LaVilla: Blind Blake Walking, West Ashley Street

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

There’s a black dog in the middle of West Ashley Street.

There was little need in that time and in that place and in that skin color to understand that what happened here, live and loud and real as it was, happened under a cloak of invisibility. What happened in these streets, on these stages, in these houses occurred in containment. In the very near future, histories would be written by people who couldn’t see him standing here, talking, laughing, drinking whiskey in that crowd of people the nearby historians also could not see. For one thing, he was black and the people around him were black, and that meant the people writing for the newspapers could only see them when they committed a crime, and the people writing histories couldn’t even see their crimes. So the densely crowded streets of LaVilla faded into these lives, and these lives faded into this dark skin, and this dark skin faded into the disappearing past. Oh, but this is real here, see. This guitar picking, this is the moment. These vibrations in the air around his strong fingers on the neck and strings charge this whole room. No need in such a moment to think about these vibrations leaving traces. No need to think about these lives leaving trails. Because this is. These things are.

If you broke a bottle and stuck it in a man’s chest, the newspapers took that. All this love in this great big chest they could not take. All the joy in this singing throat they knew nothing of. All this lamentation shaking the bellows of this abdomen they never heard or felt. Paramount Records is gonna hear. In another decade, Paramount’s gonna record him playing guitar for “Ashley Street Blues” and singing “Diddie Wah Diddie” and “Police Dog Blues,” but they’re only gonna record him picking and singing because he won’t be here, because he’s gonna find himself in Chicago long enough to leave the sound of himself behind. A thing that Buddy Bolden never did, Buddy in New Orleans, whose trumpet supposedly you could hear 14 miles away on a clear night. So a couple blues historians in an unimaginable future will write a thing or two about Blake, but nobody’s gonna know much. And those blues writers won’t write about this hometown of his, because Jacksonville lives down in its own bottomless pit and what happens here never gets out and nobody ever knows anything anybody does here. And those blues musicians won’t write very much about anything prior to the recording industry either, though in fairness, it’s hard to write about the unrecorded.

So from the start, Blake lives his life down in deep fractal layers of obscurity, and it’s a life more alive than most lives more recorded. They will think he was born blind in his hometown in 1893 or 1895 and they will think his name was Arthur Blake or maybe it was Arthur Phelps and they will think he died in his hometown sometime around 1933, although some will think he stepped in front of a subway car in Harlem or maybe it was a streetcar in Georgia, and they will say he was the “king of ragtime guitar” and the “king of the string” and they will say they think he died drinking hard and they will have one signature on one photograph—“Cordially Yours Blind Blake”—but they will have the songs.

So they won’t know what’s happening here on West Ashley Street, how West Ashley’s bringing in musicians from Mississippi and Chicago and Harlem, or how West Ashley Street breeds its own guitar pickers and poets and blues singers. West Ashley spins at the center of LaVilla, spins with a gravity that brings toward it these strange lines of force, this fierce singing of love and sex and dying and being beaten by police. West Ashley Street functions as blues pivot.

From Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It—Part One, October 1929

Papa Charlie: “Blake, what is yo’ right name?”

Blake: “My right name is Arthur Blake.”

Then of course, there’s the instrumental piece he recorded called “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown.” Then, of course:

Went to church, put my hand on the seat,

Lady sat on it, said, “Daddy, you sure is sweet,”

Mister Diddie Wah Diddie,

Mister Diddie Wah Diddie,

I wish somebody would tell me what Diddie Wah Diddie means.

I said, “Sista, I’ll soon be gone,

Just give me that thing you sittin’ on,”

My Diddie Wah Diddie,

My Diddie Wah Diddie,

I wish somebody would tell me what Diddie Wah Diddie means.

Then I got put out of church,

’Cause I talk about Diddie Wah Diddie too much.

Mister Diddie Wah Diddie,

Mister Diddie Wah Diddie,

I wish somebody would tell me what Diddie Wah Diddie means.

At 615 West Ashley Street, between screenings of moving pictures shot a quarter mile away, the acrobat Little Nellie and the contortionist Matthews and the “foolish mirth maker” George Riley go up on the small stage at the Bijou Theater. Next door, at the Colored Airdome Theater at 601, black comedians perform their sketches and singers and “coon shouters” stir up their audiences. So the Bijou ups the ante and renovates, building a bigger stage, adding a balcony, six-person private seating boxes, increasing seating to 600 theatre chairs on the orchestra floor and 400 in the balcony. While the Bijou remains closed, the Colored Airdome offers ragtime dances, a minstrel act called the Two Zulus, a Chinese impersonator, and the singer, dancer and comedian Long Willie, one half of the Too Sweets. Audiences walk the Pimp’s Walk, bent forward with hunched shoulders and snapping their fingers, to the “Jacksonville Rounders Dance.” Songwriter Perry Bradford soon changes the name of the song after church folk complain, “rounder” being slang for “pimp.” He changes it to “The Original Black Bottom Dance.”

