Blues singer and guitarist
Visual impairment : Blind since birth
Date of Birth : July, 1897
Died : December, 1929
The youngest of seven children and son of Alec and Cassie Jefferson, Lemon was born in Coutchman, near Wortham in Freestone County, Texas, in July 1897 (an estimated date since no records are available. Although his birth has long been placed in July of 1897, research almost a century later uncovered a census record that listed his birth in September of 1893). He was born blind and was known all his life as Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Jefferson received no formal education and instead travelled from town to town in the Wortham area, playing his guitar and singing songs, most of which were his own compositions. He began playing guitar and singing at picnics and parties in his home area around 1912. His musical influences included not only the singing of the cotton pickers and local guitar players but also the guitarists among the area's Mexican workers who often incorporated flamenco patterns in their playing. These influences eventually led to Jefferson 's unique style of complex phrases and intricate, yet fast, finger work.
He became an itinerant entertainer in his teens, learning a repertoire of prison songs, blues, moans, spirituals, and dance numbers. He worked in the streets and in brothels, saloons, and parties in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia.
Within a couple of years, Jefferson widened his performing radius to include Groesbeck, Buffalo, Waco, and other surrounding towns. Sometime around 1915, Jefferson also began playing in Dallas and, by 1917, was a resident of the city. He was most often found playing in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas, Dallas' equivalent of Memphis' Beale Street , where he eventually met another bluesman who would one day be famous - Leadbelly. Although Leadbelly was nearly ten years older than Lemon and a very experienced musician with a large repertoire of songs it is generally recognized that Jefferson was the better guitarist. Leadbelly was so impressed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, in fact, that he would later record songs in tribute to Jefferson 's ability, including the song, 'Blind Lemon's Blues.' The two men even played together for a short while, sometime before Leadbelly's first prison sentence. Jefferson's high voice, shouting style, and advanced guitar technique , which used melodic lead lines, bent notes, and imitative effects, as well as his lyrics and themes, became staples of the blues through such disciples as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter).
From the late teens into the early '20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson travelled and performed his passionate brand of blues, hitting (at the very least) the Mississippi Delta and Memphis regions, although it is likely that his travels took him further.
It was in 1925 that a Texas talent scout finally made a demo recording of Jefferson and sent it to Mayo Williams at Paramount Records in Chicago . Jefferson was soon brought to Chicago to record for the first time. He made seventy-nine records for Paramount in the 1920s, each estimated to have sold 100,000 copies.
Jefferson 's records did well immediately, making him one of the best-selling race recording artists of the time. This is surprising considering his decidedly non-commercial sound; his high, eerie voice (often described as having a "lonesome" sound), the desperate (and sometimes suggestive) nature of his lyrics, and his often-complex guitar work all combined into a particularly raw and hard-hitting blues.
Jefferson also recorded spiritual songs, using the pseudonym Deacon LJ Bates. He is recognized as one of the earliest representatives of the 'classic blues' field , considered to be one of the best folk blues singers of the 1920s, and said to have influenced such artists as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Bix Beiderbecker, and to have encouraged Sam 'Lightnin' Hopkins when Hopkins was an eight-year-old boy in Buffalo, Texas.
In 1922 or 1923 he married a woman named Roberta with whom he would have children, including a boy in the mid-'20s.
Jefferson was back in Chicago in December of 1929 when, sadly, he was found dead following a particularly cold snowstorm. There are several stories regarding his death: It has been said that he got lost in the storm after leaving a friend's party at a late hour, or that he was abandoned by his chauffeur, or was killed in a car accident, while yet another version claims Jefferson had a heart attack and froze in the snow.
Regardless, the influential bluesman was still in his thirties when he died, and no death certificate was issued, so the date of his passing is only known to be toward the end of December. Pianist and labelmate Will Ezell escorted Jefferson 's body back to Wortham , TX , where Blind Lemon Jefferson was laid to rest, purportedly on New Year's Day, 1930.
Unfortunately for the author of the pleading 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,' the grave itself went unmarked. This was finally remedied in 1967 when a metal Texas Historical Marker was placed on the approximate spot. By the 1990s, however, Jefferson 's grave was discovered to be in disrepair. A fundraiser was organized and, thanks to the efforts and donations of blues fans around the world, a granite headstone was finally placed upon Jefferson 's grave, inscribed with his lyric, "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean." It was also discovered during the preparation of the headstone that there is no support for the date widely believed to be that of Jefferson's birth – July 1897 (which even appeared on the original grave marker) – while the census documents in the State Archives listed Lemon Jefferson's birth to be in September of 1893. Thus, the new date was put on the gravestone.
Jefferson displays vivid visual imagery in his lyrics, perhaps stemming from, to borrow a phrase from Stevie Wonder, "inner visions." He Inspired a generation of male bluesmen, but had few imitators, due to the complexity of his guitar playing and the distinctiveness of his high, clear voice.
He was one of the greatest and most influential blues singers in American music. His reputation rests on recordings he made in Chicago from 1926 to 1929. They reflect a primitive style that could be raw and forceful or haunting and melancholy. The records also show Jefferson 's skill as a guitarist.
He was of the highest in many regards, being one of the founders of Texas blues (along with Texas Alexander), one of the most influential country bluesmen of all time, one of the most popular bluesmen of the 1920s, and the first truly commercially successful male blues performer. His recordings influenced generations of folk and blues singers.
Up until Jefferson 's achievements, the only real successful blues recordings were by women performers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, who usually sang songs written by others and accompanied by a band. With Jefferson came a blues artist who was solo, self-accompanied, and performing a great deal of original material in addition to the more familiar repertoire of folk standards and shouts.
In all, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded almost 100 songs in just a few years, making his mark on not only the bluesmen of the time but also on music fans in the years to come. The legacy of Jefferson 's unique and powerful sound did not fade with the passing decades.
In the time since, Jefferson 's songs have been covered by countless musicians including Bob Dylan, John Hammond Jr., and Kelly Joe Phelps, to name just a few. The late '50s and early '60s brought the reissue of some of Jefferson 's recordings on the Riverside and Milestone labels, sparking a renewal of widespread public interest in the bluesman. As a result, Blind Lemon Jefferson Clubs were opened in California and New York during the '60s, and the rock band Jefferson Airplane reputedly chose their name after the great bluesman. A good single album compiling selections of Jefferson 's music remains the Yazoo label's appropriately titled King of the Country Blues, which was eventually remastered for CD release.
In 1980, Blind Lemon Jefferson was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.