Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
“Blind” Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Henry Jefferson; September 24, 1893 – December 19, 1929) was an American blues singer and guitarist from Texas. He was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s, and has been titled “Father of the Texas Blues.”
Jefferson’s singing and self-accompaniment were distinctive as a result of his high-pitched voice and originality on the guitar. Though his recordings sold well, he was not so influential on some younger blues singers of his generation, who could not imitate him as they could other commercially successful artists. However, later blues and rock and roll musicians attempted to imitate both his songs and his musical style. His recordings would later influence such legends as B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House and Robert Johnson.
Lemon Henry Jefferson was born blind near Coutchman, Texas in Freestone County, near present-day Wortham, Texas. Jefferson was one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa Jefferson. Disputes regarding his exact birth date derive from contradictory census records and draft registration records. By 1900, the family was farming southeast of Streetman, Texas, and Lemon Jefferson’s birth date is indicated as September 1893 in the 1900 census. The 1910 census, taken in May before his birthday, further confirms his birth year as 1893, and indicated the family was farming northwest of Wortham, near Lemon Jefferson’s birthplace.
In his 1917 draft registration, Jefferson gave his birth date as October 26, 1894, further stating that he then lived in Dallas, Texas, and that he had been blind from birth. In the 1920 Census, he is recorded as having returned to the Freestone County area, and he was living with his half-brother Kit Banks on a farm between Wortham and Streetman.
Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties. He also became astreet 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:
By the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Lead Belly. In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas. 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.
Beginning of recording career
Until Jefferson, very few artists had recorded solo voice and blues guitar, the first of which was vocalist Sara Martin and guitarist Sylvester Weaver. Jefferson’s music is uninhibited and represented the classic sounds of everyday life from a honky-tonk to a country picnic to street corner blues to work in the burgeoning oil fields, a further reflection of his interest in mechanical objects and processes.
Jefferson did what very few had ever done – he became a successful solo guitarist and male vocalist in the commercial recording world. 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. 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 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.
Success with Paramount Records
It was largely due to the popularity of artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and contemporaries such as Blind Blake and Ma Rainey that Paramount became the leading recording company for the blues in the 1920’s. Jefferson’s earnings reputedly enabled him to buy a car and employ chauffeurs (although there is debate over the reliability of this as well); he was given a Ford car “worth over $700” by [[Mayo21-78777-7. p.288], 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. It was Jefferson’s “old-fashioned sound and confident musicianship that made him easy to market. His skillful guitar playing and impressive vocal ranges opened the door for a new generation of male solo blues performers such as Furry Lewis, Charlie Patton, and Barbecue Bob. He 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 “simple 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.
Jefferson was reputedly unhappy with his royalties (although Williams said that Jefferson had a bank account containing as much as $1500). 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, probably because of contractual obligations with Paramount. 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. Bates) 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, often personally involving the teller. T-Bone Walker states that as a boy, he was employed by Jefferson to lead him around the streets of Dallas; he would have been of the appropriate age at the time. A Paramount employee told biographer Orrin Keepnews that Jefferson was a womanizing sloppy drunk; on the other hand, Jefferson’s neighbor in Chicago, Romeo Nelson, reports him as being “warm and cordial,” and singer Rube Lacy states that Jefferson always refused to play on a Sunday, “even if you give me two hundred.” He is claimed to have earned money wrestling before his musical success. Victoria Spivey elliptically credits Jefferson as someone who “could sure feel his way around.”
Death and grave
Jefferson died in Chicago at 10 am on December 19, 1929, of what his death certificate called “probably acute myocarditis.” For many years, apocryphal rumors circulated that a jealous lover had poisoned his coffee, but a more likely scenario is that he died of a bad heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm (i.e., he froze to death). Some have said that Jefferson died from a heart attack after being attacked by a dog in the middle of the night. More recently, the book, Tolbert’s Texas, claimed that he was killed while being robbed of a large royalty payment by a guide escorting him to Union Station to catch a train home to Texas. Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist William Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (later 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 his gravesite is kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham, Texas.