Blind Lemon Jefferson
(1839 – 1929)
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s distinctive vocals and original, imaginative and inimitable guitar playing not only helped to define the ‘Texas Blues’ style with his influential single note runs, but also made him the first blues musician to enjoy major commercial success.
Between 1926 and his untimely death in 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the largest-selling black blues singer in the United States.
Blind from birth, Lemon wandered the streets of Wortham, Groesbeck, Marlin, and Kosse in Central Texas, playing his guitar and soliciting contributions with his tin cup. In 1912 he caught a train for Dallas, where he performed in the famous Deep Ellum district. He was discovered by a talent scout for Paramount Records and taken to Chicago in 1925.
BLJ’s recording career lasted a mere four years, yet he managed to record nearly 100 sides in that time, including his first hit ‘Booster Blues,’ which was backed by ‘Dry Southern Blues.’ This is the release that changed the face of blues recordings when it began selling in unprecedented qualities and created a demand for country blues artists which caused record companies to scramble for new talent to rush into the studio.
“Jefferson’s recordings display an extraordinary virtuosity. His compositions are rooted in tradition, but are innovative in his guitar solos, his two-octave vocal range, and the complexity of his lyrics, which are at once ironic, humorous, sad, and poignant.
Jefferson’s approach to creating his blues varied. Some of his songs use essentially the same melodic and guitar parts. Others contain virtually no repetition. Some are highly rhythmic and related to different dances, the names of which he called out at times between or in the middle of stanzas. He made extensive use of single-note runs, often apparently picked with his thumb, and he played in a variety of keys and tunings.(1)
“Jefferson died in Chicago in December 1929. The cause of death is unknown, and though rumors swirled that a jealous lover poisoned his coffee, a more likely scenario is that he died due to a heart attack after being disoriented during a snowstorm (another scenario is that he froze to death). 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.”(2)
See that my grave is kept clean, 1928
This reasonably priced four disc boxed set contains 94 original sides, nearly everything BLJ ever recorded. It spans his entire career and contains all of his greatest compositions and recordings.
This is a fantastic compilation put out by Yazoo. If you want to sample some of his best works this is the album to start with, it contains everything you need. The sound quality is a marked improvement over previous releases, although there’s still a good amount of noise.
For Further Study:
Considering that he was the most popular male blues recording artist of the 1920s, we know surprisingly little about Blind Lemon Jefferson. He recorded over 100 sides for the Paramount label from 1926 to 1929 and died in mysterious circumstances in Chicago in December of 1929.