The nice thing about writing a music blog about particular artists is that it gives you an opportunity to research questions that you’ve long had about whole genres of music. Such as: Why were so many classic blues artists blind? Think about it: Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell. And Blind Boy Fuller, the artist who recorded this week’s 78.
As one might guess, there is more than one reason for the preponderance of the blind in the blues. Childhood malnutrition is one factor. Bad moonshine ingested as a young man is another. And then there is the simple fact that playing guitar and singing was a potentially decent way for a blind person to make a living; and if you were African American during the Depression, chances are good that you had a hard time finding decent work even if you were sighted. Growing up in the Jim Crow South just made matters worse.
Fulton Allen was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina in 1907, one of ten children. He learned to play guitar early in his childhood. When he lost his sight in his teens to the delayed effects of neonatal conjunctivitis, he took to playing in front of tobacco warehouses and on street corners and in house parties in Winston-Salem. By the 1930’s, Fulton and his wife Cora had settled in Durham, where he played with guitarist Floyd Council, harmonica player Sonny Terry, and washboard player George Washington. They were discovered by a talent scout named James Baxter Long and a recording session with American Recording Company soon followed. But first, Gorge had to change his name to Bull City Red, and Fulton to Blind Boy Fuller.
Their first single was more ragtime than blues and is all the more fun for it. From 1935, here’s “Rag, Mama, Rag.”