Street singer Blind Arvella Gray was a fixture on Maxwell Street around forty odd years ago long before the University of Illinois Chicago Campus decided historical preservation was less important than yuppified urban condos. Cary Baker, who today is involved in publicity for blues and other roots music, put together Blue Flame, a blues fanzine, and also helped get Gray recorded for a rare album on the Birch label that he has arranged to get reissued as The Singing Drifter, for his Baker’s Conjuroo label.
Gray can be seen in the Mike Shea video And This is Maxwell Street, and Dylan’s He Was a Friend of Mine was inspired by Gray which itself likely derived from a Southern prison song, Shorty George. Born in Texas he came from Chicago via Peoria. Gray had lost his eyes and two finger s from birdshot propelled by a shotgun and came to Chicago playing a National dobro on which he is heard on much of this fascinating recording, which includes four previously unissued sacred performances.
His repertoire ranges from an unaccompanied Arvella’s Work Song, the country There’s More Pretty Girls Than One, gospel Take Your Burden to the Lord and When the Saints Go Marching In. His signature tune is a vibrant rendition of John Henry, and there is a terrific Those Old Fashioned Alley Blues, another traditional song sung with a husky vocal delivery and forcefully played with a strong rhythmic attack and slide to the melody of St. Louis Blues. In all, a fascinating document of a street performer and an era that seems so distant today.
This review was originally published in the November-December 2006 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 277). I received my copy from the record label. This is still in print.