At 613 West Ashley, the Globe Theater opens. In a century this building will still be here, though LaVilla won’t resemble LaVilla in any aspect then. The three-story building will have long been a city rescue mission for the destitute, a philanthropist named Eartha Mary Magdalene White having bought it way back in the 1930s and named it the Clara White Mission after her mother. But that’s still two decades away. Now the theater offers chorus girls, child singing prodigies and comedians imitating vagabonds.

Jelly Roll comes to town, but he ain’t yet named for what the lady in Diddie Wah Diddie is sitting on. Still going by his right name, Ferdinand Morton. Comes into LaVilla’s crowds playing piano with Benbow’s Alabama Chocolate Drops Company and decides to stay for a while. Tired of the road. Sends his suitcase back to New Orleans and stays here with nothing but his one blue suit. Takes his suit to get it cleaned and pressed and he’s wearing some ripped up pants they give him to wear in the meantime. Comes back to pick up his suit, but the cleaners won’t give it back. He insists on getting his one blue suit, but they threaten him with a baseball bat. Girlfriend Stella, she goes off with another man, Morton meets him at Nick’s Pool Parlor on Davis Street, hustles his money out of him, buys himself a trombone. Drags around LaVilla for two months, feeling low. Plays some piano stomps at the Globe before he leaves town and changes his name to Jelly Roll.

Blake hears Morton play and Morton hears Blake. Dark rooms, thick slow-moving clouds of cigarette smoke. One man or the other playing stomps and rags and blues.

Blind man walking West Ashley Street, the blues pivot, in this town within a town. Jacksonville attached itself to LaVilla for its tax base in the 1880s, but LaVilla’s still its own black town. Black Union troops headquartered here during the war and the Freedman’s Bureau opened up close by. No wonder three quarters of LaVilla’s population’s black, an even larger black majority than in Jacksonville itself.  Blind Blake walking West Ashley Street, his fingers practicing chords on the head of his cane.

Blake hears what everybody else hears. He hears more, he feels more, since he can’t see. He sees more, since he can’t see. He feels the turpentine go to his head. He feels the deep abdominal roar sweep up through him, but he doesn’t sing that way, channels it. He feels the strings against his fingers. He feels the fast and strange percussion plucking into tendons and bones in his hands and his wrists.

He plucks his guitar rags at some of these so-called “midnight rambles,” when the white-owned blacks-only theaters host all-white and mixed-race late-night shows that feature nude dancing and suggestive blues and comedy acts. What black and white must mean to Blind Blake is some form of presence and absence, a full black here-ness, an empty white gone-ness. But he knows what the tones and notes and chords mean and he knows what Diddie Wah Diddie means, and he can’t see the dancers, but he can feel the homemade hooch burn up his head and the soft but resistant but pliant flesh of this woman.

From Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It—Part Two, October 1929

Papa Charlie: Hey Blakey, you go over to the place lately?

Blake: Yeah, I was over there.

Papa Charlie: What all did you do over there?

Blake: Oh I had a big drink of [indecipherable]

Papa Charlie: What?

Blake: [indecipherable] I’ll drink any kind of whiskey you can [indecipherable]

When I die, folks, without a doubt,

When I die, folks, without a doubt,

You won’t have to do nothin’ but pour me out.

grew up playing for change on street corners and at dances and fish fries                 recorded about 80 tracks for Paramount Records in the late 1920s and early 1930s                       one of the most accomplished blues guitarists of his era                    influenced a number of later musicians                       nothing is known of his death             probably still in Jacksonville at that time                   though even his name is uncertain                  the main developer of finger-style ragtime guitar                                  one of the greatest blues guitarists to ever live                       nothing known for sure, only rumor, gossip, and slander                  insatiable thirst for liquor                   one of the two sides recorded in his last session, “Champagne Charlie is My Name,” IS NOT Blake                        if  it is Blake, it doesn’t sound like him at all                         something was wrong, something was wrong with him then                             blind man who got into fights over card games                       expedition to find Blake in 1935 for the Archive of Folk Song                      never found him                      vanished bluesman                  mysterious death of Blind Blake                    unmarked grave somewhere                murdered in Chicago in 1932              drank himself to death in Jacksonville in 1937                       whole invisible time and place                                    nobody wrote about

after the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state racial segregation laws in the Southern concept of “separate but equal” and on into the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North from 1910 to 1930

From 1920 on, every act to perform at the white-owned Strand Theater at 701 West Ashley is booked by regional and national booking circuits, especially TOBA, the Theatrical Owners Booking Agency, or Tough On Black Asses. Ownership of one’s own work, one’s own art, declines at such venues. When Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway come through LaVilla in the years to come, when famous jazz musicians stay at the Richmond Hotel at 420 Broad Street, they’re there because a white-owned agency booked them. Still the music thumps and wails in West Ashley Street’s Knights of Pythias Hall and Roosevelt Theatre and the Frolic and Manuel’s Tap Room and Lenape Tavern, and in and out of the wisps of sound and the plucking percussion of guitar strings, you can’t always see him and he can never see you, is Blind Blake.

From Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It—Part One, October 1929

Blake: You ever go to parties in this town, Charlie?

