“Can anyone imagine a fate more horrible than to find that one is blind? To realize that the beautiful things one hears about — one will never see? Such was the heart-rending fate of Lemon Jefferson…he could hear — and he heard the sad hearted, weary people of his homeland, Dallas — singing weird, sad melodies at their work and play, and unconsciously he began to imitate them — lamenting his fate in song.” from The Paramount Book of the Blues (1927), a 40-page book profiling the label’s major blues artists |
Blind Lemon JeffersonPublicity Photo© Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images| Not all of the early bluesmen came from the Delta. Perhaps the most famous, influential, and commercially successful of all the early bluesmen, Blind Lemon Jefferson, came from East Texas. Like Mississippi John Hurt, Jefferson’s repertoire was vast and included spirituals, folk tunes, ballads, and even cowboy songs, but it was his blues that made him famous. Blind Lemon Jefferson was born blind in Couchman, Texas in 1897 and moved to Dallas in 1917. Although little is known about his early life, it is reasonable to presume that his career in music came in response to his handicap. Most of his early years were spent playing on street corners in Dallas where he attracted crowds and managed to make a living by passing his tin cup. However in 1925, Jefferson was discovered by a local talent scout for Paramount Records and was sent to Chicago to make records. In the brief three-year period between 1926 and 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded nearly one hundred titles for Paramount and OKeh and had a string of “race record” hits that established him as the most commercially successful male blues artist in the United States. He also successfully recorded religious music and spirituals under the pseudonym “Deacon L. J. Bates.” “Match Box Blues” (1927)
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Although Jefferson achieved a level of fame and notoriety that far exceeded any other male blues artist of his time, it would prove to be short-lived. Sometime in late 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson died, although the actual circumstances of his death remain unknown. Some stories say that he froze to death in a Chicago blizzard, others that he was robbed and murdered, and still others say that he died of heart attack. Whatever the cause, his body came back to Texas by train and he was buried in Wortham near his boyhood home. “Black Snake Moan” (1927)
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson was an extremely important figure in the history of the early blues. His commercial success influenced countless artists who sang the blues and opened up possibilities for many of those artists because he established the commercial viability of country blues recordings. Before Jefferson, most blues recordings were made by female singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, but the blind bluesman made it abundantly clear to labels like Paramount and OKeh that there was a market for male singers who sang in a style far removed from that of professional club singers. Jefferson was also an important writer of original songs, which, again, was outside of the norm of most blues singers of his time. Most of the songs that made up the repertoire of Southern bluesmen were derived from older folk-blues songs that were passed on from singer to singer and adapted to the style of the individual artist. On the other hand, most of Jefferson’s recordings were originals, which had enormous impact on later blues artists who placed increasing emphasis on writing new and original songs. Jefferson’s guitar style was also an important influence that reached far beyond his own time. He played in an intricate and elaborate style far different from the more direct and less embellished style of players from the Delta. He employed shifts in rhythm and tempo, colorful improvisations, and ornate runs that made the guitar response to his singing more varied and interesting...