Blues Profile: Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929)
Blind lemon Jefferson, between 1926 and 1929, recorded over 100 songs, released 43 records, and became the first ever popular male blues recording artist. Beyond that, his unique and haunting style, eerie voice, and mysterious life have created an aura that fascinates to this day.
Very little is known of Jefferson’s life. No birth certificate exists for him and census records in rural Texas at the turn of the century are spotty at best. It’s believed he was born in September 1893 in Coachman, TX, one of seven children and blind from birth. It’s unknown what his real name is, as he has only recorded to have been known as Lemon or one of his “Clerical” pseudonyms. His guitar virtuosity appears to be the product of his lack of education, i.e. as he couldn’t attend school or do much around the family farm; he honed his skills to perfection at an early age. His style reflecting not only the Texas style of his era, but also the influence of the itinerant Mexican workers on his fathers farm, who incorporated flamenco into their own blues brand.
Starting out as a street musician around nearby Wortham, and then eventually migrating to Dallas, he was discovered by a Paramount records talent scout, Mayo Williams and taken to Chicago to record a demo. His initial release was “I want to be like Jesus in my heart” under the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bates. It’s not clear now why he was given his first shot at recording under a gospel moniker, perhaps it was a common practice for labels to try out new “race” stars on the religious front before allowing them to prove themselves in the secular arena. But whatever the reason, something clicked. In the next 3 years he would record 79 songs for paramount and go down in history as America’s first popular male blues artist, a realm previously inhabited by women such as Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox. He also became one of the very first artists to write and record his own material.
Following the success of his initial recording he traveled the country playing juke joints, brothels and rent parties, all over Texas, the mid-west and the Deep South.
Despite the gospel nature of his initial recording his songs were charged with an incredibly raw eroticism (Black snake moan, Bed spring blues); criminal despair (Hangman’s blues, Penitentiary blues), and dreary longing (lonesome house blues, How long). His singing style was a one of a kind near falsetto that conveyed a bottomless pain that was utterly chilling.
Sadly only three years after his success and rise to popularity, he was found frozen to death on the street in Chicago in December 1929. It is widely believed he left a party late one night, lost his way, and had a heart attack. He was buried New Year’s day 1930 in Wortham Negro Cemetery. It remained unmarked until 1967, when it was garnished by a Texas historical monument marker. In 1980 a fund raiser was held and he finally received a proper granite marker, emblazoned with the lines “Lord, it’s one kind favor I ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean”, named for his most popular and enduring tune of the same name. One of the most widely covered songs in blues history, a list of the people and combos who have recorded it is a pretty good assessment of how wide reaching his influence was: Mike Bloomfield, Chrome Cranks, Diamanda Galas, Bob Dylan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Furry Lewis, Lou Reed, etc.
My recommendation for a good beginning primer on Jefferson is Yazoo record’s “The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson”. It’s a good sampling of his different styles, both gospel and secular, and a nice mix of his various obsessions (religion, race, prison, sex). Completists however should go straight to Document records 4-disc set containing every one of his recordings. Also recommended is Nick Cave’s 1985 tribute to the delta blues, “The First Born is dead” which contains the downright creepy homage "Blind Lemon Jefferson".
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