Blind Boy Fuller: His Life, Recording Sessions, and Welfare Records

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    Decades ago, a fellow blues enthusiast sent me a package of official papers related to the life of Fulton Allen, who recorded as Blind Boy Fuller. Written during the 1930s by government officials, social workers, and physicians, these documents offer unique insight into the life of a legendary Southern bluesman. The stories they tell of poverty, ill health, and unhappiness with management and record companies are as blues-inducing as Blind Boy Fuller’s darkest recordings. To ensure their accuracy, all of the quotations in my account retain the parlance and punctuation of the original documents.

    First, a few words about Fulton Allen. This extraordinarily prolific blues artist produced 130 Blind Boy Fuller records between 1935 and 1940, with songs coming out on the Vocalion, Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Columbia, OKeh, and Decca labels. Drawing on country blues, pop, and especially ragtime, Allen played fingerstyle and slide on a metal-bodied National Duolian guitar, sometimes using a capo. He sang with a strong, confident voice. His music came to epitomize the so-called Piedmont style, and his duets with harmonica ace Sonny Terry set the template for the later partnerships of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bowling Green John Cephas and Harmonica Phil Wiggins, and others.

    Since Blind Boy Fuller’s death in 1940, his music has echoed in the repertoires of many artists. For instance, his version of “Step It Up and Go,” built upon an earlier song called “Bottle Up and Go,” was covered by artists as far afield as Maddox Brothers and Rose, Harmonica Frank Floyd, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, and John Hammond. “Blind Boy Fuller was brilliant,” says John Hammond, who has also recorded his “She’s a Trucking Little Baby,” “Low Down Dog Blues,” and “Untrue Blues.” “It was easier to get the Blind Boy Fuller stuff than the Blind Blake, so I got into that completely. Blind Boy Fuller was from the Durham area, which had a specific sound. Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Gary Davis, and I guess Blind Blake too, were all from that Piedmont area, where there was sort of a rag style.” Jorma Kaukonen and Rory Gallagher deserve credit for bringing Fuller’s music to rock audiences: Kaukonen with his Hot Tuna cover of the uptempo ragtime classic “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” and Gallagher with the acoustic version of “Pistol Slapper Blues” that highlighted his concerts. Today, Fuller’s style still resounds in the American Southeast.

    Despite Blind Boy Fuller’s popularity as a recording artist, precious few details of his life have been readily available, which adds value to these yellowing pages.

    The Earlier Documents, 1933-1938

    The earliest document in the Fulton Allen file is a one-sentence message dated April 8, 1933. Referenced at the top of the page is “Fulton Allen (Col.)” of 606 Cameron Alley; in the language of the day, “col.” likely refers to “colored.” Beneath this, W.E. Stanley of the Department of Public Welfare wrote to G.W. Proctor, Chief of Police in Durham, North Carolina, “If it meets with your approval we are glad to recommend that the above named man be allowed to make music on the streets of Durham at a place designated by you.” At the time, Allen was 25 and had been blind for about six years. Rev. Gary Davis’ welfare records contain a similar, earlier letter by W.E. Stanley seeking permission to allow him to play on the streets of Durham.

    During the early 1930s, Fulton Allen had become acquainted with James Baxter Long, manager of the United Dollar Store on West Club Boulevard in Durham. (In his correspondences, Long referred to himself as “J.B. Long.”) Long had staged musical talent contests, and around 1934 he began working as a talent scout for the American Record Company. Among his first recommendations were Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Fulton Allen, and Blind Gary Davis. According to Stefan Grossman, who studied with Davis during the 1960s, Davis could well have been Allen’s guitar tutor: “Rev. Gary Davis’ version of the story is that Fuller came to him to learn how to play guitar, because he’d only been playing bottleneck. So Davis taught him some songs. If the premise that ‘if I play a song much better than you, therefore I’m the one that taught it to you’ holds up, what he said was true. He said he hung out with him for a while in the 1930s. The Rev. Davis also cited famous Fuller songs, reciting lyrics, and those lyrics were from his very first sessions.”

    During the summer of 1935, Long and his family journeyed to New York City with Gary Davis, Fulton Allen, and washboard player George Washington, who was credited on records as Bull City Red and Oh Red. Around Durham, Washington served as Fuller’s “lead boy.” Their destination was the American Record Company on Broadway. Between July 23 and 26, Blind Gary, as he was credited on the 78s, made all of the records he’d make before World War II – 14 spiritual songs and one blues. Playing guitar and singing, Bull City Red also inaugurated his recording career, producing three issued 78s. Rev. Gary Davis is believed to be the second guitarist on Bull City Red’s “Now I’m Talking About You,” “Black Woman and Poison Blues,” and “Mississippi River.” Later in life, Rev. Davis said this about J.B. Long: “There was a difference between me and ‘the man.’ He paid the rest of them but didn’t want to give me all of mine. That was the difference between us. They didn’t give us nothing of what we should have got! Forty dollars for us and thirty-five dollars for Bull City Red.”

    For Fulton Allen, though, this debut ARC session was just the beginning. Playing his National Duolian, he recorded a total of six 78s, which all came out credited to Blind Boy Fuller, a pseudonym that Long apparently created. Many of these records, and subsequent releases, show the influence of other artists, notably Rev. Gary Davis and the recordings of Blind Blake. During his first session, Fuller recorded most of his songs by himself, but the most popular release, the Blind Blake-inspired dance tune “Rag, Mama, Rag” backed with “Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind,” featured musical backing from Bull City Red and Blind Gary Davis. Suitable for parties, “Rag, Mama, Rag” eventually came out on the ARC, Vocalion, and Columbia labels. Other selections from the first Blind Boy Fuller session, such as “I’m a Rattlesnakin’ Daddy,” “Baby, I Don’t Have to Worry (’Cause That Stuff Is Here),” and “Somebody’s Been Playing with That Thing,” contained the hokumy, good-time lyrics that would characterize many of his releases. “I’m Climbin’ on Top of the Hill” recycled the Mississippi Sheiks’ famous “Sitting on Top of the World” melody.

