The Bahamian Blind Blake

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The Best of the Bahamian Blind Blake (Bahaman Blind Blake)

For better or worse, this CD is no longer available. Like the Congolese and Kenyan CDs on my African Acoustic page, it was dubbed from commercial recordings and I was offering it simply as a stop-gap until somebody issued a proper CD from the session tapes. The owners' representative has now written and complained, so I am removing it. There is a similar set available as a download from Amazon UK, but unfortunately it cannot be ordered from the US.

Blake Alphonso Higgs was the other Blind Blake--I assume his nom de guerre was in emulation of the blues guitarist, but it may just be coincidence. For many years he fronted the house band at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. His music was a unique mix of old island favorites, more recent calypso compositions, and a quirky grab-bag of minstrel songs and ballads from the United States.

Minstrelsy was an especially important element of Blake's work, evident both in his choice of the banjo and songs like "Watermelon Spoilin' On the Vine," "You Shall Be Free," and "J.P. Morgan" ("My Name Is Morgan, But it Ain't J.P."). Blake has none of the self-conscious dialect and overdone comedy that was typical of the minstrel genre, though, and his sidemen combined the jazzy guitar licks and harmonies of groups like the Ink Spots with West Indian rhythms, with the result that his recordings have an easy humor and swing that few musicians from any continent can match.

Of course, Blake also played lots of island songs, which he performs in a style that falls somewhere between the string-band calypso of Wilmouth Houdini and Jamaican mento, the slicker sound of tourist bands like the Bermuda Strollers, and the vocal group jive of American combos like the Cats and the Fiddle. They range from folk ballads like "Run, Come See" to upbeat tourist favorites like "Conch Ain't Got No Bone" and calypsos like "Love, Love Alone," the comic saga of King Edward's abdication to marry an American divorcee. (There is also a Joseph Spence connection: Blake knew Spence and provided his contact information to Fritz Richmond when Richmond went to Nassau to record what became the Happy All the Time album, and there are several overlapping numbers in their repertoires--which means that people who want to know what Spence was singing can often find out by listening to the Blake versions.)

And then there are unique oddities like "Jones (Oh Jones)," a cheerful ditty of impending murder: "I'm going to kill you dead and bury you/Dig you up for fun/I'm gonna sit down and watch the buzzards pick the meat off your bones/I'm going to take my Wade & Butcher*/Chop you through and through/I'm going to chop you into pieces just big enough for stew/And when I get through, everybody's gonna moan, 'Jones, Oh Jones.'" (*Wade & Butcher was a very popular brand of straight razor.)

This CD is drawn from a series of recordings made in the early 1950s, whose popularity with tourists led to them being widely heard in the US, and imitated by many early folk revival musicians. Johnny Cash's notorious rewrite of "Delia," for example, almost certainly comes via Josh White's cover of Blake's recording, and he was also the source for Pete Seeger's "Foolish Frog," Dave Van Ronk's "Yas, Yas, Yas," Paul Geremia's "Jones (Oh Jones)," and "Run, Come See Jerusalem," which was done by dozens of groups--and that's not to mention his influence on Harry Belafonte. All of which being said, it is kind of silly to applaud Blake as a source for other artists, since none of them ever bettered his versions, and few even came close.

Song titles:

J. P. Morgan
Jones (Oh Jones)
Yes, Yes, Yes
Pretty Boy
Run Come See Jerusalem
Love, Love Alone
Lord, Got Tomatoes
Watermelon Spoilin' On The Vine
Never Interfere With Man And Wife
Foolish Frog
Hold 'im Joe/Wheel And Turn Me/Jump In The Line
Peas And Rice and Coconut Oil
Consumptive Sara Jane
Conch Ain't Got No Bone
John B. Sails (Wreck of the John B.)
Eighteen Hundred And Ninety-One (You Shall Be Free)
Delia Gone
Bad Woman
Monkey Song
Oh Look Misery