Blind Lemon Jefferson, who began recording for Paramount Records in late 1925, became the most famous bluesman of the Roaring Twenties. His 78s shattered racial barriers, becoming popular from coast to coast and influencing a generation of musicians. His best songs forged original, imagistic themes with inventive arrangements and brilliantly improvised solos. Portraits of Afro-American life during the early 1900s, his lyrics create a unique body of poetry – humorous and harrowing, jivey and risqué, a stunning view of society from the perspective of someone at the bottom. To this day, he ranks among the most gifted and individualistic artists in blues history.
Jefferson was a serious showman, balancing a driving, unpredictable guitar style with a booming, two-octave voice. “He hollered like someone was hitting him all the time” is how Rev. Gary Davis described it. Piercing enough to be heard above the clang and din of city streets, Jefferson’s freewheeling, wailing vocals set him apart from his contemporaries. His guitar became a second voice that complemented rather than repeated his lyrics. He often halted rhythm at the end of vocal lines to launch into elaborate solo flourishes. He could play in unusual meters with a great deal of drive and flash, and favored the keys of C, E, G, and A.
“His guitar never dominated his songs,” says John Hammond. “It was so succinct. It was just perfect playing. He had a distinctive way of doing solos, and his voice was incredible! He could moan and howl and really put a song across. Blind Lemon influenced everybody, because his records in the ’20s were all over the United States. He especially had an impact on a lot of white players – vocally more than with his guitar style. His guitar style was so advanced, unique, amazing, and just hard to do. Jimmie Rodgers in particular must have just flipped out over Lemon.”
Blind Lemon Jefferson became B.B. King’s hero too: “His way of execution left you with the feeling that you could hear someone else backing him up. And he had a special way of phrasing, too, that I don’t hear from many people today. Anyone can play 64 notes in a bar, but to place just one or two in that same bar in just the right place, or maybe even let one go by, then double up on it in the next bar – that’s something special. Blind Lemon was my idol.”
A man well acquainted with booze, gambling, and heavy-hipped mamas, Blind Lemon lived some the themes that dominate his songs. One of the first publicity items about him appeared in 1926’s The Paramount Book of Blues:
“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, who was born blind and realized, as a small child, that life had withheld one glorious joy from him – sight. Then – environment began to play its important part in his destiny. 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. He learned to play a guitar, and for years he entertained his friends freely – moaning his weird songs as a means of forgetting his affliction. Some friends who saw great possibilities in him, suggested that he commercialize his talent – and as a result of following their advice – he is now heard exclusively on Paramount.”
Probably generated by a publicist who never met Jefferson, little of this hype holds true. On to the facts.
Jefferson’s Early Years
The earliest known record of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life occurs in the 1900 U.S. Census. At that time, the Jefferson family was living about six miles west of Wortham, Texas, in the small community of Couchman, which no longer exists. According to the Freestone County census listings from that year, the Jefferson household had eight members. The father, Alex Jefferson, was recorded as being born in 1862. His wife Clarricy was born two years earlier. The first three children – Francis, Iricia, and Clarrience – all have their mother’s last name from a previous marriage, Banks, so these would be Blind Lemon’s step-siblings. Next comes Johnnie Jefferson, born in 1892, and Lemmon Jefferson, born September 1893, followed by Martha, born in 1896. An annotation alongside “Lemmon” indicated that the child was blind.
A decade later, in the 1910 census for Navarro County, Texas, Blind Lemon’s name again appears as “Lemmon,” but his father’s name is spelled “Alek” and his mother’s name is “Clarisa.” By then the Jefferson family included at least three more children: Mary, Sebe, and Gussie M. In 1920, census records show, the Jefferson household was reduced to five people: Alex and his wife “Classie,” and daughters Mary, Sebe, and Gussie M.
During the 1950s, author and record producer Samuel B. Charters drove an hour south of Dallas to the land of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s birth. “From a small hill near Alec Jefferson’s farmhouse in Couchman,” Charters wrote in his 1959 book The Country Blues, “you can see across the fields to the buildings of Mexia, Texas, twelve miles to the southwest. The scattered buildings of Wortham, Texas, stretch along the railroad tracks five or six miles to the west. There are fields of old oil rigs between the two towns. . . . The ground is black with oil waste, but the only signs of oil money in Wortham are three or four ugly church buildings, built out of brick and designed to resemble funeral parlors.”
