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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Blind Blake, "Ragtime Guitar's Foremost Fingerpicker"

Blind Blake
"Ragtime Guitar's Foremost Fingerpicker"
Yazoo (1990)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Trends aren't a new concept. If you think artists are mimicking each other today, you can only imagine what it was like during the early years of last century, when just a few genres existed. One style that was all the rage during the 1910's was ragtime, the syncopated, piano-driven dancehall filler. It made sense that other artists, piano players or not, would try to mimic ragtime to gain appeal. Jazz certainly drew inspiration on its rise to popularity. Now this is just a theory, but Arthur "Blind" Blake probably learned the guitar while ragtime was at its height, and darned if he didn't take note.

To explain how Blake's style came to be known as "ragtime" guitar (more officially known as the "Piedmont blues"), you've got to understand the original formula. Pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin played "rags" by alternating between, generally, two bass notes with the left hand, while playing/improvising melody lines with the right. This isn't easy, even on a piano, but at least that instrument is designed around playing multiple parts. Many a blues guitarist provided his own bass rhythms using his thumb on the upper strings, but the way Blake plays the bouncing ragtime rhythms while adding the renowned improvisational flair of other blues guitarists is incredible.

"Southern Rag" is probably the best example on the "Foremost Fingerpicker" collection. There isn't much of a bridge, but the distinction between his rhythm and melody lines is amazingly audible. It's a hoot when he quickens his pace during the second verse, without altering his spoken-word narrative vocals. "Seaboard Stomp" might be more fun for those who don't dig riffing, as Blake punctuates the song with several short solos in between the verses, which also feature his distinct rhythm playing. It's worth noting how quickly he can sing while holding down two guitar parts, as he does during "Diddie Wa Diddie." He can also slow the ragtime style down to walking pace, as in "Hey Hey Daddy Blues."

Unfortunately, less than half of the tracks on "Foremost" provide the Piedmont style Blake is best known for. There are some gems well-worth hearing anyways, like the mournful "Rope Stretching Blues," but songs like the four listed above are what really set Blake apart from others among the earliest blues players. Tracks featuring other instruments, like the jazz-infused "Sweet Papa Low Down" are okay to skip, as the additional musicians steal Blake's spotlight.

"Foremost" is one of many albums, and I know we'll see more, that demonstrate just how dynamic an instrument the guitar could be. The Piedmont blues is just another stepping stone on the path to guitars becoming the central instrument in modern music.

INTERESTING FACT: Blind Blake is fairly obscure among blues musicians, but he was featured in one of Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" novels, titled "Killing Floor." As the title indicates, blues references abound, and the plot begins when protagonist Reacher travels to Margrave, GA because he heard Blake had died there. Unmentioned in the book is that Blake actually died in Milwaukee. Points for trying.

Southern Rag by Blind Blake on Grooveshark

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