Blind Blake’s Southern Rag

Blind Blake was one of the greatest guitarists of the early blues era, distinguished not only by the speed and precision of his playing, but by the fact that he was known for instrumental showpieces. Blues was generally considered a singing style, so even Lonnie Johnson — the consummate virtuoso who can lay claim to being father of both blues and jazz lead guitar — was advertised as a singer and his few instrumental recordings sold poorly and seem to have had little influence. (They are now widely admired, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone before the 1970s mention them.)

By contrast, Blake first hit with an instrumental called “West Coast Blues,” and it quickly became a kind of test and showpiece for guitarists across the South. Gary Davis learned it in the Carolinas, and could still play an accurate version in the 1960s. Even in the Mississippi Delta, which is known for a distinctively different guitar style, Blake was greatly admired, and I’ve got a story about that:

Blues scholars, like Western academicians in general, tend to get wrapped up in taxonomy and categorization, and by the 1970s many were  filing the wonderfully varied singer-guitarists who recorded in the 1920s into Delta, Texas, and Piedmont styles — the latter meaning the style popular around Georgia and the Carolinas, exemplified by Blake.

Delta blues was generally enthroned as the deepest and greatest style, and Robert Johnson in particular was hailed as the King of Delta Blues — and there was this terrific musician named Robert Lockwood who grew up in the Delta and got his start as a protégé of Johnson’s, then went on to explore jazz chording and became a foundational figure in the electric style  often called Chicago blues. Although he was a unique and important innovator, in later years Lockwood was constantly presented as a follower of Robert Johnson and asked to play the songs Johnson taught him… and since he had grown beyond that style by his teens, he eventually acquired a reputation among blues scholars and interviewers for being grumpy and uncooperative.

Fortunately, one day I was chatting with Steve James — a fine and knowledgeable musician — and he mentioned that Lockwood’s great musical love was Blind Blake. That surprised me, because Lockwood’s playing didn’t sound at all like Blake’s and although I was dubious of categories, Blake’s light ragtime seemed like the antithesis of the Delta style.

So when I finally got to meet Mr. Lockwood, I started out like everyone else, talking with him about Mississippi and Chicago blues, and he was typically taciturn — polite, but nothing more — so I thought what the hell, and mentioned Blind Blake…

Lockwood’s face broke into a broad smile, and he sounded genuinely eager as he asked, “You can play Blind Blake’s stuff?” I said yes, a bit, and he told me to get my guitar. So I did, and played him a bit of this, and he took the guitar out of my hands and played a much better facsimile of “West Coast Blues” than I will ever manage.

Frankly, I like Blake’s playing but my touch is nothing like his — not to mention my speed, grace, and virtuosity. So I’ve tended not to attempt his instrumentals, but when I got back from Africa I was looking for moments when blues players hinted at Congo-Angola rhythms (what folks in the US call Latin or Caribbean), and Blake’s “Southern Rag” has a section he calls “the Geechie dance” — a reference to the deeply African culture that survived on the Georgia Sea Islands — with some nice off-center bass figures.

So I worked up a version of this, which led to another treasured memory: Paul Geremia sold me the guitar I’m playing in this video, but continued to feel kind of protective about it, and one day he was fooling around on it and announced it needed a fret job — which, in this context, meant I should come to his place in Newport and he would refret it. So I did, and Paul got to work, and then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott pulled his mobile home into the yard…

…and for the next five hours Paul refretted my guitar and Jack talked — which is what Jack does, brilliantly, and is why they call him Ramblin’ Jack — and then Paul handed me the newly fretted guitar and I played some ragtime licks, and Jack asked, “Can you play Blind Blake’s ‘Southern Rag’?” So I started playing this, and damned if Jack didn’t start doing Blake’s spoken routine from the record, word for word:

Now we’re goin’ on an old southern rag. Way out there on that cotton field. Where them people plant all that rice, with sugarcane. And peas and so forth grow…