As a child, Jefferson sang at the Shiloh Baptist Church in nearby Kirvin. Residents remembered him running with the other children through the fields and playing in the brush along Cedar Creek. “He’d run after them,” Charters recounted, “stand listening to them cross the footlogs over the stream, then slowly walk the footlogs after them. The neighbors thought he had a kind of gift.” Some even felt he was a magical child gifted with supernatural abilities. When Lemon was about ten, Charters reported, his brother Johnny was crushed beneath a slow-moving freight train, which would account for the absence of Johnny’s name in the 1910 census records.
By his early teens Lemon was already showing signs of obesity. By then he’d acquired a guitar, taught himself to play, and was performing under overhanging eaves of buildings in Wortham and Kirvin. Steve James, an Austin-based blues researcher and “archaic fingerstyle guitar” specialist, describes a conversation he had with retired Wortham postmaster Uel L. Davis, Jr. “Uel Davis remembered Lemon from before the First World War, when his family owned a bank and pharmacy in downtown Wortham. When Uel was a little kid, it was a big treat for him and his friends to go downtown to see him. Lemon would come into town every Saturday when he was around and play in front of the bank from lunch time, when people were doing business in town, until dinner. He remembers Lemon having a tin cup stapled to the headstock of his guitar.
“Uel Davis was one of many informants who spoke about Lemon’s uncanny ability to know what was going on, even though he had little or no sight at all. If you laughed at some line in his song, he’d put the cup right under your nose. I asked Uel about Lemon’s lead boys, and he said that most of the time Lemon came to town by himself. He’d cross fences and walk down creek beds all by himself, using a walking stick. Uel also said that if he came with anybody, it would often be a mandolinist. Besides blues, they would play a variety of songs.”
While he’s never been able to find anyone who recalls music in Couchman before World War I, James has ideas about Jefferson’s influences: “Lemon was really steeped in the string band tradition. Although he recorded almost exclusively blues, I’ve heard accounts of him playing ‘The Chicken Reel’ with a mandolin player, and all kinds of stuff. Lemon played mandolin, too. Blues was actually just part of the tremendous repertoire of the string band musicians, who also played ragtime. I imagine there were probably horn players in the area, too. There were also a lot of guys playing the piano, following the Santa Fe Railroad and going up and down the Brazos Bottom. And that’s what Lemon essentially was – a man from the Brazos River Bottom. And these guys had a piano style that’s very much Texas. Robert Shaw and Alex Moore were the tip of that iceberg that survived into the modern age. As you listen to them, you’ll hear that they extend the bar structure of a song whenever they want to – if they’ve got another lick they want to play before they go to the IV, they do it. That was characteristic of the Santa Fe style in the first decade of the century. Lemon played piano pretty competently, so I guess he must have been influenced by that too. Most of the guys who were really whipping it on guitar, playing anything more than a very linear style, were very pianistic, like Blind Blake. They played denser harmonies. The fact that Lemon hung around whorehouses would lend further credence to that piano connection, but it’s all speculation.”
Jefferson’s venues soon included country suppers and parties at farms scattered around Couchman, Mexia, and as far north as Waxahachie. Like Delta juke joints, these were often rugged affairs, with freely flowing bootleg liquor and men hustling women. “They didn’t do any proper kind of dancing, just stompin’,” Blind Lemon’s cousin Alec Jefferson told Charters. “He’d start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning. Sometimes he’d have another fellow with him playing a mandolin or a guitar and singing along, but mostly it would be just him, sitting there and playing and singing all night.”
Around 1912 Blind Lemon Jefferson moved to Dallas. Information about Blind Lemon’s life in Dallas during the next several years has been scarce, but a recent discovery in the National Archives – Lemon Jefferson’s draft registration card – provides some insight. In his October 2007 Living Blues article “Draft Card Blues: A Newly Discovered 1917 Document Sheds Light on Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Jonathan Black reproduced both sides of the card. The hand-filled card is dated June 5, 1917, and lists the registrant’s “name in full” as “Lemon Jefferson.” His address is 1803 Preston, Dallas, Texas. The date of birth, presumably provided by Jefferson himself, is October 15, 1894; Black makes a good case that this date, rather than the September 1893 date recorded by the census taker, is accurate. Wortham is given as his place of birth. The response to the line asking “By whom employed” is “Nobody.” Jefferson is listed as being single, of “medium” height and build, and as having “black” hair. His race is entered as “Nigra.” The final entry states “Blind both eyes. Born blind.” After Jefferson signed the document with an “X,” someone wrote his first name on one side of his mark and his last name on the other.
