Reference Entry

Jefferson, Blind Lemon

Steven C. Tracy

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Jefferson, Blind Lemon

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blues singer-guitarist, was born on a small farm near Wortham, Texas, the son of Alec Jefferson and Classie Banks, farmers. Because Jefferson was a poor, rural African American, few official documents exist to verify biographical details. Some researchers speculate that Jefferson, one of seven children, was born as early as 1880 (based on a studio portrait circa 1926 that reveals graying hair) and question the legend that he was blind from birth (printed in 1927 in The Paramount Book of Blues). Indeed, he may never have been totally blind, given stories about his ability to travel independently and to identify the denomination of paper money by its “feel.”One account dates Jefferson's performing career from around 1912, at parties and picnics and on the streets in Wortham, but he had moved to the streets, barrelhouses, and brothels of Waco and of the Deep Ellum area of Dallas by 1913. Around this time he may have worked as a wrestler and met singer-guitarist Huddie Ledbetter before Lead Belly, as the latter came to be known, went to prison in 1915. From that time into the 1920s Jefferson remained the itinerant blues singer, hopping freights and traveling extensively, especially in many southern states, and playing at various social functions and, eventually, at house rent parties in Chicago. Around 1922 Jefferson married a woman named Roberta (last name unknown), later fathering a son, Miles, who also became a musician.Blind Lemon Jefferson. Autographed portrait of the country and blues singer. (Getty Images.)Jefferson's big career break came in 1925 when either the Dallas dealer R. J. Ashford or the pianist Sammy Price alerted J. Mayo Williams, manager of the Race Artist Series for Paramount Records, to Jefferson's talent. The peak years of the female vaudeville-blues artists were coming to an end by then. Paramount, seeking a followup to their success marketing male blues artist Papa Charlie Jackson, reaching the rural audience through their strong mail-order business, recorded Jefferson in Chicago in 1925. Though Jefferson was known as a blues performer, his first two recordings were spirituals, “Pure Religion” and “I Want to Be like Jesus in My Heart.” These were not issued until Jefferson had had four releases, and then under the thinly disguised pseudonym L. J. Bates. The name was also used for the 1928 release of his two other recorded religious songs, presumably because of Christians' antipathy to singers of what they sometimes termed “devil's music,” the blues.Jefferson's second session, circa March 1926, yielded his first two Paramount releases, the second of which, “Got the Blues”/“Long Lonesome Blues,” garnered six-figure sales. Altogether Jefferson had eight Paramount releases in 1926, recording every few months for the next four years, and was the company's premier blues artist for the rest of the decade. During those years Jefferson's ninety-four released sides (seven were unissued) on forty-three records reportedly sold in excess of 1 million copies. In 1927 his records were released at the rate of about one a month, and a special yellow and black label and photograph graced Paramount 12650, captioned “Blind Lemon's Birthday Record.”Jefferson's records enjoyed continuing popularity until and beyond the time of his death, despite his narrowing vocal range and the repetition of basic instrumental arrangements on many of his final recordings. Jefferson was officially listed as a porter living at Forty-fifth and State streets in Chicago in 1928–1929, despite his continued popularity recording and performing. For example, he sang with a medicine show and with the performer Rubin Lacy in Mississippi, where Jefferson reportedly refused twenty dollars to play a blues song because it was Sunday.Jefferson died in Chicago under mysterious circumstances sometime in December 1929, possibly of a heart attack or exposure, or both, and perhaps abandoned by his chauffeur. There are various accounts left by various blues musicians. One story has an unknown woman cleaning out Jefferson's bank account and shipping his body to Mexia, Texas, while another has the pianist Will Ezell accompanying his body for burial in the Wortham Negro Cemetery, in Freestone County, Texas, on New Year's Day 1930. A grave marker was finally placed in the cemetery and dedicated on 15 October 1967.Jefferson is indisputably one of the most influential American musicians of the twentieth century. The primary catalyst for the recording of male blues performers, he provided a vocal and instrumental model for generations of blues, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock performers. Emerging from the same milieu as Texas Alexander and Henry Thomas, two probably older performers who reflected the field holler and folk song traditions of Texas, Jefferson melded traditional songs and themes with a highly original, idiosyncratic style that galvanized his listeners. He combined high vocals with a percussive and complex polyrhythmic guitar style consisting of interspersed bass runs and single-string treble riffs and arpeggios. His vast knowledge of traditional lyrics, increasingly modified by an original, poetic turn of mind, was so widely disseminated through recordings and appearances that his influence turns up in the work of blues performers of all styles and eras.So great was Jefferson's popularity that many performers claim it a badge of honor to have seen, played with, or led him around on the streets. One who apparently did lead him, T-Bone Walker, adapted Jefferson's guitar style to an urbanized, large-band format that made Walker a seminal blues figure in the 1940s and shaped the guitar playing of B. B. King. King recorded Jefferson's “Bad Luck Blues” and in turn became a major blues figure who influenced countless musicians. One of Jefferson's compositions, “Match Box Blues,” has been recorded by blues artists, country performer Larry Hensely (1934), rockabilly's Carl Perkins (1955), and the Beatles (1964), among many others.Immediately upon his death, Jefferson became a figure of mythical status. The Reverend Emmet Dickinson's 1930 tribute compared him to Christ, while Walter Taylor and John Byrd's flip-side tribute also lamented his death, albeit in less grandiose terms. Roark Bradford's 1931 novel John Henry employed Jefferson as the archetypical blues singer/sage. But behind the mythologizing is the reality of his greatness—his originality, virtuosity, and intensity—recognized by literary artists such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, critics, and fans. He has entered the American consciousness to the extent that his face has appeared on T-shirts, sweatshirts, and matchbox covers. Jefferson is a member of the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame.Blues performer Tom Shaw stated it simply: “He was the King.”

Reference Entry.  1136 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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