    Despite having successfully launched his recording career, Fulton Allen returned home to hard times. On January 21, 1936, his wife Cora Mae Allen, who’d been taking in another family’s laundry, applied for aid. The caseworker’s notes state that “she worked in the sewing room during August 1935. She has one washing a week for which she makes $.75.” Three months later, a caseworker visited Fulton Allen at his home at 803 Colfax Street. (In these write-ups, the “M.” refers to “man,” and “Wo.” refers to “woman.”) The worker observed, “M. was found lying across the bed; stated that he was not feeling very well. Wo. was out. M. is blind and has been playing a guitar on the street in an effort to help with the support of his family. The possibility of his getting a place on the project for the blind was discussed with M. M. appeared reluctant about accepting any such proposition, but inferred that he probably might if his wife could go along with him as he was not willing to trust himself without her. Relief has been given.” There are no further Fulton Allen welfare documents from 1936.

    One week after the social worker’s visit, Fulton Allen was back in New York City, recording ten new solo sides for ARC. He began his first song, the beautifully played “Homesick and Lonesome Blues,” with a slide guitar flourish that presaged the  “Dust My Broom” lick. The session also yielded Fuller’s first version of “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” which provided the hippie-era catchphrase “Keep on truckin’, mama.” The opening verse of “When Your Gal Packs Up and Leaves” would reappear in Lead Belly’s 1940 recording of “Good Morning Blues.” Due to a typo on the label, the Perfect release of Blind Boy Fuller’s “Big Bed Blues” was misidentified as “Big Red Blues.” Folk fans will immediately recognize Fuller’s version of “Mama Let Me Lay It on You,” a song that had been recorded earlier in the 1930s and was part of Rev. Gary Davis’ repertoire. During the folk era, Eric Von Schmidt adapted Blind Boy Fuller’s version as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” which Bob Dylan brilliantly covered on his debut solo album.

    The sales of Blind Boy Fuller 78s were so strong that he was summoned to four sessions during 1937. For the first of these, held on February 8-10, he journeyed to New York City with Bull City Red and Floyd Council, who worked on a farm owned by J.B. Long and played country blues guitar in a style reminiscent of Fuller’s, albeit with slightly less pizzazz. Fuller recorded a total of 15 songs, including “Truckin’ My Blues Away No. 2,” the rocking “New Oh Red!” with washboard rhythm courtesy Bull City Red, and two takes of “Mamie.” Floyd Council played second guitar on “If You Don’t Give Me What I Want,” “Boots and Shoes,” and “New Oh Red!” and was credited on some of the labels as “Dipper Boy Council.” He also recorded three 78s on his own. Council’s “I Don’t Want No Hungry Woman”/“Lookin’ for My Baby” credited him as “The Devil’s Daddy in Law,” while the other releases identified him as “Blind Boy Fuller’s Buddy.”

    The next Blind Boy Fuller session, during the early summer of 1937, was reportedly done without J.B. Long’s involvement or approval. Someone contacted Decca Records on Fulton Allen’s behalf. Label exec Mayo Williams came to Durham and auditioned Allen and two other local blues artists, brothers Richard and Welly Trice. All three were sent to New York City. On July 12 and 14, Allen cut a dozen solo sides. (On July 13, the Trice brothers recorded a half-dozen songs.) Initially, two Blind Boy Fuller 78s were released, the sonically superior “If You See My Pigmeat”/“Why Don’t My Baby Write to Me” and “Weeping Willow”/“Corrine What Makes You Treat Me So.” As far as I know, “If You See My Pigmeat” is the first Blind Boy Fuller 78 to give him songwriting credit on the label. J.B. Long, who was not pleased to see his client moonlighting with another label, threatened Decca with a lawsuit. These initial Blind Boy Fuller Decca 78s were quickly pulled from circulation and today are among the rarest Blind Boy Fuller 78s; the numbers on the first pressings, respectively, are 7330 and 7331. After Fuller’s death, Decca released all of the songs from the session, assigning new numbers to the withdrawn 78s.

    It’s clear from Fulton Allen’s welfare records that he did not tell his social workers of the income he’d earned from Decca – $150, Long speculated. Long, who figured money was Allen’s motive for recording for Decca, placated him by buying him an inexpensive car. He also had Fulton Allen sign a management contract. On August 4, 1937, Long accompanied his protégé on a round of social service offices. First, he drove him to McPherson Hospital for an eye examination and then took him to see a social worker. Three official documents generated that day provide a wealth of details. The first of these, issued by the Social Security Board, is titled “Physician’s Report on Eye Examination.” This document confirms Fulton Allen’s date of birth as July 10, 1907, and states that the onset of his blindness occurred in both eyes when he was 21. The diagnosis for Allen’s right eye was “fundi, phthisis bulbi, secondary glaucoma.” His left eye had “papilloma of the cornea evidently following old perforating ulcer.” The cause of these conditions was listed as “probably gonorrhea conjunctivitis.”

    The second document is a “Visitor’s Report” issued by the North Carolina State Commission for the Blind. Written by J.H. Bailey, Jr., it restates Allen’s date of birth as July 10, 1907, and lists Wadesboro, N.C., as his place of birth. It shows that his marriage took place in 1926, although this information is contradicted in another document written that day. The Visitor’s Report states that before losing his vision in 1927, Allen worked as a laborer in a coal yard. It details Allen’s residences for the past decade: From 1927 through 1929 he lived in a hotel on Vine Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He spent the next five years at 606 Cameron Street in Durham. During the latter part of 1934, he moved to Rock Street in Durham. From December 1934 through 1936, he stayed at 115 Beamon Street in Durham. The document lists Cora Mae Allen’s monthly income as $6, and shows the Allens living with four other people in a rented house on 805 Colfax Street. Of special interest is the answer Allen gave for the line “List personal property (Bank account, loans, savings, land, stocks, etc.)”: “Owns a guitar.” He answered “yes” to the question “Has the applicant every publicly solicited alms?” Asked “What type of work is the applicant doing now?,” Allen responded, “Guitar playing.” Here’s a scan of the section on Fulton Allen’s monthly expenses:

    In the document’s “Additional Information” section, Bailey noted: “Family are known to the Department of Public Welfare; were known to the FERA. Applicant’s devotion to Mrs. Allen and dependence upon her for use as a guide and constant care causes her to have to have to spend most of her time in the home, rendering her unable to have a steady job.”

