Blind Lemon Jefferson

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Blind Lemon Jefferson
Birth name Lemon Henry Jefferson
Born October 26, 1894
Origin Coutchman, Texas, U.S.
Died December 12? 1929
Genre(s) Blues
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, Guitarist
Years active 1926-1929

"Blind" Lemon Jefferson (c. 1893 – December 1929) was an influential early blues singer and guitarist from Texas. He was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s, and has been called "Father of the Texas Blues."

Jefferson's musical style, singing, and self-accompaniment were highly distinctive, characterized by his high-pitched voice, mastery of several blues sub-genres, and originality on the guitar. Difficult to imitate, he was not much copied by the younger blues singers of his generation. However, later blues and rock and roll musicians were strongly influenced both by his songs and his musical style. Electric guitar pioneer and blues player T-Bone Walker cited Jefferson as his mentor. Others who credit him as a major influence include such diverse virtuosos as bluesman B.B. King and traditional country singer-guitarist Doc Watson.

Jefferson had a brief but flourishing recording career in the late 20s. He was the first truly successful bluesman as a recording artist. While still in his 30s, he was found dead in Chicago under mysterious circumstances in December of 1929, possibly after becoming disoriented in a snow-storm.

Among Jefferson's better-known songs were "Black Snake Moan," Matchbox Blues," and "See that My Grave Is Kept Clean." The latter was cited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Jefferson was one of the original inductees in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

Contents

Biography

Early life

Jefferson was born Lemon Henry Jefferson near Coutchman, Texas, near present-day Wortham in Freestone County. Blind from birth, he was one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa Jefferson. Disputes regarding his exact birth date derive from contradictory census and draft registration records. By 1900, the family was farming southeast of Streetman, Texas, and Lemon's birth date is indicated as September 1893 in the 1900 census.

Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens and was soon performing at picnics and parties. He also worked as a street musician, playing in East Texas towns in front of barbershops and on corners. According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson: "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."

In the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Lead Belly, who partnered with him and later said that Lemon left a deep impression on his music. Jefferson was soon one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in Dallas' Deep Ellum area. He likely settled more permanently in Deep Ellum by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, better known as T-Bone Walker. Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar, in exchange for Walker's occasional services as a guide.

In the 1920 Census, Jefferson is recorded as having returned to the Freestone County area, where he was living with his half-brother Kit Banks on a farm between Wortham and Streetman. By the early 20s, Jefferson was earning enough money from his musical performances to support a wife and possibly a child. However, evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is sketchy.

Character and playing style

Lemon Jefferson's character is a matter of controversy. Like many early bluesman, he played both blues and gospel music, and in his personal life he also seems to have been torn between the church and the "devil's music." His first recordings, as well as his famous hit "See that My Grave is Kept Clean," were released under the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bates, the "L. J." standing for his real name. Jefferson's neighbor in Chicago, Romeo Nelson, reported that Lemon was "warm and cordial," and singer Rube Lacy stated that Jefferson always refused to play secular music on a Sunday, no matter how much money he was offered. On the other hand, a record company employee told biographer Orrin Keepnews that Jefferson was a womanizer and a sloppy drunk. Blueswoman Victoria Spivey, who occasionally worked with Jefferson in Dallas night clubs when she was a teenager, elliptically credited Jefferson as someone who "could sure feel his way around."

A physically powerful man, Jefferson is said to have earned money wrestling before beginning his recording career. This led to claims was not totally blind at the time.

Jefferson traveled widely in the American South, which is reflected in his music not being limited to any one regional style. His variations in guitar riffs and rhythmic styles, together with his singing of complex and expressive lyrics, were exceptional at the time. He also made frequent use of single-note runs, often playing them while continuing to sing. He played in a in a variety of keys and guitar tunings, sometimes using bottleneck style.

First recordings

Unlike many artists who were discovered and recorded in their normal venues or local hotel rooms, Jefferson's potential as a recording artist was obvious enough that he was taken to Chicago, Illinois, to record his first tracks, in December 1925 or January 1926. His 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"), which were released with Jefferson as Deacon L. J. Bates.

