Reference Entry

Jefferson, Blind Lemon (1897 - 1929), Blues Musician / Singer, Guitarist, Jazz Musician

Robert A. Russell

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Jefferson, Blind Lemon (1897 - 1929), Blues Musician / Singer, Guitarist, Jazz Musician

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blues singer and guitarist. Born Lemmon Jefferson in Couchman, Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first commercially successful male blues recording artist, a founder of the Texas blues tradition.Details of Jefferson's childhood are few. His parents, Alec and Cassie Banks Jefferson, were sharecroppers in Couchman (or Coutchman), near the town of Wortham. The cause and extent of Jefferson's blindness are uncertain; it is generally thought that he was blind from birth. Little is known about his early musical influences, though he very likely heard regional songsters—traveling singers who generally played stringed instruments and featured immensely varied repertoires—and blues players.Jefferson learned to navigate the streets of small towns as a child, playing and singing for tips. By his teens, Lemon had his own reputation as a songster. As a teenager he frequented the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas. In the theaters there the short, heavy-set Lemon worked briefly as a novelty wrestler. When his income from music allowed, he gave up wrestling. Around 1912 he met and befriended Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in Dallas, teaching him the “bottleneck” guitar technique. The duo traveled and performed extensively over a period of one to four years.Jefferson apparently spent the next few years moving between nearby Mexia and Dallas; in Dallas he discovered a record store owned by a black, R. T. Ashford. Ashford recommended Lemon to Paramount Records, and in late 1925 or early 1926, Paramount brought Jefferson to Chicago to record. The records sold surprisingly well, and soon Lemon was commuting between Dallas and Chicago. He toured the South, also recording for Georgia's OKeh Records. He began receiving regular royalty checks, uncommon for a black performer at that time. Paramount also even provided a car for his use.But by 1929, country blues were becoming unfashionable, and the oncoming Depression weakened record sales. Jefferson's career foundered. One December day in Chicago, he was found dead on the street after a blizzard. The exact date and cause of his death remain unknown; there was no death certificate. He was buried in Wortham on New Year's Day 1930, his funeral attended by more than two hundred people.One of Jefferson's most famous songs was “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” but his own grave went unmarked until 1967, when a historical marker was installed at the approximate location of the plot. In 1997 the town of Wortham replaced the marker with a granite headstone.Jefferson was the first recorded bluesman to treat the guitar as an equal to his voice. His improvised breaks, string bends, slides, and tremolos set him apart from his contemporaries. He set a powerful precedent that was carried forward by younger guitarists, most notably T-Bone Walker, who actually met and learned from Jefferson in Dallas. T-Bone became the first prominent electric guitarist in blues, and, in turn, his influence extends through B. B. King on to blues and rock players of the 1960s such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Blind Lemon Jefferson is therefore justly honored as a seminal figure in the development of blues.

Reference Entry.  537 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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