Blind Blake Ragtime Guitar King – was the undisputed King of the genre of acoustic blues fingerstyle guitar known as Ragtime Blues. It wasn’t just his phenomenal speed (see the above video) or accuracy, but his playful approach helped define the style for many years. A giant like Reverened Gary Davis, also a legendary ragtime fingerstyle master said that Blake was a ‘sportin’ guitar player’, which was a huge accolade from a man who didn’t pass out complements lightly. Davis himself learned from an old ragtime guitar player called Willie Walker, who only cut two sides back in 1926. However, it’s easy to hear why this man was known as the Granddaddy of them all. The picking is effortless, accompanied by that laconic South Carolina singing style common to classic artists like Blind Boy Fuller and Floyd Council.
Several notable fingerstyle specialists came out of South Carolina, such as Fuller, Council and Pink Anderson. Pink and Floyd never met, but their names where forever fused together when Pink Floyd decided to name their group after them. It’s a characteristic of ragtime, or Piedmont, blues guitar playing that a dancing kind of syncopated rhythm is created that is very appealing – it’s really hard to stop you foot tapping! Syncopation occurs when there’s a subtle break form the natural rhythm of a piece of music, and the stress is changed from the normal beat to an off-beat measure. The result is a kind of ragged rhythm. Done properly, it’s exciting and a real challenge to perform properly.
The basics of ragtime blues guitar have been around for a long, long time. Mississippi John Hurt played a slow kind of alternating bass pattern that was very like the ragtime patterns we know today. Nowadays there are some incredible guitar arrangements of old Scott Joplin rags that require extraordinary dexterity to perform, but all of these came from the roots of blues guitar and the path-finding work of the original classic blues men. Luckily for us and posterity, Blake was in his prime when there was an interest in so-called Race Records in Afro-American communities, a fact which was quickly exploited by record companies, who produced records for this small but growing audience. At this time, the communities in the evolving Northern cities of America has a little extra money and an era was born, whose zenith was between the early 1920s to the 1930s.
After this period, hard times caused the companies to abandon this section of their business and the blues men went back to work, or eithr eked out a living as best they could playing rent parties, or on the street. Davis himself never enjoyed any success in his younger days, but spent most of his time playing on the streets in Harlem where he lived.
Blind Blake Ragtime Guitar King – The Undisputed Master
Blake kicked off his recording career with a stunning exhibition of fingerpicking mastery called ‘West Coast Blues’. Problem was – how to improve on such a masterpiece? IMO he never did better this first effort. Instead, he recorded the same basic thing several times, giving it a different title and inserting slight variations. Some of his best work was in the key of G, in which he produced medium paced and fast songs with high levels of syncopation and interesting bass rhythms. In fact, he was always looking to introduce picking patterns that are very tough for people to copy, and for the most part he succeeded. West Coast Blues in C is extremely difficult to play up to speed, and his Police Dog Blues in open D has only ever been successfully copied by Ry Cooder – again, IMO (although I have tried very hard to duplicate it!)