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Legislators tried their best last week to wrap-up the work of the 2014 session, including when and under what conditions they would finally adjourn for the year. They’ll return next week to try again.
With that in mind, we offer up words of wisdom from North Carolina’s own Blind Boy Fuller, who sings his 1940 hit “Step It Up and Go.” Fuller was a celebrated guitarist and vocalist from Wadesboro, famous for playing a steel-bodied National guitar. This uptempo ragtime song, which sold over half a million copies when it was first released, was largely responsible for the national popularization of North Carolina’s Piedmont Blues style.
Over his short but storied career, Fuller dominated the Bull City Blues scene. This recording of “Step It Up and Go” was from one of his very last recording sessions. He died in 1941 at the young age of 33.
Born Fulton Allen in 1907, Fuller learned guitar and country rag songs from older singers in Rockingham, where his father moved the family to live after his mother’s death. In his late teens, he went to Winston-Salem, where he played on sidewalks for the shift workers of the local tobacco factories. Fuller’s ability to fuse together elements of traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them into his own style attracted a broad audience, who were drawn to his complex guitar work and distinctive voice.1 The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Country Music calls him “one of the most successful street singer-guitarists on gramophone records during the New Deal period.”
As blues scholar Bruce Bastin explained in his book Red River Blues, “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.” Looking for work, Allen took his new wife Cora Mae back to live in Winston Salem, where was employed for short time in a coal yard until 1928, when he became completely blind. Without any other means of income, he turned to music and moved to Durham the next year.2
In 1935, a record store manager there took notice of Allen and brought him to the attention of the American Recording Company. Accompanied by his friends washboard player George Washington (a.k.a. Bull City Red) and guitarist Gary Davis, Allen travelled to New York City to record a number of tracks, including the hit “I’m a Rattlesnakin’ Daddy.” To help promote the material and sell their records, the name “Blind Boy Fuller” was born. In 1937, Fuller began recording for the Decca label, cutting such sides as “Bye Bye Baby Blues” with harmonica stylist Sonny Terry.
Though he was one of the top-selling bluesmen of the pre-World War II era, Blind Boy Fuller saw little monetary reward for his music. Suffering from a kidney aliment, he received hospital treatment and care at home from a family doctor and died in Durham on February 13, 1941.3 He is buried there in an unmarked grave and recognized with two separate plaques, one placed by The North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the other by the City of Durham that’s located along the American Tobacco Trail.
This exceptionally talented man recorded 135 sides over the span of just five years (1935-1940) that would find their way into the music of a great number of other bluesmen of the pre-World War II era. Fuller’s musical repertoire included ragtime-influenced “hokum” songs (loaded with racy double entendres) and down-home blues that centered on the daily struggles of black tenant farmers and the personal experiences of those who left the South for the North.4
Blind Boy Fuller’s formidable finger-picking guitar style continues to influence thousands of musicians to this day.