Blind Lemon Jefferson

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Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blindlemonjeffersoncirca1926.jpg
Only known photograph of Jefferson, ca. 1926.
Background information
Birth name Lemon Henry Jefferson
Also known as Deacon L. J. Bates
Born (1893-09-24)September 24, 1893[1]
Coutchman, Texas, U.S.
Died December 19, 1929(1929-12-19) (aged 36)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Genres Blues
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, musician
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1900s–1929
Labels

"Blind" Lemon Jefferson (born 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".[2]

Jefferson's singing and self-accompaniment were distinctive as a result of his high-pitched voice and originality on the guitar [2] Although 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.[3] Later blues and rock and roll musicians attempted to imitate both his songs and his musical style.[2]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Lemon Henry Jefferson was blind at birth, born near Coutchman in Freestone County, near present-day Wortham, Texas. He was one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa Jefferson.[2] 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.[4] The 1910 census, taken in May before his birthday, further confirms his year of birth as 1893, and indicated the family was farming northwest of Wortham, near Lemon Jefferson's birthplace.[5]

In his 1917 draft registration, Jefferson gave his birth date as October 26, 1894, further stating that he then lived in Dallas, Texas and had been blind since birth.[6] In the 1920 Census, he is recorded as having returned to Freestone County and was living with his half-brother, Kit Banks, on a farm between Wortham and Streetman.[7]

Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties. He became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns, in front of barbershops and on streetcorners.[2] According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson, quoted in the notes for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides:

They were rough. Men were 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 Lead Belly.[2] In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in the Deep Ellum section 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. By the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child.[2] However, firm evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is unavailable.

Beginning of recording career[edit]

Prior to 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.[8]

Jefferson did what very few had ever done – he became a successful solo guitarist and male vocalist in the commercial recording world.[9] 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.[citation needed]

Success with Paramount records[edit]

Label of a Blind Lemon Jefferson Paramount record from 1926

Largely due to the popularity of artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and contemporaries such as Blind Blake and Ma Rainey, Paramount became the leading recording company for the blues in the 1920s.[10] 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 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.[citation needed]

Jefferson's "old-fashioned" sound and confident musicianship 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.[9] 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.[11]

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" was so successful that it was re-recorded and re-released in 1928.[citation needed]

Death and grave[edit]

Jefferson died in Chicago at 10:00 am on December 19, 1929, of what his death certificate called "probably acute myocarditis".[12] 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 heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm. 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.[13]

Discography and awards[edit]

Jefferson had an intricate and fast style of guitar playing and a particularly high-pitched voice. He was a founder of the Texas blues sound and an important influence on other blues singers and guitarists, including Lead Belly and Lightnin' Hopkins.

He was the author of many tunes covered by later musicians, including the classic "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean". Another of his tunes, "Matchbox Blues", was recorded more than 30 years later by The Beatles, albeit in a rockabilly version credited to Carl Perkins, who himself did not credit Jefferson on his 1955 recording. Given this influence, it is unfortunate that many of the details of his life remain shrouded in mystery, perhaps forever; even the only known picture of him, shown above, is heavily retouched, with a fake tie painted in by hand.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Jefferson's 1927 recording "Matchbox Blues" one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.[14] Jefferson was among the inaugural class of blues musicians inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

Cover versions[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In 2009 Grammy nominated R&B legends Yarbrough and Peoples were co-produced and were featured in the Off-Broadway production "Blind Lemon Blues".
  • A tribute song, "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon," was recorded for Paramount Records in 1932 by King Solomon Hill. The record was long considered lost, but one copy was finally located by John Tefteller in 2002.
  • Geoff Muldaur refers to Jefferson with the song "Got To Find Blind Lemon" on the album The Secret Handshake.
  • Art Evans portrays Blind Lemon in the 1976 film Leadbelly directed by Gordon Parks.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded the song "Blind Lemon Jefferson" on the album The Firstborn Is Dead.
  • The 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas, in one of its many downloadable add-ons ('Old World Blues'), features an AI juke-box by the name of 'Blind Diode Jefferson'.[17] The AI claims to have once been a 'blues musician' before his music hard-drives were stripped from him. Voicing of the AI can be characterized as a Southern drawl homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson.
  • In the 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson) gives his friend Jack Fate (Bob Dylan) Blind Lemon's original guitar, on which he claims Matchbox Blues was first recorded.
  • Cheech and Chong parodied Jefferson as "Blind Melon Chitlin'" on their self-titled 1971 album Cheech and Chong, their 1985 album Get Out of My Room, and in a stage routine that can be seen in their 1983 movie Still Smokin'.
  • Chet Atkins calls Jefferson "one of my first finger-picking influences" in the song "Nine Pound Hammer", on the album The Atkins - Travis Traveling Show
  • A practical joke played on Down Beat magazine editor Gene Lees in the late 1950s took on a life of its own and became a long-running hoax when one of his correspondents included a reference to blues legend "Blind Orange Adams" in an article and it was inadvertently published in the magazine. "Blind Orange Adams" is obviously a parody on the name "Blind Lemon Jefferson". References to the non-existent Adams appeared in numerous articles in Down Beat over the next few years.[18]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Some sources indicate Jefferson was born on October 26, 1894.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Dicaire, David. Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1999; ISBN 0-7864-0606-2, pp 140–44.
  3. ^ Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977; ISBN 0-306-80438-7.
  4. ^ 1900 US Census; Census Place: Justice Precinct 5, Freestone, Texas; Roll: T623 1636; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 37.
  5. ^ 1910 US Census; Census Place: Justice Precinct 6, Navarro, Texas; Roll: T624_1580; Page: 17B; Enumeration District: 98; Image: 982.
  6. ^ World War I Draft Registration records; Dallas County, Texas; Roll: 1952850; Draft Board: 2
  7. ^ 1920 US Census;Census Place: Kirvin, Freestone, Texas; Roll: T625_1805; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 24; Image: 231.
  8. ^ Joe W. Specht, McMurry University, Abilene, Texas, "Oil Well Blues: African-American Oil Patch Songs", joint meeting of East Texas Historical Association and West Texas Historical Association, annual meeting in Fort Worth, February 27, 2010.
  9. ^ a b Evans, David (2000). "Music Innovation in the Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson". Black Music Research Journal 20 (1): 83–116. JSTOR 779317. 
  10. ^ Dixon, R.M.W. & J. Godrich (1970) Recording the Blues. Reprinted in Oliver, Paul, Tony Russell, Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich & Howard Rye (2001) Yonder Come the Blues. Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-78777-7. p. 288.
  11. ^ Walter Davis: Fist and Skull Banjo, by Wayne Erbsen, Bluegrass Unlimited: March 1981, pp 22–26
  12. ^ The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No. 1: The Musicians, the Records & the Music of the 78 Era. Frog Records. 2010. ASIN 0956471706. 
  13. ^ "Jefferson, Blind Lemon", Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, May 30, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association and distributed in partnership with the University of North Texas. "In 2007 the name of the cemetery was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery."
  14. ^ 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll
  15. ^ Countingcrows.com
  16. ^ SPECTRE by Laibach 2014
  17. ^ "Blind Diode Jefferson". Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  18. ^ Bill Crow, Jazz Anecdotes, Oxford University Press (1990) pp 175–176.

Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]