    J.B. Long, 1934.

    The third document, two typed pages also dated August 4, 1937, are J.H. Bailey’s case notes. The beginning of this document sheds light on Allen’s relationship with the man who’d arranged for him to become a recording artist: “Mr. Long was intelligent about the Social Security program, and his interest in M’s situation caused him to bring M. to the office. Formal application was filed…. Mr. Long was very talkative during interview and stated he had known family for six years. Became acquainted with M. when he (Mr. Long) was connected with the United Dollar Store on Main Street. M. substantiated Mr. Long’s statement that he had been helping the family since he has been acquainted with them. Checks have been given at times along with food, fuel, and other necessities. At present, Mr. Long is a salesman for the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization, and owns a seventy acre estate near Elon College. Mr. Long has offered family a place on this estate, rent free, provided they might be interested in going there to live. Mr. Long stated that he made this offer because of the fact of the family were in dire circumstances. Family prefers to remain in Durham.”

    The document next provides details of Fulton Allen’s life: “M. was married to Cora Mae Martin in 1929 in Bennettsville, S.C. M. was born in Wadesboro, N.C., July 10, 1907. His parents are dead. Reached the fourth grade in school. M. has been somewhat migratory. Has lived in several places. A brother, Sidney Allen, who lives in Burlington, N.C., is the only living relative that M. knows anything about. M. has lived in Durham continuously since 1929. Wo. has lived in and out of Durham practically all her life.” Regarding Allen’s place of resident, the caseworker noted, “Family live in the home of Mr. Clinton Martin. There are six people living in the house which is rented. House is a three room house of frame construction, located on an unpaved street in the vicinity of Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church. The section is residential. Most of the houses are tenant houses. House contains running water and indoor toilet and electric lights. The block in which family live is comparatively quiet. Most of the people in this section are connected with the Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church.”

    A section titled “Health” elaborates on Allen’s blindness: “Vision was lost in 1927. M. stated that he had ulcers on both eyes. M.’s right eye is completely sunken. Left eye is smaller than its normal size. M. is portly and has a well rounded physique. M. does not admit to having any physical disability, although Wo. reports that he suffers with kidney trouble. Feels that he is able to work at such work that does not require vision. Wo.’s health is good.” In regard to the family’s income, Bailey noted that “estimated weekly needs as given by M. amount to $8.75. From M.’s guitar playing he is able to get on an average of $1.00 per week. Wo., when she can get house cleaning, earns an average of $1.50 per week.”

    Bailey’s evaluation reads as follows: “M. and Wo. strive to be self supporting, but have been unsuccessful. Have been reluctant to ask for aid. In lieu of asking for aid, they have done without some things for their comfort and well being. M. is interested in his guitar, and his music is well received by his friends who are glad to make a contribution at times for his playing. Wo.’s employment record covers a series of service jobs. Her efforts at work are halted by M.’s desire to always have her with him. Family ties seem to be strong and much companionship exists between them. There are no children by this union. At times M. has refused offers on music projects because he felt like his wife could not be with him, and he does not like to trust himself away from her. Family feels the need of moving from their present place of abode, and would like to establish themselves in their own household. They plan to do this just as soon as their financial situation is improved. This will mean the purchase of furniture, as they only own a bed. Clothing is needed and a general set-up for comfortable as well as wholesome living.” The Commission granted Fulton Allen $23 in monthly assistance in the form of Aid to the Blind. At this point, it’s clear that the social workers had no idea Fulton Allen and recording artist Blind Boy Fuller were one and the same, but that situation was about to change.

    One month after J.B. Long took Fulton Allen to the Social Security office, Allen was back in New York City, cutting another dozen sides. He was in fine form for this session, as heard on the Blind Blake-inspired “Bull Dog Blues,” which he’d recorded for Decca earlier that year, and the rollicking Blake-ish “Oh Zee Zas Rag,” with its above-the-nut guitar strums and rhythm patterns slapped on the guitar’s body. Hot stuff! Allen concluded the session by covering the old blues standard “Careless Love” and then going totally downhome in an immaculately played “New Louise Louise Blues.” At the final Blind Boy Fuller session of 1937, in mid December, Allen recorded 11 songs in the company of Dipper Boy Council and harmonica master Sanford Terrell, a.k.a. Sonny Terry, recording for the first time. The pairing of Fuller’s voice and guitar with Sonny Terry’s harmonica proved irresistible. On their first recordings together – “Mistreater, You’re Going to Be Sorry,” “Bye Bye Baby Blues,” “Looking for My Woman No. 2,” and “I’m Going to Move (To the Edge of Town)” – they laid down the template for a strain of blues music that’s still vital today. Dipper Boy Council, who recorded two unissued songs under his own name, played second guitar on Fuller’s “Ten O’Clock Peeper,” “Oozin’ You Off My Mind,” “Shake That Shimmy,” and “Heart Ease Blues.” On his own, Fuller rounded out the session with “Shaggy Like a Bear,” “Hungry Calf Blues,” and “Too Many Women Blues.”

