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.”
“Trucking My Blues Away” is not about hauling produce. It’s about something else entirely (hint: what rhymes with trucking?) but apparently enough people got it that thousands of copies were sold.
The laid-back vocal style and dexterous finger-picking on his National resonator guitar proved that, while he may not have been as original as Blind Blake or Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller was more than capable of giving the people what they wanted to hear. And apparently, what the people wanted to hear was more songs with salacious double entendres. If the double meaning involved food, all the better. Hence, 1937’s “Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon.” Robert Plant was a fan.
See also: 1938‘s “What’s That Smells Like Fish?” Key lyric:
What’s that smell like fish, baby?
Food, if you really wants to know.
Smells like sardines and it ain’t in no can.
Same doggone thing you chucked at another man.
Sounds a bit like “Alice’s Restaurant” to me. Arlo Guthrie was clearly listening.
See also: 1939’s “I Want Some of Your Pie.” Key lyric:
You gotta give me some of it,
‘Fore you give it all away.
Fuller was known for having a pretty serious temper, and in 1938 he was sent to prison for shooting his wife in the leg in the heat of an argument. Being sent away meant missing the chance to play Carnegie Hall in the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert, where he would have shared the stage with the likes of Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, and Benny Goodman. Sonny Terry went in Fuller’s stead, and his career was arguably launched as a result.
Given the frisky nature of the songs heard thus far, you would be forgiven for assuming “Three Ball Blues” was about a man with a testicular deformity. But it’s not so. This is a blues number about being down on your luck to the point where you’ve lost your home, lost your car, so you go down to the pawn shop to pawn your guitar. The song closes with:
I asked that pawnshop man “what those three balls doing hanging on that wall ?”
Said “It’s two to one buddy you don’t get your things back out of here at all”
The B side is another song about being down, this time because of woman troubles. It’s also a great showcase for Sonny Terry’s harmonica.
These two songs were from Fuller’s first session for Okeh, in april of 1940. Nine songs were recorded over the course of two days. That’s incredibly productive by today’s standards, but Fuller had recorded as many as thirteen songs in a day before.
His next session with Okeh, in June of that same year, was more typical: Fuller recorded eight of his own songs and then played guitar on one song for Sonny Terry and four songs for Brother Georges and His Sanctified Singers. That’s right, the man who brought “What’s That Smell Like Fish” to the world also played Gospel. Music is music, in the end.
And unfortunately, that was the end of Fuller’s recording career. The next month he underwent a suprapubic cystostomy due to urinary blockage that may have been caused by kidney stones that resulted from excessive drinking. His health was never the same, and he died in February of 1941. Fuller’s protégé Brownie McGhee recorded this tribute to the man in May of 1941.
A moving elegy. Unfortunately, McGhee was coerced into recording as Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 by the head of Columbia Records in hopes of exploiting Fuller’s popularity. McGhee reclaimed his name when he hooked up with Fuller’s former sideman Sonny Terry in 1942 and found that they worked well together. Indeed, the pair continued to play as a duo until 1980, recording dozens of albums along the way. Blind Boy Fuller didn’t get a long life, but he was clearly an influence on the right people.