As Black points out, “The 1917 draft card is the only known document relating to Jefferson that we can be confident was created in the musician’s presence. It is a legal document to which Jefferson himself attested.” An astute researcher, Black investigated the 1803 Preston address: “A 1920 map prepared by the Sanborn Company shows 1803 Preston as a single-story wooden house less than 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. The structure was little more than a shotgun shack, lacking even the covered front porch common to most houses in the area. Immediately across Preston were the tracks of the Central Railroad, raised on an artificial mound of earth. Noise from the busy railroad would have been an almost constant factor in the lives of those living on Preston. But the house was conveniently located for Jefferson. It was less than a mile south of Deep Ellum, the center of commerce and nightlife for African American Dallas during the teens and twenties.” Today, Black notes, Jefferson’s former residence “is long gone. The site itself is now occupied by an abandoned and decaying Bluebell creamery.”
During his years in Dallas, Blind Lemon Jefferson spent most of his time in the area where Central Avenue crossed Elm Street, a crossroads littered with dance halls, pawnshops, secondhand clothing stores, shoeshine parlors, and beer joints. Steve James has retraced Lemon’s old haunts: “Deep Ellum – southern Elm Street – was the hangout. There was a train stop on Central where black laborers from the country would get off to go to Elm Street and raise hell. Right now that’s where Highway 30 crosses Elm Street. Several blocks down from Elm, where Hall crosses Central, there was also a big black community called Freedmen’s Town, which was established after the Civil War. Many blacks from the country moved there to work with the railroad and associated industries after a tremendous boll weevil blight took out the cotton industry around the turn of the century. People would walk from Freedmen’s Town to Deep Ellum. There were several happening clubs where blues singers played on Elm Street in the ’20s. There was the Green Parrot, the Tip Top, the Big Four. Ella B. Moore’s Park Theater was another colored establishment.
“Lemon used to walk up the central tracks with his stick and his guitar, and he’d play outside a theater, bank, or establishment where a lot of people were going to congregate. He’d play for tips all day, and then he’d pick up and go to a bar or a whorehouse at night. He lived somewhere along the central tracks in south Dallas. He probably moved around a bit, because he was also a bootlegger. I’ve also heard stories of him being a professional wrestler. I don’t know how much credence to lend to that, but Deep Ellum had its freak shows, including displays of bestiality. And one of the things they supposedly had was wrestling and boxing matches between blind people in some back room somewhere.”
Apparently this raw lifestyle suited Blind Lemon. Once in a “social club,” he’d feel his way to a chair, set it against a wall, and perform for enough tips to buy liquor. On occasion he’d finish the night in the company of an easy ridin’ mama, his guitar stowed safely behind a chair. Around 1923 he married a woman named Roberta – neighbors in Wortham remembered her as mousy and quiet – and within a couple of years they had a son. But according to pianist Sam Price’s account in Alan Govenar’s book Meeting the Blues, becoming a husband didn’t change Blind Lemon’s ways: “He was a bootlegger, and when he’d get back home he had such a sensitive ear. He didn’t want his wife to drink. Well, when he’d go away she’d take two or three drinks out of the bottle and she’d think he wouldn’t know it. But he’d take the bottle when he came home and say, ‘Hey, how you doin’ baby? How’d we do today?’ [She’d respond] ‘Nobody bought no whiskey.’ Well, he’d take the bottle and shake it, and he could hear that there were two or three drinks missing. And what he’d do, he’d beat the hell out of her for that.”
By then Blind Lemon was reportedly so obese that he had to play with his guitar perched atop his stomach, the upper bout just under his chin. His friend Alex Moore sighed: “He was the eatinest man I ever saw.” The best-known photo of Jefferson, an autographed Paramount publicity shot, depicts an inscrutable Buddha of a man cradling an inexpensive round-hole acoustic on his lap. The fact that the ornate penmanship is nearly identical to that on Blind Blake’s Paramount promo photo from the same era suggests that it was signed by somebody other than Lemon.
Despite Blind Lemon’s girth, women fawned over him. Blues singer Victoria Spivey, who began recording in 1926, recalled in a 1966 issue of Record Research: “Blind Lemon was a medium-size brownskin who kept himself neatly dressed. He was erect in posture, and his speech was lovely and direct to the word. He had no glasses when I first saw him. A young man who was very attentive to him acted as his guide. Although he was supposed to be completely blind, I still believe he could see a little bit. If he couldn’t, he darn sure could feel his way ’round – the old wolf! Lemon never let his misfortune of sight press him. He could let you know that he was just as much a man as anybody. One of his most common expressions was ‘Don’t play me cheap’ – and most people liked him and respected him.”