This was followed by a second recording session in March 1926. His first releases under his own name, "Booster Blues" and "Dry Southern Blues," had promising sales, leading to the release of the other two songs from that session, "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues." The latter became a runaway success with sales in six figures, a major hit for the time.

Success with Paramount Records

Label of a Blind Lemon Jefferson Paramount record from 1926

Jefferson went on to record about 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929, including 43 issued records, nearly all for Paramount Records. Unfortunately, the sound quality of most of these recordings was poor. 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.

It was largely due to the popularity of Blind Lemon Jefferson and contemporaries such as Blind Blake and Ma Rainey that Paramount became the leading recording company for the blues in the 20s. Jefferson's earnings enabled him to buy a car and employ chauffeurs. He was also given a Ford by Paramount's Mayo Williams. This "gift," however, may have been in lieu of compensation for the rights to his song.

In any case, Jefferson was said to have grown dissatisfied with his royalties. In 1927, when Williams moved to OKeh Records, he brought Jefferson with him, and OKeh quickly recorded and released Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues," backed with "Black Snake Moan." These would be his only OKeh recordings, apparently due to contractual obligations with Paramount. By the time he 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. He also released two other spiritual songs, "He Arose from the Dead" and "Where Shall I Be." "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" was a major hit and was re-recorded and re-released in 1928.

Death and grave

Jefferson died in Chicago in December 1929. The cause of his death is unknown. Rumors swirled that a jealous lover poisoned his coffee, but a more likely scenario is that he died due to a heart attack or hypothermia after being disoriented during a snowstorm.

In any case, Paramount paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist Will Ezell. Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery. Far from his grave being kept clean, it lay unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location of his grave still 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.

Legacy

Jefferson had an intricate and fast style of guitar playing and a particularly intense, high-pitched voice. In addition to accompanying himself rhythmically, he also used his guitar to provide intricate riffs and counterpoints to his singing, many of which show a high degree of dexterity and technical proficiency.

Although he was comfortable in a wide range of blues styles, he is considered the founder of the Texas blues sound and an important influence on other Texas blues singers and guitarists, including Lead Belly and Lightnin' Hopkins. T-Bone Walker, who cites Jefferson as his mentor, would become one of the most important pioneers of the electric guitar, whose guitar solos helped set a standard that is still followed. B. B. King maintains that Jefferson was a major influence both on his singing and guitar playing.

The guitar style of early country singer Jimmie Rodgers also shows a marked resemblance to some of Jefferson's songs, and the legendary North Carolina traditional country singer and guitarist Doc Watson credited Jefferson's recordings as his first exposure to the blues, which would powerfully influence his own style.

Jefferson was the author of many tunes covered by later musicians, including the classic "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," which was recorded by Bob Dylan on his first album. A version of "Matchbox Blues" was recorded by the Beatles, modeled after a rockabilly version credited to Carl Perkins, who had released it in 1955.

Many of Jefferson's songs and guitar riffs would also become part of the repertoire of more recent blues players and rock bands. The White Stripes's "De Ballot of De Boll Weevil" is a cover version of "Boll Weevil Blues." Counting Crows' "Mean Jumper Blues," is a Blind Lemon Jefferson song erroneously credited to guitarist Adam Duritz, for which he immediately apologized when the mistake was pointed out.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues" as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.[1] Jefferson was among the inaugural class of blues musicians inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

References in popular culture

  • King Solomon Hill recorded "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon" as a tribute to Jefferson in 1932.
  • Michael Martin Murphy sang about Jefferson in the song "Rolling Hills' on his 1973 album Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir.
  • Van Morrison refers to Jefferson in the song "Cleaning Windows" on the 1982 album Beautiful Vision.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded the song "Blind Lemon Jefferson" on the 1985 album The Firstborn Is Dead.
  • Geoff Muldaur sings of Jefferson in the song "Got To Find Blind Lemon" on the 1998 album The Secret Handshake
  • Francis Cabrel refers to Jefferson in the song "Cent Ans de Plus" on the 1999 album Hors-Saison.
  • The 2007 film Black Snake Moan refers to the title of Jefferson's song "Black Snake Moan."
  • The name of the industrial metal band Black Snake Moan is also derived from Jefferson's song of the same name.

