Working The Street Corners-With The Blues Singer Blind Willie McTell In Mind
By Zack James
Seth Garth, the fairly well-known music critic for the American Folk Gazette, had always been intrigued by what he called the “blinds,” not the old railroad jungle hobo, tramp, bum use of the term “riding the blinds” but his own personal shorthand way to describe the large number of old blue men, mainly country blues guys who made a living on the streets mostly on the towns down South who were blind. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Earl Avery, Blind Amos Morris, you get the point, get the picture. Get the picture too of guys hanging on the street corners, hat in hand or maybe in front of them on the sidewalk a guitar at the ready. Guys, and gals still do that today on urban streets and in subways although Seth never remembered any of them being blind, at least not really blind although he had run up against a couple of con artists working a grift faking that blind deal.
He often wondered, and wonder is all he could do since all those august names had passed beyond well before he came of age, before he became old enough to appreciate the blues tradition that he got hopped on as a kid after accidently hearing Blue Blaine’s Blues Hour out of Chicago one fugitive Sunday night when the airwaves were in just the right seventh house position in his growing up town of Riverdale just west of Boston. Or something like that since even though a science wiz in high school, a guy who went on to be a weather man (not Weatherman like in the 1960s SDS split-off leftist action of whom he had known a few of them as well after a series of articles he did on the theme of music and politic using Bob Dylan’s phrase “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) tried to patiently explain that it was not some voodoo magic but had to do with airwaves and wind currents. Whatever had caused that intersession that hooked him for good even though he did not hear anything by any of the previously mentioned blues artists that night. That would come much later after he became an aficionado and became, maybe as a result of those fugitive airwaves, a folk music critic back in the day for several then thriving and authoritative alternative folk and blues publications.
According to ‘Bama Brown, the great harmonica player for Johnny Boy William’s blues band who was the last living link to those “blinds” the reason that they were able to survive on the streets is because even in the Jim Crow South a blind black man posed no direct threat to Mister. That they could walk the streets with their hats or little tin cups, maybe with some black sister to aid them (true in the cases of Blind Willie and Blind Blake), maybe sing harmony in an off-hand minute, maybe play a little tambourine to draw a crowd, to give the word since preaching on the white streets, the streets where the money was on say a drunken sot Saturday, by a black man was frowned upon. Whites had their own set of holy-rollers to patronize and did not need any blacks to draw away from their purses. That would get a black guy, blind or not a swift kick back to Negro-town, to the cheap streets.
That was ‘Bama’s story anyway and it sounded plausible, and probably was as close to a reason that the blinds survived as any but later after some research, after listening to some precious oral histories provided to the Library of Congress by the Lomaxes, father and son, Seth started to question whether ‘Bama had the deal down pat as it seemed at the time (and as he had written about in an article about ‘Bama as the last living link to a lot of the old country blues singers, especially the Delta boys from where he had hailed before heading north to Chicago and fame with Johnny Boy).
Seth had been particularly struck by one oral interview given by Honey Boy Jamison, a great slide guitarist in the mold of Mississippi Fred McDowell, who before he passed away in the late 1940s told Alan Lomax, the son, that the real reason that the “blinds’” were left alone was that in their heyday, the late 1920s and early 1930s before the Great Depression hit hard and nobody had spare change for records or for giving alms to anybody, even blind men was that the record companies from New York and Chicago mainly would sent scouts out to the small towns of the South looking for talent. Looking for a sound for their ‘‘race” labels and in the process those agents would get word out that there was dough to be had if anybody, anybody okay, could find some talent. Obviously the roughnecks and hillbillies were as anxious to get dough as anybody else and the only way they could grab some was listening to the black guys on the streets, on Mister’s streets. And the only guys allowed on Mister’s precious streets were the “blinds.”
Seth found that piece of news interesting but he was more than a little pissed off that old ‘Bama whom Seth had good cash to for his interview had “forgotten” to tell him about that possible explanation. Especially since ‘Bama at that very time was with Johnny Boy when RCA came looking for a new black sound and had been scouted by Mac Duran, a well-known white record agent in Memphis at the time. Damn.