    Fulton Allen’s welfare records suggest that J.B. Long did not pay him what he expected to earn from this session. Upon his return to Durham, Allen asked a social worker to intervene in his business dealings with J.B. Long. Among the Fulton Allen documents is an undated caseworker report labeled “Recommendation regarding Allen, Fulton, Case 1465.” The document was likely typed during the late summer of 1939, since it mentions a Blind Boy Fuller session held in Memphis that year. It begins with this summary: “In August, 1937, Fulton was approved for Blind Assistance to the amount of $23.00 a month. At that time no income was indicated except for an average of $2.00 a week contributed by friends [for] playing the guitar. Nothing came up about his recording for Mr. Long – and his contract, until Jan. 1938, when Fulton asked Mr. Penland, blind Visitor, to help him get a contract of his own as he felt he was not getting all he should have. Fulton had been to N.Y. the previous month. He had his expenses paid and got $200 for his recording. Mr. Penland talked with Mr. Lewis, Placement Agent, who said that he understood Mr. Long had taken Fulton to N.Y. on several occasions prior to 1938 and that Fulton had played and sang ‘negro blues’ which had been recorded under the name Blind Boy Fuller. At Mr. Penland’s request Mr. Lewis investigated. He later reported that Fulton is under contract to Mr. Long to receive $200.00 each time he goes to N.Y. and records twelve records.” So, it appears, Fulton Allen himself informed his caseworkers of the extra income he’d been earning as a recording artist.

    The document’s next sentence, “Fulton’s case was inactive from March until June when it was assigned to another blind Visitor, Mrs. West,” indicates that the next Blind Boy Fuller session, held in New York City during April 1938, was also kept hidden from welfare workers. And what a session it was, yielding the classic Blind Boy Fuller-Sonny Terry performances of “Pistol Slapper Blues,” “Meat Shakin’ Woman,” and “Georgia Ham Mama.” Charlie Austin, whose style was decidedly different from Terry’s, blew harp on “Mama Let Me Lay It on You No. 2.” “Piccolo Rag” was another gem in style of “Oh Zee Zas Rag.” During the 1970s, Rory Gallagher often played “Pistol Slapper Blues” in concert.

    A half-year later, Fulton Allen, Sonny Terry, and Bull City Red travelled to Columbia, South Carolina. On Saturday, October 29, 1938, a dozen new Blind Boy Fuller records were recorded for Vocalion. Sounding strong and upbeat, Allen was accompanied on six tracks by Bull City Red’s capable washboard rhythm. Sonny Terry likewise backed Allen on six tracks, energizing his wall-to-wall harmonica performances with the swoops, whoops and hollers that became hallmarks of his style. “Flyin’ Airplane Blues” applied new lyrics to Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur.” “Jitterbug Rag,” the only Blind Boy Fuller instrumental recording, featured an unnamed kazoo player. By day’s end, Allen and company had also finished three of the very best Blind Boy Fuller releases: “What’s That Smells Like Fish,” “She’s a Truckin’ Little Baby,” and “Get Your Yas Yas Out,” the title of which the Rolling Stones used for a live album.

    The next entry in Fulton Allen’s welfare records occurred the very next day. A document titled “ALLEN, Fulton & Cora Mae” states that on “10-30-38 Mrs. Allen, Supervisor for Blind Aid, contacted this office regarding investigation to ascertain whether or not M. would be able to accept work on a project.” The following day, a caseworker visited the Allens and concluded that “M. could not be accepted on Work Project as he is in really bad health.” The report elaborated on Allen’s condition: “M. suffers from an Ulcerated Stomach and Kidney Trouble. Stated he was operated on one year ago and has never completely recovered. He is under the care of Dr. Randolph and will be able to get a statement from him regarding his physical condition. Wo. feels it would be very inconvenient for M. to work because of his weak kidneys. Says when she is not home she has to pay someone to stay with him and look after him in this way. Wo. has been working at T.N. Bright Tobacco factory for two weeks. When tobacco factory closes she does find day work or service work, but as a rule, Blind Assistance is the only income in the home.” It’s evident that Allen withheld information about his recording session two days earlier in order to continue receiving monthly assistance.

    Enter John Hammond

    During the summer of 1938, Columbia records executive John Hammond began booking acts for his now-legendary From Spirituals to Swing concert. His intention was to present African-American artists “not widely known to jazz fans, artists whose music had never been heard by most of the New York public.” Once he secured Carnegie Hall as the venue, Hammond got to work finding artists. In the autobiography John Hammond on Record, he wrote, “I went first to the American Record Company on whose Vocalion label several comparatively successful primitive blues singers were being released. One who interested me was Blind Boy Fuller, discovered in Durham, North Carolina, by the company’s talent scout, a man named Jimmy Long. I got Long’s telephone number and called him in Elon College, a small town named for the local college. Long turned out to be the manager of a five-and-ten-cent store, as well as a talent scout. He knew where to find Blind Boy Fuller and Mitchell’s Christian Singers, a gospel group I also wanted on the show. He would do all he could to help.”

    Hammond and his friend Goddard Lieberson, a student at Eastman School of Music, journeyed to South Carolina in Hammond’s Terraplane convertible. Upon their arrival, Hammond wrote, “Jimmy Long and his wife, we found, were big shots in Elon and very cordial. Long was anxious to introduce us to Blind Boy Fuller. I didn’t particularly like his records because he whined when he sang, but of course we agreed to meet him. Durham was about 45 miles away. We arrived to find Blind Boy in jail, charged with shooting at his wife. Goddard was fascinated by the problems inherent in this accomplishment and discovered that Blind Boy had managed by standing in the center of the room, rotating slowly, and firing intermittently – fortunately missing.

    “Next door lived a blind harmonica player named Sonny Terry, and as soon as we heard him play and shout his unique songs we decided he was a far superior performer. He definitely should be brought to New York for the concert. We then drove to Kinston to hear Mitchell’s Christian Singers, four laborers who got together on Sundays to sing without accompaniment. Goddard and I found them in a backwoods shack with no running water and no electricity, and I’m sure we were the first white people who ever entered their house. Jimmy Long, a paternalistic Southerner, could not understand how we could visit black people in their homes.” From there, Hammond headed to the Mississippi Delta to find Robert Johnson, who, he discovered, had died earlier that year. “Instead,” Hammond wrote, “we signed Big Bill Broonzy, another primitive blues singer whose records I loved.”

