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September 2005

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Blind Arvella Gray
The Singing Drifter

Conqueroo Recordings

Blind Arvella Gray

Blind Arvella Gray played on Maxwell Street in Chicago for 40 years and was noted for his robust vocals and his unique work on a National slide steel guitar. Though he did have a couple of performances captured on the …And This is Maxwell Street collection from the early ’60s, he only recorded one album of his own, which was recorded for Birch Records, and sold out after it’s initial release of less than 1,000 copies. 

Gray, who died in 1980, built quite a following during his performing days, counting Bob Dylan among his fans, along with a young man named Cary Baker, who made several trips to Chicago to watch Gray perform. It was Baker, now president of Conqueroo Recordings, who decided to reissue Gray’s only album, The Singing Drifter, which had been unavailable for over 30 years. 

Born in 1906, Gray (whose real name was James Dixon) was blinded in the 1930s, possibly in a shooting, which also cost him two fingers on his fret hand. The missing fingers led to his playing slide, since he wasn’t able to do any elaborate fingerpicking. 

The Singing Drifter is a collection of 14 tracks (four of which are previously unreleased, plus a hidden 15th track at the end of the disc), which consists of old folk tunes, gospel numbers, blues, and a few work songs as well.

Probably the best song here is Gray’s stirring seven-minute version of “John Henry,” in which John Henry’s wife even drives steel. 

Gray’s slide work really catches your ear on this track. On other songs, such as “Arvella’s Work Song,” Gray sings accompanied only by his hand claps and his strong vocals take center stage on these tracks. 

This is a fine set of previously hard-to-find music that would be a good fit in any blues fan’s collection. Many thanks to Cary Baker for making this album available for a whole new set of listeners to experience.

--- Graham Clarke

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