Papa Charlie: Yeah, I go to parties. Don’t ask me nothing ’bout no parties.

Blake: You ever find no good lookin’ women there?

Papa Charlie: [indecipherable]

Blake takes a long deep swig of shine and says over his guitar, “Now I’s gonna play a song for y’all I call ‘The Jacksonville Slide.’” The song will soon be lost, leaving nothing but its title.

Then somebody was singing “The Jacksonville Blues”—

On Ashley Street,

You get a smile from everyone you meet,

Makes you stroll along with happy feet and

Pass your troubles away.

Take me home

And I promise that I’ll never roam,

’Cause that’s the only place I’ll ever lose

These awful Jacksonville Blues.

Then Blake was strumming chords and Leola B. Wilson sang,

I don’t want any you women to be frettin’ and cryin’,

I don’t want any you women to be frettin’ and cryin’,

If you ain’t got no man, I’ll give you one of mine.

My mama told me before I left home,

My mama told me before I left home,

You better let them Jacksonville men alone.

Some women want yella and some women want brown,

Some women want a yella men and some women want brown,

I know a black man will beat you, but he sho’ won’t throw you down.

Please let me ride yo’ train, I know you worry too.

Please let me ride yo’ train, I know you worry too.

I’m a heartbroken woman with the Ashley Street Blues.

In the winter, it gets dark so early. Block after block, nothing here but the foundations of the buildings, overgrown in weeds.

A 12 year-old girl walks along the grating high over the stage at LaVilla School of the Arts, on the property of which once stood the whorehouse of Stephen Crane’s wife Cora and the Strand Theatre. Genovar’s is an empty hull behind the school and across the street. On West Ashley Street, only Genovar’s, the Globe Theater and Hollywood Music Store, the two latter both now part of the Clara White Mission, have left their buildings behind. The little girl says, “I know where you disappeared to. I know all about you. I’ve always been here.” She hears herself, but she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying. All day, things have seemed not quite real, like when she was walking to her locker after second period this morning and she saw that black dog standing in the hallway. Nobody else seemed to see the dog, but everyone walked around it without quite realizing it was there.

Across the street from LASOTA on the cracks in the concrete foundation through which grow weeds and vagrant trees, a filthy young man in old clothes, with long blonde, knotted and dirty hair, speaks in a woman’s voice, deep and low, to the homeless old black man lying by the beer bottles in the weeds by the sidewalk: “I know more about you than anyone else will ever know. I know all your secrets, but I’m gonna keep your secrets secret. I’m gonna wrap you up in my soul.

There’s a black dog in the middle of West Ashley Street, November 2010. Barghest. Weeds bend in the wind on 100 year-old foundations. You can see the moon in the afternoon.

At Genovar’s, across the street from the Strand, Blake’s standing around one night, it’s real late, he’s got a glass of whiskey in his hand, and a woman’s voice speaks low into his ear, he can feel her breath on his ear, and she says she wants to know where that music comes from, what moves those magical voodoo fingers, and she says she thinks she knows, and she says she thinks it comes from the Devil, and she laughs real low in his ear, and she says she knows more about him than anyone else will ever know and that she’s gonna keep it all a secret, she’s gonna wrap him up in her soul, he’s never gonna get out, and nobody’s gonna know where he disappeared to, nobody, nobodaddy gonna know, he says is anybody there, she doesn’t say a word, and he says he wants to know if she’s really there, if she’s really there at all, and then she says she knows all about him, knows his mama and his daddy, says he was born the same year this great big wooden building was built, he wants to know how she knows him so well, he downs all the whiskey left in his glass, and she says she’s always been here, always will be, she says this place is gonna disappear but for a few hulls of buildings, but before that there’s gonna be a whole lotta pain, and she starts talking about crack pipes and things he ain’t never heard of, he has another whiskey, then he has another, there’s something that she thinks is funny, he feels dizzy, confused, he feels her all over him, he has another whiskey, she’s breathing in his ear, on his neck, she says you recorded your songs, but now you ain’t never gonna have ever been here no more, no more, she says I always been in this place, I know all your secrets, but I’m gonna keep your secrets secret.

No way to know what he’s saying at the end of “Black Dog Blues.” Unlike Buddy Bolden, Blind Blake records, but so many of his recorded words are indecipherable. Blurred faces in faded photographs, impossible to identify. That last line, something about a “junkyard”? The “black dog” is a “junkyard dog”? But it doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme.

Let me tell you, mama, what my black dog done done to me.

Let me tell you, mama, what my black dog done done to me.

He cheat me from my reg’lar, now he’s after my used-to-be.

Black dog, black dog, you caused me to weep and moan.

Black dog, black dog, you caused me to weep and moan.

You caused me to leave my sweet old happy home.

Black dog, black dog, you forever on my mind,

Black dog, black dog, you forever on my mind,

If you only let me see my baby one more time.

So long, black dog, I’m quittin’ yo’ hard luck line,

So long, black dog, I’m quittin’ yo’ hard luck line,

’Cause you got me [dead blue?], – – [indecipherable]

Indecipherable.