    Sonny Terry, Mitchell’s Christian Singers, and Big Bill Broonzy did make it to the 1938 From Spirituals to Swing concert, held on December 23. The original program included a paragraph that linked Sonny Terry to noted ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Blind Boy Fuller: “One of Mr. Hammond’s prize discoveries on his recent trip to North Carolina is Sanford ‘Sonny’ Terry, a harmonica player who is nearly blind. This will not be believed until you hear him, but Terry plays the harmonica and sings apparently at the same time. It is rather a sort of Edgar Bergen dexterity by which he disengages his instrument for a short vocal lick now and then. He is famous in the countryside for three blues numbers: Fox Chase, in which he simulates the sounds of the fox hunt in a composition deriving in a remote way from an old English ballad; Lost John; and Louise, Louise. He has accompanied Blind Boy Fuller, a popular race-record artist, on a number of Perfect and Vocalion discs.” While in New York City for the concert, Sonny Terry and Bull City Red recorded for the Library of Congress.

    The Later Documents, 1939-1941

    By early 1939, Fulton Allen had been reassigned to student caseworker Bailey West. During her first visit that year, on January 13th, Allen explained some of the troubles he was having with J.B. Long (the “V” in the report probably refers to “visitor,” who would be Mrs. West). “Fulton told V. that the M. who took him to New York to do his recordings required him to sign a contract which gave the Man most of his income from recordings. He asked V. to assist him in securing a release from the contract, and to work out a plan by which he could continue to make recordings and receive all the income. He composes all his words and music for his recordings. He invited V. to come back and see him as soon as he could find out about the contract, which V. promised to do.” West also reported that Allen admitted he’d received “small amounts” of outside income. “Though he was in bed,” West added, “he gave V. a sample of music that he had recorded by playing the guitar and singing.”

    The sentence “He composes all his words and music for his recordings” is enigmatic, as many of the early Blind Boy Fuller 78s have no composer credits. The Decca pressings I’ve seen credit Allen. Several other recordings, such as “I’m a Good Stem Winder” on Conqueror, “Blue and Worried Man” on OKeh, and the Columbia pressings of “Step It Up and Go,” “Little Woman You’re So Sweet,” “Worn Out Engine Blues,” “Pistol Slapper Blues,” and “ Shake It, Baby,” assign the composer credit to J.B. Long.

    Five weeks later, Mrs. West returned to 805 Colfax Street and found Fulton Allen sick in bed. She reported that “he had an attack of chronic kidney trouble.” They reviewed Allen’s monthly expenses, which included $16 in fuel costs, $6 in medical services, and a $6 payment for furniture. “The furniture mentioned in the budget,” detailed West, “consists of mattress, cook stove, and heater. Client still owes about $25 on these articles. The items mentioned in the budget are the amounts estimated by client. While the budget shows a deficit of $33.25, Visitor does not recommend an increase in the B.A. grant for some of the items mentioned seem to be too much. Fulton thinks he will be able to earn something with his music, playing his guitar for which he called ‘house parties,’ in the spring and summer. John [stet] stated that he has not been able to make anything on his music since Christmas, but hoped to do so later in the season. Visitor reported to William Lewis, the matter of contract which Fulton has for recording phonograph records. In this contract another person received most of the income, derived from the recordings. Mr. Lewis agreed to make investigations to see if the entire amount could not be turned over to the client.”

    On her next visit to the Allen household, June 21, 1939, Bailey West found Fulton sitting on his front porch. Once again, Allen played his guitar for her and also told her of his recent playing experiences. “Fulton said that he played a guitar very well. Worker asked him to play a piece. He seemed delighted. He shows considerable dexterity on the instrument. He told Worker that he sometimes took his guitar and played for money upon the street. Worker told him that this was strictly against rules and that he could not follow such plans while receiving his check. He said that he had never been told of such a policy. He was asked if the form for application was not read to him but he said that he ‘disremembered.’ He played last Saturday in Raleigh at the City Market where he made $2.50. He said that he would have played some in Durham but people here always wanted him to play for nothing. He has promised not to beg on the street again.”

    West observed that during their visit Allen stayed on the front porch and “continually rocked to and fro while talking with Worker. He said that he was feeling ‘as well as common.’ He is extremely thankful for his B.A. [Blind Assistance] grant and does not see how he could manage without it. He told of a contract which he had formerly had with Mr. J.B. Long for producing records. At two different times Mr. Long had taken him and another blind boy [Sonny Terry] to New York to make recordings. Fulton said that on the occasion of the first trip Mr. Long had given him $40.00. The last time he had made $200.00. Fulton does not feel that he was given enough for his work. He thinks that Mr. Long possibly made much more off the contract. It is hoped that arrangements can be made to place Fulton under contract directly with a recording company. Mr. Lewis, Placement Agent with the State Commission for the Blind, has been working hard toward this end.”

    That same day, William Lewis wrote a document entitled “Collateral Information From Placement Agent.” He began by referencing information from the previous October: “A medical examination by Dr. T.T. Jones revealed arrested syphilis and very bad kidneys and bladder. Dr. Jones declared Allen unable to work and said it would take long treatment to get him into good physical condition.”

    Then Lewis delved into Allen’s relationship with J.B. Long. “At this time, it was learned that Fulton Allen is the person who makes Negro Blues records as ‘Blind Boy Fuller.’ He was found to be under contract to J.B. Long, now of Elon College and formerly manager of the United Dollar Store here. Allen was under the contract to receive $200.00 each time he made a trip to New York and recorded 12 selections. Inquiry indicated that because of the popularity of his records, Allen was likely getting only a small fraction of the legitimate returns on them while Mr. Long was ‘mopping up.’ Allen realized this himself but knew no way of doing better. It was arranged that he would not sign another contract with Mr. Long on the expiration date of the one he was then under, April 12, 1939. The recording company and Mr. Long were written. They were asked to cooperate with us in getting the man off public relief but neither replied. On the day the contract expired, both were again notified of the man’s condition and advised that he was now free. A month later as we were about to conclude a contract with another company Mr. Long appeared and claimed that while Allen was free of his contract with him he was still bound to the American Recording Company, 1776 Broadway, New York. The Company was written in an effort to verify this but it simply referred us back to Mr. Long and the matter is still undetermined. Both Frances E. Walker, local lawyer and member of the Lions Club, and Ludlow Rogers, local lawyer, have given advice in the case and Mr. Walker promised to help in any way possible.”

