Posts Tagged ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Wortham, Texas, about 60 miles south of Dallas, in 1897 but it is possible that the year could be a decade or so earlier. Nothing is known about his youth, how he became blind.

Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties.  He also became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns in front of barbershops and on corners.  According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson, quoted in the notes for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides:

They was rough. Men was hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night… he’d start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning… mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night.

By the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Leadbelly.  In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in Dallas’ Deep Ellum area. Jefferson likely moved to Deep Ellum in a more permanent fashion by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, also known as T-Bone Walker.   Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar, in exchange for Walker’s occasional services as a guide.   Also, by the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child.  However, firm evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is unavailable.

Unlike many artists who were “discovered” and recorded in their normal venues, in December 1925 or January 1926, he was taken to Chicago, Illinois, to record his first tracks. Uncharacteristically, Jefferson’s first two recordings from this session were gospel songs (“I Want to be like Jesus in my Heart” and “All I Want is that Pure Religion”), released under the name Deacon L. J. Bates.

This led to a second recording session in March 1926. His first releases under his own name, “Booster Blues” and “Dry Southern Blues,” were hits; this led to the release of the other two songs from that session, “Got the Blues” and “Long Lonesome Blues,” which became a runaway success, with sales in six figures.

In 1926 ‘Got The Blues’ and ‘Long Lonesome Blues’ were the first best selling blues records by a black male singer. Soon he had a new car, a bank account and a billing as one of the stars of the Paramount label, the leading producer of “race” records, for whom he made almost a hundred sides in less than four years.

He recorded about 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929; 43 records were issued, all but one for Paramount Records. Unfortunately, Paramount Records’ studio techniques and quality were infamously bad, and the resulting recordings sound no better than if they had been recorded in a hotel room. In fact, in May 1926, Paramount had Jefferson re-record his hits “Got the Blues” and “Long Lonesome Blues” in the superior facilities at Marsh Laboratories, and subsequent releases used that version. Both versions appear on compilation albums and may be compared.

Jefferson’s earnings reputedly enabled him to buy a car and employ chauffeurs. He was given a Ford car worth over $700 by Mayo Williams, Paramount’s connection with the black community. This was a frequently seen compensation for recording rights in that market. Jefferson is known to have done an unusual amount of traveling for the time in the American South, which is reflected in the difficulty of pigeonholing his music into one regional category.

Jefferson was reputedly unhappy with his royalties. In 1927, when Williams moved to OKeh Records, he took Jefferson with him, and OKeh quickly recorded and released Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues” backed with “Black Snake Moan,” which was to be his only OKeh recording. Jefferson’s two songs released on Okeh have considerably better sound quality than on his Paramount records at the time. When he had returned to Paramount a few months later, “Matchbox Blues” had already become such a hit that Paramount re-recorded and released two new versions, under producer Arthur Laibly.

In 1927, Jefferson recorded another of his now classic songs, the haunting “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” once again using the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bate along with two other uncharacteristically spiritual songs, “He Arose from the Dead” and “Where Shall I Be.” Of the three, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” became such a big hit that it was re-recorded and re-released in 1928.

As his fame grew, so did the tales regarding his life. T-Bone Walker states that as a boy, he was employed by Jefferson to lead him around the streets of Dallas. Rube Lacy states that Jefferson always refused to play on a Sunday. Victoria Spivey elliptically credits Jefferson as someone who could sure feel his way around.

His death is as much of a mysterious as most of his life: he is supposed to have died in Chicago in the winter of 1929, frozen on the streets in a blizzard, but his producer Mayo Williams’ account, that he collapsed in his car and was abandoned by his chauffeur, seems more plausable.  Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist Will Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (now Wortham Black Cemetery). Far from his grave being kept clean, it was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location being unknown. By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition, but a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007 the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and keeping his wishes his gravesite is being kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham Texas.Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist Will Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (now Wortham Black Cemetery). Far from his grave being kept clean, it was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location being unknown. By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition, but a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007 the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and keeping his wishes his gravesite is being kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham Texas.

Blind Lemon Jefferson sticks to no musical conventions, varying his riffs and rhythm and singing complex and expressive lyrics in a manner exceptional at the time for a country blues singer. According to North Carolina musician Walter Davis, Jefferson played on the streets in Johnson City, Tennessee during the early 1920s at which time Davis and fellow entertainer Clarence Greene learned the art of blues guitar.  His musical style was individualistic, and Jefferson’s singing and self-accompaniment were distinctive as a result of his high-pitched voice and originality on the guitar.

Being the first recorded black blues guitar player, and having sold as many copies of his songs as he did, he was greatly influential in the world of blues.  He also was well traveled, and so was well known throughout the South even before he recorded.

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