By Mike Greenblatt
Blind Joe Taggart could play some mean guitar. But it was his voice that made him a standout in the field of gospel during The Roaring Twenties. The very last side that he ever recorded for Paramount (after being with the Vocalion label in 1927) was “In That Pearly White City Above.” The ad to sell copies of Paramount 13059 was an artist’s re-creation of what you see when you die.
“It’s quite rare,” John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records says of the record. “There’s just no super-clean copy of that record out there. If a perfect copy of that record would be discovered at auction or on eBay where bidding was required, it would probably hit the two to three thousand dollar mark. Blind Joe Taggart is considered one of the better blues/gospel artists. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information out there about him.”
Many blues artists also recorded gospel. Many gospel artists also recorded blues. The two genres seemed to overlap in the catalogs of so many legendary names. Taggart made at least one extremely rare blues record called “14th Street Blues” under the alias of Blind Percy And His Blind Band. Of course, today no one really knows if the whole band was blind. There’s only one known copy of the record, and Tefteller has it.
“I hope to put it on the 2014 calendar,” he promises. “If you look it up in the various blues discographies, you’ll find it there, and it’ll say it’s rumored to be Blind Joe Taggart and other musicians, but nothing’s been confirmed. Well, all it took me was one listen to the record, and I can tell you it’s definitely Blind Joe Taggart all right. He has a very, very distinctive voice. There’s no rumor. It’s him. I’m not sure who else, though, is playing on the record.”
So the question remains: Did Taggart use another name because many people back then thought that the blues was the devil’s music? Did Taggart himself think that? It was a popular belief, but so many artists played barroom blues on Saturday night and sang “Amazing Grace” on Sunday morning. Did Blind Willie McTell — who also recorded gospel — think that? What about Charley Patton, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt: blues legends all who used their own names when also recording gospel? And what’s up with all the blind singers anyway?
“The labels knew they could sell more records by putting the word ‘Blind’ before the artist’s name,” Tefteller explains, “Or ‘Cripple’ in the case of Clarence Lofton. Remember the state of race relations back then. Black people were considered inferior. It was awful. They were being recorded, almost exclusively, by white producers. I don’t know if these singers really wanted to call themselves ‘Blind’ or not. Probably not.
“There are gospel records, in fact, by most of the major figures in blues,” he continues. “Most of them, while they did lead the blues lifestyle, so to speak, had a religious background, so they were pre-disposed to that kind of music from the beginning. And some of them actually did sing it, not only in church, but at their performances where they would be required to sing it. Sometimes they would sing in a juke joint where they would do strictly blues music and no gospel. Sometimes, at picnics, where white landowners would hire black singers for entertainment, they’d even throw in the popular songs of the day, so you’d have a Robert Johnson or Charley Patton singing something like ‘My Blue Heaven.’”
Blind Joe Taggart wound up recording four more records for Decca in 1934 before disappearing completely; no details are known about his death. And, no one here on Earth knows if he (or Blind Percy) went to heaven or hell.