Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the death of Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 33. Here is the entry I give this late great performer in my book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
Fuller, Blind Boy [1907 - 1941]
Fulton Allen was probably born on July 10, 1907, and certainly at Wadesboro, North Carolina. He was not born blind but his eyesight began to fail by the age of 20 when, already married to a 14-year-old bride, he moved to the important tobacco-trade town of Winston-Salem. He was a coalyard labourer until forced to give up this job, after which he resorted to musicianship. By 1928 he had gone wholly blind and had begun to apply himself seriously to the guitar, which he had not begun to play till around 1925. (He played a big, steel-bodied National guitar.) He and his wife moved to Durham in 1929, playing to workers coming off shift in all the tobacco towns up and down Highway 70 and around Winston-Salem; he remained in penury, though in the end he became the South-East’s best-selling and most prolific recording artist of the 1930s, characterised not by originality of material but by an ear for a catchy song, a deft finger-picking style and straightforward vocals.
He recorded only between 1935 and 1940, beginning with a New York City solo session on July 23, 1935 that included an attractive re-write of ‘Sittin’ On Top of the World’, named ‘I’m Climbin’ On Top of the Hill’; two days later he was accompanied by Blind Gary Davis and Bull City Red and their three-song session included a title The Band would later borrow, ‘Rag, Mama, Rag’. Next day came a further solo session before he returned to North Carolina. In 1936 he went back to New York for a longer two-day solo session (which included a version of ‘Mama Let Me Lay It On You’, and in 1937 he made the journey no less than four times for further multi-day sessions, the last of these in freezing mid-December. He returned once again in April 1938 but that October was able to record more conveniently in Columbia, South Carolina, with Sonny Terry and Bull City Red; in July 1939 they reconvened in Memphis but were back in New York on March 5, 6 and 7 for sessions that began with a take of what has become one of Fuller’s signature songs, ‘Step It Up and Go', with Bull City Red on washboard but Sonny Terry not playing - though this song had already enjoyed a complex history, and was recorded by others from 1932 onwards.
Fuller's final, long session, again with the same two accompanists, augmented by Brownie McGhee on at least one track (‘Precious Lord’, one of several issued as by Brother George and His Sanctified Singers, a name often used for religious sides by McGhee & Red), took place in New York on June 19, 1940. Twelve numbers were recorded. A month later he was in hospital and on 13 February, 1941 he died in considerable pain, back in Durham, from restriction of the urethra and a bladder infection. He was 33 years old.
Such was his influence and popularity that Brownie McGhee not only recorded as ‘Blind Boy Fuller No.2’ but made a record titled ‘Death of Blind Boy Fuller’. In the 1960s-70s Fuller became a subject of great interest to those blues researchers who liked the Piedmont school (and liked to debate whether there was such a thing), as opposed to those more insistent voices who dismissed Fuller, Blind Willie McTell and others from the South-East as ‘lightweight’ and would only countenance the heavier, fiercer blues of the Mississippi Delta. It was the detailed research by one of the Piedmont-style enthusiasts, Briton Bruce Bastin, that overturned the myth that Fuller had been blinded by a girlfriend (as still relayed in Paul Oliver’s classic work The Story Of The Blues as late as 1969). Fuller and McTell - that other great performer who followed the tobacco season trail in the southeastern states - listened to each other’s work. Fuller’s ‘Log Cabin Blues’ of 1935 is virtually a cover of McTell’s 1929 ‘Come On Around To My House Mama’.
‘Midnight Special’, the Leadbelly song recorded by Harry Belafonte with Bob Dylan as harmonica accompanist in the early 1960s, had been, in between times, a key item in Blind Boy Fuller’s repertoire. In 1937 Fuller recorded ‘Weeping Willow’ (one of those songs that includes the lovely commonstock couplet ‘I lay down last night, tried to take my rest / My mind got to ramblin’ like the wild geese in the west’), which Dylan performed at the Supper Club in New York in 1993. Fuller’s ‘Stealing Bo-Hog’ is one of the cluster of songs that pre-figures Dylan’s opening line of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (and Little Richard’s ‘Keep A-Knockin’’) with its ‘Say you get away from my window, don’t knock at my door’; his ‘Pistol Snapper Blues’, from 1938, is one of those to invoke that character the monkey man, which Dylan pairs with ‘Tweeter’ in the title of a Travelin’ Wilburys song; and Fuller’s ‘Piccolo Rag’ (from the same 1938 session) is one of the many blues using ‘great big legs’ as a term of approbation - in Fuller’s case ‘Got great big legs and a little bitty feet’ - which gets reprocessed by Dylan into the ‘great big hind legs’ on his ‘New Pony’, on 1978’s Street Legal.
