Issue December 13, 2011

Root Hog or Die

See that my grave is kept clean

Big news came out in September. Although chances are slim you heard it, it echoed from Grafton, Wis., to the UK, Holland, Australia and Japan, resonating among a highly specialized, slightly hysterical cadre of blues enthusiasts. Blind Blake’s death certificate had been found.

Some superlatives are likely called for here because, if you’re not a fan of recorded blues music of the 1920s and ’30s, this news means nothing to you. Arthur “Blind” Blake was one of the most gifted guitarists of the pre-World War II blues era, if not the most gifted outright. And though he’s talked about primarily in the “blues” context, his repertoire incorporated an astonishing spectrum of influences — minstrelsy, ragtime, jazz, Tin Pan Alley — into a style completely without peer. His guitar could shout like a horn, shimmy and stomp like a piano. His utter confidence with the instrument blazed trails into wildly unexpected melodic and rhythmic territory. Even after hundreds of listens to one of his tunes, an anxious feeling can still rise in your chest that makes you worry for his safety, in the same way that race fans at the 1973 Belmont worried for Secretariat’s: “He’s going too fast!”

Between 1926 and 1932, he cut 79 sides (many selling quite well) for the “race” catalog of the legendary Paramount label — the poorly recorded, cheaply pressed phonographic imprint of the Wisconsin Chair Co. (who shrewdly began making records as a logical extension of their Victrola business) — and then vanished into obscurity. Rumors circulated that he hadn’t made it through the Depression; fanciful stories about the circumstances of his death abounded. The Rev. Gary Davis, one of the only guitarists of Blake’s era who approached the same level of breathtaking ability, said Blake was killed by a streetcar. More famous was the tale that Big Bill Broonzy told Alan Lomax in the 1950s: Poor, drunk Arthur had fallen on the ice in a blizzard and, being too fat to get up, had frozen to death. Never mind that the single extant photo of Blind Blake doesn’t suggest much in the way of corpulence.

There’s a rich tradition of death-of-blues-singer myths. Broonzy’s friend Sonny Boy Williamson — the first of the three Sonny Boys — was murdered by a mugger with an ice pick. In the especially melodramatic (and untrue) coda, he managed to crawl up into bed with his wife, where he finally expired; she found him in the morning. A familiar canard claims that Bessie Smith, after a grievous car accident, bled to death because a whites-only hospital refused to accept her. (Edward Albee even wrote a play based on this compelling, if fallacious, story.) While she did basically bleed to death, the white doctor who came upon the gruesome roadside scene recalled years later that no ambulance would have taken a black woman to a white hospital in late ’30s Mississippi.

No one had any idea what became of Blind Blake after he cut his last record in 1932 (one of several late records, by the way, which some blues scholars argue weren’t even played by him). In the intervening years, the dearth of biographical details fused with the prodigious brilliance of the music he left behind to create one of the most enduring mysteries of the pre-war blues era. How could someone so talented just disappear?

His death certificate shows that he didn’t last long, dying of pulmonary tuberculosis on Dec. 1, 1934, two-and-a-half years after his last recordings were made. The coroner noted his final address in the Bronzeville section of Milwaukee and gave his occupation as “unemployed musician” — which doesn’t mean he wasn’t playing music, and maybe even making some kind of living at it, but that he hadn’t settled into the kind of day job that might rein in some of the late nights and heavy drinking he was rumored to enjoy. It’s likely that the booze went a long way in hastening his demise at the age of 38. The certificate led researchers to his final resting place: an unmarked grave in a potters’ field in Glendale, just 25 minutes south of the Wisconsin Chair Co. that made him famous. You can bet it won’t be unmarked much longer.

Nathan Salsburg is an archivist and producer for the Alan Lomax Archive, curator of the Twos & Fews label, and host of “Root Hog or Die” on East Village Radio.