Lead Belly also insisted that Blind Lemon had a lot of women. The bluesmen met in Deep Ellum before World War I, and Lead Belly credited his one-time partner with teaching him single-string runs on guitar. The men played together at the Dallas train depot, as well as at house parties and on the streets. In 1944, Lead Belly recorded a 12-string guitar instrumental called “Blind Lemon (Memorial Record),” introducing the piece by saying, “Now, when me and Blind Lemon Jefferson used to play around together in Dallas, Texas, I used to dance and he used to play this number for me to dance to.” In “Silver City Bound,” Lead Belly also sang of them traveling together:
Silver City bound, I’m Silver City bound,
I’m gonna tell my baby, I’m Silver City bound,
Me and Blind Lemon, gonna ride on down
Lead Belly’s song goes on to quote Blind Lemon, saying he’d holler:
“Catch me by the hand, aw, baby,
And lead me all through the land”
“Him and I was buddies,” Lead Belly explained to Frederic Ramsey, Jr., in September 1948. “We used to play all up and around Dallas, Texas, Fort Worth. We just get on the train. In them time we get on the 11 that run from Waco to Dallas-Corsicana, Waxahachie. From Dallas, then they had another one run to Fort Worth. I get Blind Lemon, we get our two guitars, and we’ll just ride anything. We didn’t have to pay no money in that time. We get on the train, we ride, take us anywhere we want to go. We’ll just get on, and the conductor says, ‘Boys, just sit down. You all going to play music?’ We told him, ‘Yas. We just out collectin’ money’ – that’s what we want to have, some money, you know. And so we sit down and we’d turn the seats over, and he’d sit in front of me and I’d sit down there and start. Got a Silver City out there too. We always go through Silver City. And when we get on the bus we’re Silver City bound first. A lot of pretty girls out there, and that’s what we’re lookin’ for. You know we like for women to be around, ’cause when women are around, that brings mens, and we’ll get money. ’Cause when you get out there, the women get to drinkin’ and not thinkin’. They just fall all up on you and, boy, that makes us feel good and we tear them guitars all to pieces.” Their association likely ended in 1918, when Lead Belly was imprisoned for murder.
T-Bone Walker also claimed to have worked with the heavyset singer in the sweat-soaked black Stetson. “I used to lead Blind Lemon Jefferson around playing and passing the cup,” he reminisced in a 1947 article in Record Changer magazine, “take him from one beer joint to another. I liked hearing him play. He would sing like nobody’s business. He was a friend of my father’s. People used to crowd around so you couldn’t see him.” In 1972, Walker elaborated further for Living Blues: “My whole family was crazy about him. He’d come over every Sunday and sit with us and play his guitar, and they sang and they had a few drinks. You know, at that time they were drinking corn whiskey and home brew, things like that. ’Cause you couldn’t buy any whiskey unless it was bootleg in those days.”
Mance Lipscomb, a fine Texas songster who played a haunting pocketknife slide version of Blind Lemon’s “Jack O’ Diamonds Blues,” told Glen Myers about seeing Jefferson in Deep Ellum in 1917: “He was a big stout fella, husky fella, loud voice. And he played dance songs and never did much church song. I ain’t never known him to play a church song. He’s a blues man. He had a tin cup, wired on the neck of his guitar. And when you pass to give him something, why he’d thank you. But he would never take no pennies. You could drop a penny in there and he’d know the sound. He’d take and throw it away.”
Paramount Records’ Best-Selling Bluesman
Along with Papa Charlie Jackson and Sylvester Weaver, Blind Lemon Jefferson was among the first male blues artists to record. Unlike the classic women blues singers of the early 1920s who typically recorded with pianists or jazz ensembles, these early bluesmen usually accompanied themselves on guitar (or in Jackson’s case, a 6-string banjo) and wrote much of their own material.
During the mid 1920s, Paramount Records customers wrote in requesting 78s of country blues artists. There are two versions of how Blind Lemon was signed to the label. In one, Sammy Price, a black pianist who probably worked in R.J. Ashford’s Dallas music store, reportedly recommended Jefferson to Paramount. Another account holds that Paramount recording director Arthur C. Laibly heard him playing on a Dallas street. Since the label didn’t have any recording facilities in the South during this time, Jefferson was transported to Chicago to record. He attended his first session in late 1925 or early ’26, cutting two religious songs under the name Deacon L.J. Bates. The disc – “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” backed with “All I Want Is That Pure Religion” – was withheld until after several of his blues records came out.