In 1992 Dylan recorded and released his own version of Fuller’s ‘Step It Up and Go’ on the Good As I Been To You album. It was a song that had rapidly become as much a hillbilly property as a blues dance number: it was performed by nearly every bluesman south of Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s and became a standard repertoire item - one of those test numbers, like ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ - that every self-respecting hillbilly blues guitarist had to be able to play. To look at the history of this comparatively recent song is to encounter yet again the extraordinary commonality of American grass-roots music, to see how shared a musical heritage there so often was between, as Tony Russell’s book has it, Blacks Whites And Blues.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the Everly Brothers recorded ‘Step It Up & Go’, and to look at their slim interweaving within the story is to see a representative illustration of how this music passes to and fro. Their ‘Step It Up & Go’ isn’t on the album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, but Ike Everly would have been their source. Ike had been taught guitar by Arnold Schultz, a black musician who also taught the Monroe Brothers; in turn Ike taught the 14-year-old Merle Travis thumb-pick style - a style Travis developed and showcased on ‘Step It Up & Go’.
The song was also in the repertoire of populist cowboy outfit the Maddox Brothers And Rose, the pre-rockabilly artist Harmonica Frank Floyd (a figure championed by Greil Marcus in Mystery Train) and John Hammond Jr., who includes it on his album Frogs For Snakes. It’s of a type that crops up over and over again. The building blocks of the lyric are commonstock, in some cases shared with those in that other frisky classic of inconsequence, Tampa Red’s ‘It’s Tight Like That’, which, as remembered by Eugene Powell, for instance (a 1930s Bluebird recording artist and veteran blues musician interviewed in Alan Lomax’s The Land Where The Blues Began), includes ‘Had a little dog, his name was Ball / Gave him a little taste and he want it all’, which Dylan puts in as the fourth stanza of ‘Step It Up & Go’: ‘Got a little girl, her name is Ball / Give a little bit, she took it all.
At the same time we find the melody of ‘Step It Up & Go’ used everywhere from the Kansas City jazz-tinged boogie pianist-singer Julia Lee’s 1946 ‘Gimme Watcha Got’ to Elvis Presley’s 1958 New Orleans pastiche ‘Hard Headed Woman’. Another Blind Boy Fuller song, ‘You’ve Got Something There’, and Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Warm It Up To Me’ are more or less the same, as is the Memphis Jug Band’s ‘Bottle It Up And Go’ (cut in 1932 and 1934) and Tommy McClennan’s 1939 ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, later recorded by John Lee Hooker as ‘Bundle Up And Go’, ‘Shake It Up And Go’ and ‘Bottle Up And Go’. Under that last title, it was also recorded in the late 1950s by Snooks Eaglin (at that time a street musician). Then there’s ‘Got The Bottle Up And Gone’, a debut-session track by Sonny Boy Williamson I from 1937, and ‘Touch It Up And Go’, a track by Fuller associate Sonny Terry & Jordan Webb, cut in New York a year after Fuller’s death. ‘Step It Up & Go’ must owe its predominance to having the most accessible and familiar title. Like so many figures of speech, indeed like so much of the poetry of the blues, ‘step it up and go’ crossed over to the world of dancing from the world of work. It was what people said to their mules and horses. They still do, though it’s now more common as an exhortation to the tourist trade horses drawing carriages in New Orleans than in the fields, where tractors now do the ploughing.
Bob Dylan’s version is unambitious, as befits someone who understands the tradition in which the song sits. Conscious that a bravura performance is for the young and brash, and that there’s a hundred voices capable of matching up to what is a simple dance number, Dylan settles quite rightly for something egolessly unexceptional. This is intelligent good-time, on which his robust and clumsy guitar-work is countered by an alert, true-to-the-genre vocal. As John Wesley Harding (aka WES STACE) notes, ‘He screws up the riff at the end…so he goes through the whole sequence again, just for the hell of it.’ It’s true.
