 to 1940 and demonstrate the stylistic diversity and staggering talent that resided within the blues. From this vantage we can clearly see why the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, and rock and rollers on both sides of the pond were fascinated with these records.

When put side-by-side-by-side, I found Blind Willie Johnson to be the most moving of the three. His haunting, howling voice is difficult to forget, and his recordings truly embody the often over-used phrase ‘he means every word he says’. His life as a country preacher, dedicated to spreading the word, cascades through with every verse. While his guitar playing – a combination of picking and slide common in country blues – is as sensational as any, his voice is unquestionably the highlight of this recording. Likewise, the accompanying CD of country gospel is a litany of music that laid the ground for what became Soul music and the legacy of gospel music that provided the soundtrack to political resistance in the 1950s and 1960s and determined the shape of black popular music for generations.

The three CD sets mark an important addition to the Blues Legends Series, and one that steps off the beaten path and highlights artists whose names are known but whose music is less readily available. From these recordings we can understand the paths that brought us everything from Soul to Funk, Rock to Hip-Hop, and R&B to urban folk, and get a rare glimpse at the talent that wowed so many almost a century ago.

Buy the albums in North America:

The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Lemon Jefferson – Rough Guide to Country Blues Pioneers, The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Willie Johnson – Rough Guide to Gospel Blues Legends & The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Blake – Rough Guide to Ragtime Blues and Hokum

Buy the albums in Europe

The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Lemon Jefferson – Rough Guide to Country Blues Pioneers, The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Willie Johnson – Rough Guide to Gospel Blues Legends, & The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Blake – Rough Guide to Ragtime Blues and Hokum

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About Justin Patch

Justin Patch is an ethnomusicologist currently teaching in upstate New York. He has written about music since 2006 in papers in Texas and New York, and has covered country, Americana, pop, hip-hop, post-rock, classic rock and indie for a variety of publications.