Discography

Spiritual singles

Year Title
1925 "I Want to be Like Jesus in My Heart"
1925 "All I Want is That Pure Religion"
1927 "He Rose From the Dead"
1927 "Where Shall I Be?"

1926 Blues singles

Year Title
1926 "Got the Blues"
1926 "Long Lonesome Blues"
1926 "Booster Blues"
1926 "Dry Southern Blues"
1926 "Black Horse Blues"
1926 "Corinna Blues"
1926 "Got the Blues"
1926 "Jack O'Diamonds"
1926 "Chock House Blues"
1926 "Beggin' Back"
1926 "Old Rounders Blues"
1926 "Stocking Feet Blues"
1926 "Black Snake Moan"
1926 "Wartime Blues"
1926 "Shuckin' Sugar Blues"
1926 "Booger Rooger Blues"
1926 "Rabbit Foot Blues"
1926 "Bad Luck Blues"

1927 Blues singles

Year Title
1927 "Black Snake Moan (80523)"
1927 "Match Box Blues"
1927 "Easy Rider Blues"
1927 "Rising High Water Blues"
1927 "Weary Dogs Blues"
1927 "Right Of Way Blues"
1927 "Teddy Bear Blues (Take 2)"
1927 "Black Snake Dream Blues"
1927 "Hot Dogs"
1927 "Struck Sorrow Blues"
1927 "Rambler Blues"
1927 "Cinch Bug Blues"
1927 "Deceitful Brownskin Blues"
1927 "Sunshine Special"
1927 "Gone Dead on Your Blues"
1927 "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"
1927 "One Dime Blues"
1927 "Lonesome House Blues"

1928 Blues singles

Year Title
1928 "Penitentiary Blues"
1928 "'Lectric Chair Blues"
1928 "Worried Blues"
1928 "Mean Jumper Blues"
1928 "Balky Mule Blues"
1928 "Change My Luck Blues"
1928 "Prison Cell Blues"
1928 "Cannon Ball Moan"
1928 "Long Lastin' Lovin'"
1928 "Piney Woods Money Mama"
1928 "Low Down Mojo Blues"
1928 "Competition Bed Blues"
1928 "Lock Step Blues"
1928 "Hangman's Blues"
1928 "Sad News Blues"
1928 "How Long How Long"
1928 "Christmas Eve Blues"
1928 "Happy New Year Blues"
1928 "Maltese Cat Blues"
1928 "D.B. Blues"

1929 Blues singles

Year Title
1929 "Eagle Eyed Mama"
1929 "Dynamite Blues"
1929 "Disgusted Blues"
1929 "Peach Orchard Mama"
1929 "Oil Well Blues"
1929 "Tin Cup Blues"
1929 "Saturday Night Spender Blues"
1929 "Black Snake Moan #2"
1929 "Bed Springs Blues"
1929 "Yo, Yo Blues"
1929 "Mosquito Moan"
1929 "Southern Woman Blues"
1929 "Bakershop Blues"
1929 "Pneumonia Blues"
1929 "Long Distance Moan"
1929 "That Crawlin' Baby Blues"
1929 "Fence Breakin' Yellin' Blues"
1929 "Cat Man Blues"
1929 "The Cheaters Spell"
1929 "Bootin' Me 'Bout"

Notes

  1. Rock Hall, 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Retrieved February 23, 2009.

References

  • Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. ISBN 0306804387.
  • Dicaire, David. Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1999. ISBN 0786406062.
  • Govenar, Alan, and Jay F. Brakefield. Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998. ISBN 1574410512.
  • Uzzel, Robert L. Blind Lemon Jefferson: His Life, His Death, and His Legacy. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 2002. ISBN 1571686568.

External links

All links retrieved February 19, 2009.

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