    On July 5, Bailey West paid Fulton Allen a “collateral visit” and made the following notes: “It was decided in a conference of Supervisor Visitor and Mr. Lewis to let Client’s phonograph record producing remain in its present status for the time being. Mr. Lewis, Placement Agent for the State Commission for the Blind, has worked with Client along this line and had made definite plans concerning it. He will resume this work as soon as his summer training at Chapel Hill is completed.”

    A few days later, J.B. Long drove Fulton Allen, Sonny Terry, and Bull City Red to Memphis to make records. During his marathon one-day session on July 12th, Allen recorded a dozen songs. The most popular, “You’ve Got Something There”/“Baby Quit Your Low Down Ways” and “Big Leg Woman Gets My Pay”/“I Want Some of Your Pie,” came out on Vocalion, Conqueror, and Columbia. Set to the “Step It Up and Go” melody, the good-timey “You’ve Got Something There” was later used as a Columbia demonstration record. “I Crave My Pigmeat” and “Red’s Got the Piccolo Blues” were foot-stomping house rockers. During “I’m a Stranger Here,” Allen used a slide to conjure subtle phrases during the intro and breaks. When the group finished recording the Blind Boy Fuller titles, Bull City Red, now billed as “Oh Red,” sang and played washboard on three gospel selections featuring Sonny Terry on harmonica and, most likely, Sonny Jones on guitar. The following day, the trio recorded three more gospel songs. All of these tracks were credited to “Brother George and His Sanctified Singers.”

    The day before Allen had departed for Memphis, Mrs. Emeth Tuttle Cochran, Supervisor of Student Visitors (and presumably Bailey West’s boss) wrote a letter to Mrs. Gay J. Allen, whose relationship to Fulton Allen, if any, is unknown. The letter does, however, provide these details of the Allen’s business arrangement with J.B. Long: “Mr. Lewis tells me that J.B. Long has taken Fulton to New York [sic] to make records. Mr. Long is to pay him $200.00. Previously, Mr. Lewis had talked over Fulton’s affairs with Mr. Long and had suggested that Fulton be paid his fees in monthly installments instead of a lump sum. Mr. Long seemed to understand but had his doubts about being able to do so as Fulton likes the lump sum idea. In view of the fact that this will be the second $200.00 fee within a period of eight months, we would like to talk with you about this case. Mrs. West expects to make a visit the first of the week after his return and hopes that Fulton will still have most of his money intact.”

    The previously mentioned undated document titled “Recommendation Regarding Allen, Fulton, Case 1465” also makes reference to the session, this time correctly identifying its location as Memphis: “When Mrs. West first visited, Fulton said nothing about another trip but early in July, following up on a report from Mr. Lewis that Fulton had gone out of town for another recording, she learned that he had gone to Memphis, Tenn. Fulton was evasive about the amount he got but apparently it was $125.00 plus expenses. He said he borrowed $65 from Mr. Long prior to the trip for furniture and other things. A letter was written to Mr. Long requesting he inform us as to the amount which he paid Fulton for these recordings. He replied he had given Fulton $225.00 plus all expenses. It is believed that Fulton’s wife, who has been unemployed since the B.A. check, could find work to do at this time. She was formerly employed in a tobacco factory and, since these factories are now opening, she could likely resume her work.”

    Upon Fulton Allen’s return from Memphis, he was visited by Bailey West. Her report of their meeting on July 19, 1939, is quite revealing and worth reprinting in its entirety: “Worker learned that Fulton had just returned from Memphis, Tenn. He had gone there with Mr. J.B. Long for the purpose of making phonograph recordings. Worker wished to find out how much he made on this trip and if he still had the money in his possession.

    “Fulton was found in conversation with another negro man. When Worker arrived, the man left the room but, after a few minutes he returned, and remained during the entire conversation. Other persons in the house had gathered in the kitchen as their feet could be seen through the open door. Worker felt that the conversation was overheard by them and they purposely listened.

    “Worker asked Fulton if he had enjoyed his trip to Memphis. Yes, he had greatly enjoyed the trip but he was glad to be at home again. Worker remarked that it was very fine the Fulton could add to his own income by making these recordings and she hoped that he had brought home most of his money since it would be of so much help in caring for his expenses. Fulton replied that all of the money, every penny, had been spent. Mr. Long had only given him $125. Of this amount, he owed Mr. Long $65.00, which he had paid upon receipt of his money. The remaining $60.00 he said that he owed for furniture, groceries, etc. Worker inquired why the money was owed to Mr. Long since the $60. plus his B.A. checks had all been spent for furniture and groceries. She was told it was borrowed for furniture and groceries also. Worker said that she could not understand why both debts, the one to Mr. Long and the remaining $60. were spent for the same purpose.

    “Fulton was, Worker believes, consciously evasive and kept repeating that both debts were not for the same thing, as one was owed for furniture and grocery bills, while the other went to Mr. Long who had let him have additional money to pay for furniture and groceries. Worker asked if all the money did not go for these two items. Fulton became sullen and replied that it did but that it was given to different people. Worker asked if Fulton did not use his B.A. check to pay his grocery bill. Yes, but the check did not amount to very much in meeting his general expense, and that it was most inadequate to care for him and his wife. The wife is at present unemployed. Fulton said that she had looked for work, but was unable to find it. He remarked that after all he had not had very much money, because he had not made records before in almost a year. Worker reminded him that he had gone to New York last Dec., which was only a little more than six months ago. He must do very good work to be able to make records so often. Fulton appeared rather downcast, and said that it might be another year before he could make any more.

