Legend has it that two of the towering figures of country blues once busked on opposite sides of the street in Marlin, Texas. Both ‘The Father Of The Texas Blues’ Blind Lemon Jefferson and slide guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson have left remarkable musical legacies in the face of incredible adversity, dealing with blindness in conditions of poverty and confronted by all the disadvantages imposed by race segregation. It’s due to the incredible talent of these blues greats along with the likes of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Blake that the image of a blind bluesman is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and meaningful themes in the history of the blues.
It’s not by chance that such a high proportion of blind blues musicians flourished during the early years of the blues, playing everything from earthy blues and folk songs to rags and spirituals, as music was the only avenue open to them to earn their daily bread. In many cases blind from birth, their poor social circumstances meant that they couldn’t get the required treatment for their condition, thus ruling out a livelihood of working the fields or carrying out other manual labour. Other early pioneers such as Bo Carter & Sleepy John Estes went blind during their musical careers, although Estes had already lost the sight in his right eye at a young age when a friend threw a rock at him. Some such as Blind Willie McTell got their musical start in schools for the blind, which recognised music as one of the few options left to a blind man and hence offered this as part of the curriculum.
It can’t be denied that many of the featured greats developed a heightened sense of musicality that was a cut above the rest. This didn’t escape the attentions of the record companies, who were quick to play up the fact that their artist was blind to help the popular interest and sales of the records and duly made sure that the artist name was preceded by ‘Blind’. In the case of Blind Joe Taggart, speculation abounds about the legitimacy of his use of the prefix ‘Blind’, as according to his apprentice at the time Josh White, Taggart only had cataracts and could ‘see a little’, a classic example of how the greedy record companies milked the use of this term. The reality is that blindness aside, the recordings from the likes of Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake and Blind Willie Johnson are on another level in terms of both technical brilliance and emotional depth and are unsurpassed in the genre.
Even for the successful recording artists who gained a certain degree of celebrity status, the day-to-day existence of plying a busking trade on street corners, jook joints and labour camps etc. was a tough one, fraught with the dangers of disease, addiction and a sectarian society. Many sought refuge and deliverance in religion and would freely switch between playing blues and gospel, which although at face value seem quite distinct, are essentially two sides of the same coin, with both genres sharing a longing for a better life.
Many of these legendary figures hailed from the East coast and were pioneers of what became known as the Piedmont blues, a style typified by its ragtime-infused fingerpicking. One such exponent was Willie Walker, an artist shrouded in mystery who died young and only ever recorded two sides in 1930, with ‘South Carolina Rag’ being one of the absolute masterpieces of the Piedmont blues cannon. Some of his unrecorded compositions such as ‘Make Believe Stunt’ and ‘Cincinnati Flow Rag’ made famous by Reverend Gary Davis, were attributed to Walker, who had taught Davis how to play the guitar. Blind musicians often acted as mentors, and in turn Reverend Gary Davis went on to teach Blind Boy Fuller, who became a popular and commercially successful artist, also recording with the brilliant blues harpist Sonny Terry. This East coast blues family tree is a classic example of musical exchange and how the blues traditions and styles were passed on.
Each of these artists has an incredible story of how they managed to forge a career despite their affliction and against all the odds. With the exception of Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Sleepy John Estes, who went on to enjoy successful careers during the folk revival of the 1960s, most of these early blues pioneers either died young or faded into obscurity, however their work is testament to the sheer dogged determination of how to overcome adversity, leaving a lasting mark on the history of American music.