Blind Blake and Jacksonville, a historic stop along the blues music trail
In discussions about the stomping grounds of early blues musicians, Mississippi, Chicago, and Memphis are cited as havens for the birth of the first blues wave.
Delta blues arising by the waters of the Mississippi river. The swinging, big band style of Chicago. The intricate, bouncing notes of the Piedmont blues. Blues in other areas aren’t discussed as much, although the genre touched many different communities in the United States.
Musicians such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Lead Belly all helped connect these otherwise vastly different areas of America by way of the songs they penned and the storied legacies they left behind.
But besides the bright lights of New York, and the famous intersection in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Johnson made his legendary deal with the devil, there’s a lesser-known area where the blues flourished.
Acting as a southern hub for blues musicians of all varieties, situated underneath swaying palm trees and nestled by the St. John’s River, Jacksonville, Florida once hosted its fair share of blues artists making their way from New Orleans to Memphis and Chicago.
The area became so popular for the blues, it was once dubbed as, ‘the Harlem of the South.’
One iconic but mysterious bluesman even called Jacksonville home.
In the early 1900’s, you could find author Zora Neale Hurston and some of her family living in a house on Evergreen Avenue in the bustling downtown area. You could also visit the popular Hollywood Music Store where many recordings took place, or take in a show at the Globe Theater.
If you were lucky, you would also find guitarist and songwriter Blind Blake playing his unique style of ragtime if you made your way into the LaVilla area.
Back in the day, the quaint LaVilla area was an epicenter of creativity. Blues music played a vital role in its rich culture. LaVilla’s influence on the life of Blind Blake would later be heard in the recordings he did with Paramount Records in Chicago.
West Ashley Street Blues, one of Blind Blake’s most popular singles, is named after the street in Lavilla where locals and others came to experience live music and vaudeville shows and eat dinner.
West Ashley Street represented a strong black community with successful businesses driving a booming economy.
Because of the union army’s presence in the area post- civil war, many African Americans viewed Jacksonville as a good place to find employment and take up residence.
The early moving picture industry centered in Jacksonville provided minorities with new opportunities in acting, set work, and film making. The burgeoning blues music wave gave musicians opportunities to perform in the River City at music halls and theaters.
A fast-growing housing industry helped fuel the economy as more and more people moved to the area.
Structures dating to this energetic time can still be found in the LaVilla area today.
Though much of Blind Blake’s life is shrouded in mystery, much like fellow bluesman Robert Johnson, his recording career is a different story.
Blind Blake’s catalog consists of over 80 recorded songs. Within those 80 songs, you’ll learn more about him than you ever could by doing an Internet search.
Within one of his songs, Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It- Part One, he reveals his ‘right name’ as Arthur Blake.
Other songs of his include lyrics about subjects that remain relatable through generations—church and family, an appetite for whiskey, and longing for a woman’s love.
He tells the story of a love unrequited in one of my personal favorites of his, Police Dog Blues.
Though Blind Blake couldn’t see for most of his life, he never let that stop him.
A talented songwriter, his original claim to fame was his unique guitar style. He is known to be the primary inventor of a fingerstyle approach to ragtime guitar which creates such a presence that he sounds like he’s playing a piano (I admit when I first discovered him, while listening to one of his recordings I really did think he could have been playing a piano).
His originality earned him the title, ‘King of Ragtime Guitar.’
Born some time around 1895, by the late 1920’s Blind Blake found himself in Chicago recording for Paramount Records.
The label kept him busy. He was their best-selling artist, and according to his biography at All Music, “Blind Blake was the most frequently recorded blues guitarist in the Paramount Records’ race catalog.”
Blind Blake died mysteriously around 1933, with no official record indicating what happened to him despite extensive searches by music historians.
His life, much like Robert Johnson’s, ended way too soon.
But though his life was short, he lived it to his fullest potential.
Blind Blake’s gentle nature and disarming sense of humor was a perfect contrast to his commanding stance and magnetic musicianship.
The next time you are listening to the Chicago-inspired sounds of B.B. King, or the melodious haunting recordings of Son House, cue up Blind Blake’s Early Morning Blues and let him pull you in to the busy, sun-soaked roads of LaVilla. Then, head on down to West Ashley street.
Like that intersection in Clarksdale or the early recording studios of Paramount Records, though the bluesmen are no longer with us here in body, their music, same as their spirit, is made of an enduring matter unlike any other earthly form.
Their music they have created. Therefore, they can never be destroyed.
(By Rebecca Day*/August 1, 2019)
*Rebecca Day is a singer-songwriter and recording artist based in Jacksonville, FL. She formed The Crazy Daysies and performs around the South. Day also writes at Making Art Make Money. Day is the daughter of Indie Art South founder Kay B. Day.