Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Reader on January 7, 1972. It’s been transcribed exactly as it appeared then, and has not been updated to correct typos or conform to the Reader’s current house style.
A blind man singing on the streets. It almost sounds as if it would be outlawed or long extinct by 1972. A blind street singer, singing traditional work songs and blues, with endless stories to tell would be institutionalized, or somehow put away. But blind Arvella Gray is real. He plays on decaying Maxwell street—against the building walls, crossing the streets, or on busses and trains. On Fridays, you’ll find him standing on the corner of Grand and State, blocking the doorway of the Jazz Record Mart, and collecting coins in a tin cup.
Gray has been singing and playing a National steel-body guitar for many years. He has played on Maxwell Street since he came up from Texas in the 30’s, back when the area was justifiably known as “Jewtown.” On the street, you’d find, and still find today, boothes and stores carrying old shoes, trunks, and scratched 78’s. Today, in additon, you’ll find opened Temptations LP’s, as well as Little Walter’s Ora-Nelle 78’s, but Arvella was playing there when the Ora-Nelle records were released in 1947.
His favorite song is “John Henry,” but it’s technically not the same song that Los John and Lightnin’ Sam record intermittently. Gray speaks of Maxwell Street people and places, but starts at the bottom with John Henry speaking to his foreman. “Henry died in the hills, but before he died, he said. . . . ” It’s a trip listening to Gray’s monotonous guitar work on the song. It’s so unskilled and yet so beautiful that it can’t be described.
All this comes into perspective when you realize that Arvella’s left hand contains only a thumb and the two farthest fingers, the natural place to hold the guitar neck. Arvella’s loss of two fingers comes from the same accident that blinded him in 1930. Now he roams the streets wearing a torn Salvation Army sports jacket, a cane, an aqua carrying bag, and reams of photos of himself, which he distributes. His guitar work is reminiscent—not deliberately, of course—of a tampoura, the Indian drone instrument that backs Shankar. Though it’s raunchy and unskilled, it somehow fits into place. Nobody knows if Gray is conscious of the subtlety in his monotonous guitar playing, but I hope he stays with it.
Cary S. Baker helped Blind Arvella Gray find a label to release his only album, The Singing Drifter, in 1973. Baker’s own imprint, Conjuroo Recordings, reissued a modified version of the record in 2005.
When I saw him last, he told me that he’s learning to play the guitar. As he works now, he wears a bottleneck on his fourth finger, and is limited because his fretting hand is minus three fingers. What he’s trying to develop is a reverse stance—his crippled hand picking, and his complete hand fretting. He won’t play on the streets this way for a while, though.
Gray can stay with “John Henry” for up to 150 verses. He also finds it hard to complete another song without a verse about John Henry, or Maxwell Street. His other songs include “Freedom Bus” (a melodic spiritual protest), “Freedom Riders,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Key to the Highway,” “Have Mercy Mr. Percy,” and “That’s Allright.” He sometimes jams with guitarist blind James Brewer, opening up a whole repertoire of new songs. His songs tend to start with rural lyrics, and then become urban gradually.
There is irony in Arvella’s reception these days. I saw people walking down Halsted, walking down State Street, or walking down Maxwell or Morgan. They’d pass by him, and either drop a penny or a dime into his tin cup, or completely ignore his presence. A few people even snickered as they went by. A black teenage boy, listening to a small transistor radio tuned to WGRT or WVON, walked by absorbed in an Impressions hit. He gave not a thought to blind Arvella Gray, whose blues represented the source of the Impression’s musical idiom.
A thought struck me: Why not record an LP of Arvella on the street? The noise of cars, horns, people talking, busses—these are his natural setting. Then I realized: Gray is constantly complaining about the sound of his 45’s, so imagine his disgust for music with streetnoice! It still would be interesting, however, to set up a tape recorder on the sidewalk and catch Arvella’s “thank you” to those that give him spare change. Arvella badly wants to record, however. He’s got hours of tape of himself, ready to be issued.
Arvella told me about the effect of his blindness. He says being blind is like having someone place a pillow over your head, or like looking through a long black stovepipe. He says his head is a mass of gray. He neither remembes nor can imagine what various things look like. He even claims that things were darker when he first became blind than now. Sometimes he says that his blindness is all a dream—that one day he’ll wake up and see. Unfortunately, this is not possible. Arvella’s eyes have diminished to minimal size, and he’s been blind for 40 years. Although he’s been in institutions for the handicapped, and marked off as an invalid, he never feels sorry for himself. He travels all through the city on trains and busses. And in the midst of his singing and the sound of congested traffic, he somehow acknowledges the presence of a listener by saying “hi.” He remembered my voice from the last time I met him last summer.
Maxwell Street may not have long to live. The University of Illinois Circle Campus is encroaching from the north, and the Ora-Nelle Record Shop is closing after 35 years. Arvella will move on, keeping Maxwell alive in his own way. “John Henry” may have more verses, yet.