Cryin' Blind: Situating the Blind Blues Musician in History

By Rachel Lee
May 2010

Before World War II, the black population of the United States had a blindness rate five times that of its white counterpart.

The facts of their lives—including highly dangerous working conditions, social diseases spread by slum overcrowding and malnutrition—made them more susceptible to injuries and afflictions, and their general poverty and lack of health care access made it nearly impossible to receive the early treatment necessary to prevent blindness. While treatment and work opportunities for both black people and the blind have advanced over the years, there was a time when being a poor, blind black man meant having to sing for your supper.

That is why American culture is stamped with the iconic image of the blind blues musician.

From Blind Pig Records to the Blues Brothers, nothing quite screams blues louder than a pair of shades. Why do blind people wear sunglasses? Isn’t that about as useful as deaf people wearing ear plugs? The reasons for the shades are as myriad as the reasons for blindness. In some circumstances they're worn to hide eyes that have been disfigured. In other cases, bright light can be painful to the eyes. Many blind people have varying degrees of sight and though they may be legally defined as blind, they can make out shapes and colors.

W.C. Handy, named “The Father of the Blues,” described the musicians he saw around Clarksdale as “blind singers and footloose bards.” Handy himself went blind at the age of 30 due to an accidental fall from a subway platform in New York City.

Here is a list (by no means definitive) of some of the more noted blind blues musicians.

Blind Blake (born Arthur Blake)
Born: circa 1893 in Jacksonville, Florida
Died: circa 1933
Instrument: Guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Unknown as much of Blake’s life is shrouded in mystery
Recordings: About 80 tracks for Paramount between 1926 and 1932
Where: Worked as a wandering musician throughout Florida, Georgia, and Ohio performing at medicine shows, parties, on streets, and at suppers and fish fries in the early 1920s
Trivia: He is not to be confused with another Blind Blake, a popular singer from the 50’s from the Bahamas who recorded calypso music.
Achievements: He was one of the greatest guitarists of his era--his ragtime based guitar style was the prototype for the piedmont style blues. His complex and intricate finger picking inspired Reverend Gary Davis, Jorma Kaukonen, Ry Cooder, Ralph McTell, Leon Redbone and many others.Blind John Davis (born John Henry Davis)
Born: December 7, 1913 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Died: October 12, 1985
Instrument: Piano and vocals
Cause of blindness: An infection at the age of nine
Recordings: Vocalion, Disques Vogue, Riverside, Happy Bird, Christi, Oldie Blues, Sirens, L&R, Red Beans
Where: Chicago
Trivia: The first blues pianist to tour Europe with Big Bill Broonzy
Achievements: Recorded with Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Tampa Red and others between 1937 and 1942

Rev. Gary Davis A.K.A Blind Gary Davis (born Gary Davis)
Born: April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina
Died: May 5, 1972
Instrument: Guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: According to Davis: “I was taken blind when I was three weeks old. The doctor had something put in my eyes that was too strong and that was what caused me to go blind.”
Recordings: 1930s-1970s, America Record Company, Bluesville, Prestige, Folkways, Kicking Mule
Where: Carolinas and New York
Trivia: Jorma Kaukonen recorded his song “I'll Be Alright”
Achievements:

Snooks Eaglin (born Fird Eaglin, Jr.)
Born: January 21, 1936 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Died: February 18, 2009
Instrument: Guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Lost his sight after an operation for glaucoma and a brain tumor shortly after his first birthday and spent two years in a hospital recovering
Recordings: 1950-1990s, Folkways, Bluesville, Sonet, Black Top, Imperial
Where: New Orleans
Trivia: Claims that one night after a gig when the rest of the Flamingoes were too drunk to drive, he drove their Studebaker back to New Orleans, recalling the road from memory
Achievements:

Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen)
Born: July 10, 1907 in Wadesboro, North Carolina
Died: February 13, 1941
Instrument: Guitar, steel guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Went blind in is teens either from ulcers behind his eyes due to snow blindness or an ex-girlfriend throwing chemicals in his face (there are multiple accounts)
Recordings: Around 120 songs ranging from ragtime to blues to novelty tunes for ARC and Decca
Where: Played on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, Danville and then Durham, North Carolina
Trivia: Syd Barrett noticed the names of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council in the liner notes of a Blind Boy Fuller record, hence the name for his band Pink Floyd
Achievements:

Blind Roosevelt Graves
Born: December 9, 1909 in Meridian, Mississippi
Died: December 30, 1962
Instrument: Guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Unknown
Recordings: 1929-1936, Paramount and American Record Company
Where: Mississippi
Trivia: Blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow has suggested that their 1929 recording “Crazy About My Baby” could be considered the first rock 'n' roll recording
Achievements: Played with his brother Uaroy Graves (who played the tambourine and was also nearly blind) on all of his recordings

Blind Lemon Jefferson (born Lemon Henry Jefferson)

Born: September 24, 1893 in Coutchman, Texas
Died: December 1929
Instrument: Guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Born blind
Recordings: 1925-1929, Paramount, Okeh
Where: Texas and Chicago
Trivia: Bob Dylan, B.B. King and others covered his song “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”
Achievements:

Blind Willie Johnson
Born: January 22, 1897* in Temple Texas
Died: September 18, 1945
Instrument: Bottleneck slide guitar and vocals
Cause of blindness: Unknown--some accounts say his stepmother may have blinded him with lye after she was beaten by his father when he was a teen
Recordings: 1927–1930, Colombia
Where: Preached and sang in Texas
Trivia: Led Zeppelin covered “Nobody's Fault But Mine”
Achievements:

Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier)
Born: May 5, 1898 in Thompson Georgia
Died: August 19, 1959
Instrument: 12-string guitar, slide guitar, harmonica and vocals
Cause of blindness: Born blind in one eye, lost vision in the other by late childhood but could read braille
Recordings: From 1927-1956: Victor, Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion, Decca, Library of Congress, Atlantic, Regal
Where: Mostly in Georgia and did some recordings in NYC
Trivia:

Achievements:

Sonny Terry (born Saunders Terrell)
Bor: October 24, 1911 in Greensboro North Carolina
Died: March 11, 1986
Instrument: Harmonica and Jew’s harp
Cause of blindness: Lost sight in one eye around the age of five and lost sight in the other in his teens
Recordings: 1940-1980s for Roulette, Folkways, A&M, Capitol, Alligator, ABC, Jax, Jackson, Red Robin, RCA Victor, Groove, Harlem, Old Town, and Ember
Where: North Carolina and New York
Trivia: Appeared in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy “The Jerk” with Brownie McGhee
Achievements:

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