|Blind Boy Fuller|
Studio portrait of Fuller
July 10, 1904 or 1907|
Wadesboro, North Carolina, United States
February 13, 1941 (aged 33-36)|
Durham, North Carolina, United States
|Genres||Country blues, Piedmont blues, East Coast blues|
Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen, July 10, 1904 or 1907 - February 13, 1941) was an American blues guitarist and singer. Of the recorded Piedmont blues artists, a group that includes Blind Blake, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, Fuller was one of the most popular with rural African Americans.
Allen was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children of Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. Most sources date his birth to 1907, but the researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc indicate 1904. After the death of his mother, he moved with his father to Rockingham, North Carolina. As a boy he learned to play the guitar and also learned from older singers the field hollers, country rags, traditional songs and blues popular in poor rural areas.
He married young, to Cora Allen, and worked as a laborer. He began to lose his eyesight when he was in his mid-teens. According to the researcher Bruce Bastin, "While he was living in Rockingham he began to have trouble with his eyes. He went to see a doctor in Charlotte who allegedly told him that he had ulcers behind his eyes, the original damage having been caused by some form of snow-blindness." Only the first part of this diagnosis was correct. A 1937 eye examination attributed his vision loss to the long-term effects of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis.
By 1928 he was completely blind. He turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and live performances by Gary Davis, Allen became a formidable guitarist, playing on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Danville, Virginia; and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following, which included the guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, the harmonica player Saunders Terrell (better known as Sonny Terry), and the washboard player and guitarist George Washington.
In 1935, James Baxter Long, a record store manager and talent scout in Burlington, North Carolina, secured Allen a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional "Rag, Mama, Rag". To promote the records, Long credited Allen as Blind Boy Fuller and Washington as Bull City Red.
Over the next five years Fuller recorded over 120 sides, which were released by several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics were explicit and uninhibited, drawing on every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind black man on the streets--pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death--with an honesty that lacked sentimentality. Although he was not sophisticated, his artistry as a folk singer lay in the honesty and integrity of his self-expression. His songs expressed desire, love, jealousy, disappointment, menace and humor.
In April 1936, Fuller recorded ten solo performances and also recorded with guitarist Floyd Council. The following year, after auditioning for J. Mayo Williams, he recorded for Decca Records, but then reverted to ARC. Later in 1937, he made his first recordings with Sonny Terry.
In 1938 Fuller, who was described as having a fiery temper, was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg. His imprisonment prevented him from performing in "From Spirituals to Swing", a concert produced by John Hammond in New York City that year. Sonny Terry performed in his place; it was the beginning of Terry's long career in folk music. After Fuller was released from prison, he held his last two recording sessions, in New York City in June 1940, but by then he was increasingly physically weak, and much of the material did not match the quality and energy of his earlier recordings.
Fuller's repertoire included a number of popular double-entendre "hokum" songs, such as "I Want Some of Your Pie", "Truckin' My Blues Away" (the origin of the phrase "keep on truckin'"), and "Get Your Yas Yas Out" (adapted as "Get Your Ya-Yas Out" for the title of an album by the Rolling Stones), and the autobiographical "Big House Bound", about his time in prison. Much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues songs. He possessed a formidable fingerpicking guitar style. He played a steel National resonator guitar. He was criticised by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them in his own performances attracted a broad audience. He was an expressive vocalist and a masterful guitar player, best remembered for his up-tempo ragtime hits, including "Step It Up and Go". At the same time he was capable of deeper material; his versions of "Lost Lover Blues", "Rattlesnakin' Daddy" and "Mamie" are as deep as most Delta blues. Because of his popularity, he may have been overexposed on records, but most of his songs stayed close to tradition, and much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.
Fuller underwent a suprapubic cystostomy in July 1940 (probably an outcome of excessive drinking) but continued to require medical treatment. He died at his home in Durham, North Carolina, at 5 p.m. on February 13, 1941. The cause of death was pyemia due to an infected bladder, gastrointestinal tract and perineum, plus kidney failure.
He was so popular when he died that his protégé Brownie McGhee recorded "The Death of Blind Boy Fuller" for Okeh Records and then reluctantly began a short-lived career as Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 so that Columbia Records could profit from the deceased musician's popularity.
Fuller's grave is Grove Hill Cemetery, located on private property in Durham. State records indicate that this was once an official cemetery, and Fuller's interment is recorded. Only one headstone remains, that of one Mary Caston Langey. The funeral arrangements were handled by McLaurin Funeral Home of Durham, and the burial took place on February 15, 1941.
Fuller has been recognized with two plaques in Durham. A plaque placed by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History is located a few miles north of Fuller's gravesite, along Fayetteville St. The city of Durham officially recognized Fuller on July 16, 2001, with a commemorative plaque located along the American Tobacco Trail, adjacent to the property where Fuller's unmarked grave is located (several hundred feet east of Fayetteville St.).