    “Worker told Fulton that she could not say just what effect his present situation would have upon his grant. There were many blind people who have so little to live on and who are waiting to receive their B.A. checks. Many of them do not share Fulton’s good fortune as they are not able to work at all. Fulton hoped that his check would remain as it was. Worker could not say but she did know that Fulton had already had more money than other blind people who were receiving assistance and that there were many waiting to receive their checks who had practically no money at all.

    “Worker recommends that this grant be terminated. She believes that Fulton was paid at least $200. ($225. verified. See card) for recordings made on the Memphis trip as Mr. Long had promised to give this allowance on all trips where twelve recordings were made. Fulton’s constant evasion of the truth during the conversation strengthens this belief. He should have enough saved to last him for some mo. ahead from the proceeds of his recordings.” The card referred to was sent by J.B. Long to William Lewis on July 38, 1939. On it, he states that Sonny Terry had been paid $25, while Fuller was paid “what I told you, $225.00.”

    Bailey West’s recommendation were followed, and in August 1939 Fulton Allen’s monthly Blind Assistance checks were terminated. On the 25th of that month, he visited the Blind Assistance office. “Fulton came to the office in a rather belligerent attitude to know why his grant had been cut off,” wrote a social worker with the initials E.T.C. “Supervisor explained that grant was made on basis of need and that a man who had averaged $70 per month income for the last six months is not eligible. What would he think of Agency if it helped people who that much income? That idea made little impression on Fulton. He said supervisor doesn’t understand how heavy his living expenses are – City won’t let him beg on streets and he has to have clothes and food and furniture. Supervisor complimented him on being able to add to his income, many blind people can’t. Fulton did not respond. Supervisor explained that original investigation had shown that $23 had covered his actual needs but that in addition he had had this $425 during the past six months.

    “Then Fulton claimed he had spent it. Said out of the first $200 he bought about $100 worth of furniture from Rhodes-Collins, has a receipt. Could not account for the other except in food and clothing and fuel. He claimed he got only $125 from recent trip but he could give no idea of how that went except for food and clothing. Explained to him that he can re-apply, if he feels he needs the help but that a thorough investigation will be made of his case and that in the meantime he should collect all receipts for money he has spent. Told him of Mr. Long’s written statement that he paid him $225 and asked him if he had any papers from Mr. Long regarding amounts paid him. He was not sure. When asked if he had a savings account he said no. Fulton claims his pay depends on his records sold and he doesn’t know whether he will do any more recording. Supervisor understands his records are quite popular and this office has idea he will record more. He claimed his wife has tried to find work herself and through the unemployment service but without success.”

    The account concluded with an assessment of Fulton Allen’s appearance and attitude: “Fulton is a well dressed, fairly young negro. He talks well but very definitely has a chip on his shoulder. It is as though he is entitled to a grant and all else is ‘velvet.’ As the interview progressed Fulton did get the idea that the burden of proof is on him and that his case can be reconsidered on that basis.”

    For the next 14 months, the names of Fulton and Cora Allen are absent from the social worker records. During this period, Allen made his final 78s. During a three-day March 1940 session in New York City with Sonny Terry and Bull City Red, he recorded a dozen songs – among them were his masterful “Step It Up and Go,” “Shake It Baby,” and “Three Ball Blues.” The session also produced some of the most downhome records he’d make, such as “Worn Out Engine Blues” and “Passenger Train Blues.” He likely learned “Little Woman You’re So Sweet” from Josh White, who’d recorded it in 1932 as “So Sweet, So Sweet.” As a sideman, Fulton effectively played guitar on Sonny Terry’s otherworldly, falsetto-laden “Harmonica Stomp,” which came out credited to “Sonny Terry (Blind Boy Fuller’s Harmonica Player).” The musicians also performed a pair of spirited gospel sides: “Twelve Gates to the City,” which Blind Gary Davis had recorded at his very first session, and “You Can’t Hide From the Lord.” The Vocalion release credited these to “Brother George and His Sanctified Singers.” The Columbia 78s of “Step It Up and Go” and “Little Woman You’re So Sweet” credited J.B. Long as the songwriter; in an interview, Long recalled writing “Step It Up and Go” on the journey home from the Memphis session.

    Two months later, on June 19, 1940, Blind Boy Fuller made his final dozen records, once again in the company of Sonny Terry and Bull City Red. He started out strong with “I Don’t Want No Skinny Woman,” but seemed to have difficulties keeping his guitar in tune. His next selection, “Bus Rider Blues,” was based on Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur” melody. “Lost Lover Blues,” about a lover’s death, could well be the saddest song in his repertoire. As the session progressed, Allen’s energy level seemed to drop and his voice became raspier – at times, he sounds like latter-day Furry Lewis. For four of his final five selections, Allen chose gospel tunes: “No Stranger Now,” “Must Have Been My Jesus,” “Jesus Is a Holy Man,” and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord,” sung by Bull City Red. Blind Boy Fuller concluded his recording career with a blues, “Night Rambling Woman.”

    The next welfare records entry to mention Fulton Allen, on the same page as the August 25, 1939, material, is dated October 21, 1940. A social worker noted, “Cora, M.’s wife came to the office to apply for commodities. She stated that Fulton had been ill in Lincoln Hospital for the past three months where he is receiving treatment for his kidneys. Cora stated that she had been working in service whenever she could get work, but that she has nothing to do now. Application accepted for commodities and family’s name is being added for emergency and regular orders.” Fuller’s death certificate mentions that in July 1940 he had an operation for a “suprapubic cystotomy for stricture of urethra.” The last mention of Fulton Allen in the welfare records simply notes, “M. died sometime during March 1941.” A final entry, dated May 16, 1941, read, “Family is not participating in the Food Stamp Plan at this time, nor is case being serviced in any way by this Dept. For this reason the case is being closed as of this date.”

