Blind Boy Fuller: Piedmont Blues’ Notorious B.I.G.

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Illustration by Courtney Spencer

This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue.”

Where did The Rolling Stones get the title for their 1970 live album, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out? From Blind Boy Fuller’s 1938 single of the same name. Where did The Grateful Dead get the term “Truckin’”? From Fuller’s 1937 single “Trucking My Blues Away” (later covered by Hot Tuna). Where did Led Zeppelin get the double entendres for “The Lemon Song” and “Custard Pie”? From Fuller’s songs “Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon” and “I Want Some Of Your Pie.” Where did Bob Dylan find the models for “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and “Step It Up And Go”? From Fuller’s “Mama, Let Me Lay It on You” and “Step It Up and Go.”

Fuller’s fingerprints are all over 20th-century music, so why isn’t he mentioned more often in the standard histories? Several reasons suggest themselves. Many of his songs were raunchy and misogynist, not the examples historians like to cite when they’re arguing for the blues as a serious art form. He was neither a poet like Robert Johnson nor a virtuoso instrumentalist like Lonnie Johnson; he wasn’t so much a songwriter as he was a montage assembler of bits and pieces from other people’s songs. 

He was, however, an irresistible entertainer. Middle-class blues revivalists may bend your ear about the verbal and instrumental skill of the early blues performers – and they’re right as far as that goes – but they miss the point that this music functioned primarily as dance-party music. 

When sharecroppers trooped down to a house party on a Saturday night with their moonshine jars, they were no different from bored teenagers and tired office workers driving to a big-city club today. They weren’t looking for social commentary and breathtaking solos; they were looking to get high, get loose and get laid. To help them do that, they wanted music with a propulsive beat, lusty vocals and a contagious aura of confidence. That’s just what Fuller gave them.

Listen to his 1937 version of “Trucking My Blues Away.” The bouncy guitar riff seems to demand movement from the listener, especially when reinforced by George “Bull City Red” Washington’s washboard. Fuller sang in a strong tenor so soaked in self-assured desire that you could easily mistake the “tr” in the song’s title for an “f.” He wasn’t as accomplished a guitarist as his mentor Blind Gary Davis, but Fuller’s records sold better because he better supplied an audience of poor African-Americans with the sweet release they craved.

He was born Fulton Allen in rural North Carolina in 1907 and was a married day-laborer by the age of 21 when he started to lose his sight. Southeasterners such as Davis, Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell had already proven that a living could be made as a blind street singer, so Allen apprenticed himself to Davis and traveled with the older singer from Durham to New York City to record for the American Record Company. It was Allen’s song “Rag, Mama, Rag” (a title later borrowed by The Band), released under the newly minted name Blind Boy Fuller, not any of Davis’s, that became a hit in the Piedmont area. It led to many more recordings and a kind of stardom in the region’s black communities. 

The coastal area of the Southeastern U.S. produced a different kind of blues from the better-remembered scenes in Mississippi and Texas. The Piedmont blues were bouncier, more tuneful, more influenced by the pre-World War I ragtime craze. The “raggy” syncopation and finger-picking arpeggios can be heard explicitly or implicitly in most Piedmont blues recordings. There was also more influence from European-American music, for as bad as racial discrimination was in the Southeast, blacks were not as isolated or as oppressed as they were in Mississippi. 

The Piedmont blues tradition never evolved into a modern electric blues the way the Delta blues led to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker or the East Texas blues led to T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. Fuller’s harmonica player Sonny Terry did go on to form a long-running duo with Brownie McGhee and create the template for duos such as Bowling Green John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, but they never matched the impact of Chess Records. 

Another reason Fuller isn’t better remembered today is that he died in 1941 at age 33 from kidney failure and infection of his bladder and gastro-intestinal tract. As a result, he wasn’t around when the 1960s blues revival searched out artists such as Davis, Terry, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House and gave them second careers at folk festivals, colleges and nightclubs. 

But in 1941 Fuller was still so famous that a young Brownie McGhee had a short but successful run under the name of Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 and even recorded a song called “The Death Of Blind Boy Fuller.” With his thumping, big-voiced songs of sex and crime, the original Blind Boy Fuller was the Piedmont blues’ Notorious B.I.G. and shouldn’t be forgotten.