[Blind Boy Fuller: ‘Weeping Willow’, NY, 14 Jul 1937, Blind Boy Fuller On Down – Vol. 1, Saydisc SDR143, Badminton UK, c.1967; ‘Stealing Bo-Hog’, NY, 7 Sep 1937, & ‘Pistol Snapper Blues’, NY, 5 Apr 1938, Blind Boy Fuller with Sonny Terry and Bull City Red, Blues Classics BC-11, Berkeley, 1966; ‘You’ve Got Something There’, Memphis, 12 Jul 1939, CD-reissued Blind Boy Fuller: East Coast Piedmont Style, Columbia Roots n’Blues 467923, NYC, 1991 (insert-notes by Bruce Bastin), a‘Log Cabin Blues’, NY, 26 Jul 1935 (a previously-unreleased take) but excluding ‘Step It Up & Go’. representative sample of Fuller’s work, incl.
Bob Dylan: ‘Weeping Willow’, NY, 17 Nov 1993, unreleased. Everly Brothers: ‘Step It Up & Go’, Nashville, autumn 1961, Instant Party, Warner Brothers W (WS) 1430, US, 1962; Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Nashville, Aug 1958, Cadence CLP 3016, NY, 1958 (reissued as Folksongs By The Everly Brothers, Cadence CLP 3059 / CLP 23059, NY, 1962; CD-reissued on Ace CDCHM 75, UK, 1990). Merle Travis: ‘Step It Up & Go’, nia, Walking The Strings, Capitol nia. (Travis used the refrain of another Fuller song, 1935’s ‘Ain’t It A Cryin’ Shame?’, in his 1946 radio broadcasts.) Maddox Brothers And Rose: ‘Step It Up And Go’, nia, Maddox Brothers And Rose 1946-1951 Vol. 2 (along with ‘Dark As The Dungeon’, nia), Arhoolie 5017, El Cerrito CA, 1976. Harmonica Frank: ‘Step It Up & Go’, The Great Original Recordings of Harmonica Frank Lloyd 1951-1958, Puritan 3003, Evanston IL, 1973. John Hammond Jr: Frogs For Snakes, nia, Rounder nia, Somerville, MA, nia. Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends: ‘Gimme Watcha Got’, LA, Sep 1946, reissued Tonight’s The Night, Charly CRB 1039, UK, 1982. Elvis Presley: ‘Hard Headed Woman’ (composed Claude Demetrius, whose ‘Mean Woman Blues’ also uses the same tune), Hollywood, 15 Jan 1958, King Creole, RCA LPM 1884, NY, 1958. Blind Willie McTell: ‘Warm It Up To Me’, NY, 14 Sep 1933.
Blind Willie McTell: ‘Come On Around To My House Mama’, Atlanta, 30 Oct 1929, King of the Georgia Blues Singers: Blind Willie McTell, Roots RL-324, Vienna, 1968.) The Memphis Jug Band (billed the first time around as Picaninny Jug Band, and then as by Charlie Burse With Memphis Jug Band): ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, Richmond IN, 3 Aug 1932 & Chicago, 7 Nov 1934, both CD-reissued Memphis Jug Band Complete Recorded Works 1932-1934, RST Blues Documents BDCD-6002, Vienna, nia. Tommy McClennan: ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, Chicago, 22 Nov 1939, CD-reissued Travelin’ Highway Man, Travelin’ Man TM CD-06, nia. John Lee Hooker: ‘Bundle Up And Go’, Chicago 10 Jun 1958, unissued, & Detroit, Apr 1959, The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, Riverside LP 838, c.1960; ‘Shake It Up And Go’, Culver City CA, c.1959, John Lee Hooker's Detroit, United Artists 3LP 127, US, 1973; ‘Bottle Up And Go’, Chicago, 1963, On Campus, VJ LP 1066, 1963, & NY, 23 Nov 1965, It Serves You Right to Suffer, Impulse LP 9103, nia. Snooks Eaglin: ‘Bottle Up And Go’, New Orleans, 1959, Country Boy In New Orleans, Arhoolie LP 2014, El Cerrito CA, nia, CD-reissued Arhoolie CD348, El Cerrito, c.1990. Sonny Boy Williamson I: ‘Got The Bottle Up And Gone’, Aurora IL, 5 May 1937, Sonny Boy Williamson, RCA 75.722 (Treasury of Jazz EP no.22), Paris, 1963, CD-reissued Sonny Boy Williamson Complete Recorded Works, Volume 1 (1937-1938), Document DOCD-5055, Vienna, nd.. Sonny Terry & Jordan Webb: ‘Touch It Up And Go’, NY, 23 Oct 1941.
Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, London; Methuen edn, p. 374. John Wesley Harding: ‘Good As He’s Been To Us’, Stereofile, US, Feb 1993.]