    Fulton Allen’s death certificate shows that he died on February 13, 1941, at 904 Massey Ave. The document also lists the Massey address as his home, so perhaps he and Cora had moved there since 1939. The document identified his parents as Calvin Allen of Wadesboro, North Carolina, and Mary Jane Walker of Ansonville, North Carolina. Pyemia – infected blood, or sepsis, as we call it today – was listed as the main cause of his death. For six months he’d also suffered from an “infected bladder and G.U. track and perineum” – in essence, Fulton Allen was infected inside and out. Grove Hill Cemetery in Durham was indicated as his final resting place.

    Around the time of Allen’s final session, Bull City Red introduced J.B. Long to Brownie McGhee, another fine blues singer and guitarist in the Piedmont style. McGhee launched his recording career about six months after Fulton Allen ended his, and many of his initial OKeh 78s identified him on the label as “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.” On May 22, 1941, Brownie McGhee recorded a tribute 78, “Death of Blind Boy Fuller.” The label indicated J.B. Long as the song’s composer:

    “He’s gone, Blind Boy Fuller’s gone away,

    He’s gone, Blind Boy Fuller’s gone away,

    Yeah, he heard a voice calling

    And he knew he could not stay

     

    “Well, he called me to his bedside, and the clock was striking four,

    Yeah, called me to his bedside, and the clock was striking four,

    ‘Brownie, take my guitar and carry my business on

    Blind Boy won’t be here no more’

     

    “Blind Boy had a million friends – east, north, south, and west,

    Blind Boy had a million friends – east, north, south, and west,

    Well, you know that it’s hard to tell

    Which place he was loved the best”

    In the song’s solo, McGhee says, “Blind Boy was my best friend, and I declare he’s gone.” Brownie McGhee went on to form a decades-long partnership with Sonny Terry and fulfilled Blind Boy Fuller’s request to “carry my business on.” Long reportedly gave him Fulton Allen’s guitar.

    ###

    For more Blind Boy Fuller, I recommend Stefan Grossman’s Early Masters of American Blues Guitar: Blind Boy Fuller. This has playing lessons, a CD, and an outstanding biography by Bruce Bastin, who interviewed Cora Mae Allen, J.B. Long, Willie Trice, and others and published much of the pioneering research on Blind Boy Fuller.

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

     

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      9 comments on “Blind Boy Fuller: His Life, Recording Sessions, and Welfare Records

      1. catherine yronwode on said:

        Thank you for a wonderful and deep look into the life of Blind Boy Fuller. These documents tell us much more about him than was previously known. Your clear, coherent presentation of the material, and your extra care in preserving it within its historical context is greatly appreciated.

        • Pat Melfi on said:

          I am doing history on the recordings of Blind Boy Fuller. Trying to learn more about this amazing Artist of his time.

          Song List:

          Ain’t It A Cryin’ Shame
          Baby I Don’t Have To Worry (Cause That Stuff Is Here)
          Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind
          Big Leg Woman Gets My Pay
          I’m A Stranger Here
          I’m Climbin On Top Of The Hill
          Mamie
          My Brown Skin Sugar Plum
          Put You Back In The Jail
          Screaming And Crying Blues
          Somebody’s Been Playing With That Thing
          Someday You’re Gonna Be Sorry
          Step It Up And Go
          Sweet Honey Hole
          Untrue Blues
          Walking And Looking Blues
          You Never Can Tell
          You’ve Got Something There

          Please let me know if you know anything about these recordings.

          Thank you.

          Pat Melfi

      2. This is another amazing document. Thank you. I didn’t know Blind Boy Fuller’s recordings and I’ve been listening along on youtube while reading about the songs in this article. A top rate blues singer, song-writer, and guitar player.

      3. John Garst on said:

        I am greatly saddened by these terrible details of Blind Boy Fuller’s life. I suspect, however, that they are typical of the struggles of blind southern street musicians in the South, although Blind Boy had more health problems than his blindness, and perhaps some of the others didn’t.

        Thank you for the information.

        John

      4. Rick Stokes on said:

        Many thanks for a fascinating read about a truly great artist – I’ve been a Fuller fan for 40+ years, & am very grateful for the chance to learn so much of the detail of his life, sad tho it was.

      5. Troy on said:

        Well done Jas! That J.B. long was some piece of work.

      6. Ian Host on said:

        Thank you for this fascinating information on a fabulous blues singer,
        he is on a par with Mozart, though quite a different genre, but a genius
        in his own right.
        Is the album/book by Stefan Grossman still available, I first heard Blind Boy Fuller over 50 years ago when my form teacher, the blues musicologist Paul Oliver played several tracks to us young pupils, and I have been a fan ever since.
        Thanks again for these insights into a tragic life cut short by ill health and poverty.
        Ian Host

      7. David Burton on said:

        I can only say thank you for such an in-depth look at the life of my favorite country blues musician. I first learned of Blind Boy Fuller after hearing Rory Gallagher play “Pistol Slapper Blues” and I was blown away. With my OCD tendencies with music, I had to learn about Fuller’s life and found that he lived and played only 15 minutes away from my home in Winston-Salem. I recently had a chance encounter with Harvey Dalton Arnold from the southern rock band the Outlaws who is also from NC and he described meeting a man years ago who interacted with Blind Boy on a regular basis while he played in the Durham area. It’s so incredible to know that the history of my favorite traditional blues musician was right under my nose, and I plan to spread Fuller’s name and music wherever I travel.

      8. freddie hankin on said:

        Hi there,

        I am trying to gather some information on ‘Untrue blues’ by Blind Boy Fuller. The story behind it, the date of recording, the label, the context, it’s place in blues as an influence and it’s own influences… anything at all really.. could you point me in the right direction. there seems to be very little information on the song
        Thank you
        Freddie

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