At his next session, March ’26, Jefferson worked under his own name and played the blues. The date yielded a pair of 78s unlike anything heard before: “Booster Blues” b/w “Dry Southern Blues,” and “Got the Blues” b/w “Long Lonesome Blues.” On April 3, 1926, Paramount ran its first Blind Lemon Jefferson ad in the Chicago Defender, an independent newspaper that was distributed by railroad porters to black communities across the country. The ad copy stated: “Here’s a real old-fashioned blues by a real old-fashioned blues singer – Blind Lemon Jefferson from Dallas. This ‘Booster Blues’ and ‘Dry Southern Blues’ on the reverse side are two of Blind Lemon’s old-time tunes. With his singing, he strums his guitar in real southern style – makes it talk, in fact.” A month later, the second 78 was issued. Even though these records were raw and uncompromising, sales soared. The fact that Paramount’s innovative mail-order service could penetrate into rural communities without local record dealers certainly helped sales. Blind Lemon’s record sales likely provided the catalyst for Paramount’s signing of another great blues artist, Blind Blake.
Producer J. Mayo “Ink” Williams remembered that during the Chicago recording sessions, Blind Lemon was “just as cool and calm and collected as any artist I’ve ever seen.” Jefferson cut more 78s in April and May ’26, including “Black Horse Blues,” “Corinna Blues,” and two takes of the old gambling song “Jack O’ Diamonds Blues” played with a slide.
In August, he cut “Beggin Back” b/w “Old Rounders Blues.” He returned again in November and December to record eight more songs, including “Broke and Hungry,” “Stocking Feet Blues,” “Booger Rooger Blues,” and “Rabbit Foot Blues.” For sheer hard-luck poetry, it was hard to beat “That Black Snake Moan”:
Ohhh, that must have been a bed bug, baby, a chinch can’t bite that hard,
Ohhh, that must have been a bed bug, honey, a chinch can’t bite that hard,
Asked my gypper for fifty cents, she said, “Lemon, ain’t a dime in the yard”
“Chinch” was common slang for “cockroach.”
Sometime in early 1927, OKeh Records executives Polk Brockman and Tom Rockwell caught up with Jefferson in Dallas. Brockman remembered that the bluesman said he was ready to break his contract with Paramount, so Brockman arranged for him to journey to Atlanta to record on March 14 and 15, 1927. Brockman recalled that they escorted Jefferson to the Dallas train station and arranged to follow him on a later train. When Jefferson was late showing up late in Atlanta, Brockman asked where he’d been. Jefferson responded that he’d never been to Shreveport and had stopped off to “see” the town. “He got around remarkably well for a blind man,” Brockman told Living Blues. Jefferson asked Rockwell for a five-dollar advance, and Rockwell handed him a one-dollar bill as gag. As soon as he felt it, Lemon protested: “That ain’t no five-dollar bill!” In all, Jefferson recorded eight songs for OKeh. The label issued a 78 featuring what would become two of Jefferson’s most-covered songs, a new version of “Black Snake Moan” and “Match Box Blues,” which borrowed its most famous line from an earlier Ma Rainey song. OKeh withheld the other six songs from release, possibly due to Jefferson’s Paramount connection.
The following month, Jefferson was back in Chicago recording for Paramount. His April sessions produced two takes of “Match Box Blues” intended to compete with the OKeh release, and a single take of “Easy Rider Blues,” which may have been a variation of the unreleased “My Easy Rider” he’d recorded for OKeh. In May, Jefferson, sans guitar, was accompanied by pianist George Perkins on “Rising High Water Blues.” At the same session, he played guitar and sang “Weary Dogs Blues” and “Right of Way Blues.” In June, Paramount brought in a pianist for “Teddy Bear Blues” and “Black Snake Dream Blues.” The engineer had Blind Lemon play foot-tap accompaniment for the good-time “Hot Dogs,” which came out credited to “Blind Lemon Jefferson and His Feet.” Blind Lemon also cut a gospel side, “He Arose From the Dead,” which resurrected the “Deacon L.J. Bates” pseudonym on the 78’s label. During the fall of 1927, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded ten more songs for Paramount Records, the best being his haunting and beloved “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
Jefferson’s performances on his 1926-1927 records are among his very best, but the original Paramount pressings suffered from inferior sound. In 1986, Nick Perls, owner of Yazoo Records, gathered the best-surviving copies of these early 78 to assemble his sonically superior two-record vinyl set King of the Country Blues, which is now available on CD. “I really put in a lot of work trying to get the best copies to dub and do a lot of de-clicking,” Perls wrote to me in 1986. “So I’m pretty proud of the sound. As Blind Lemon’s career progresses, his sound gets better but his performances worse. So I went for the early stuff when the Paramount engineers were so scared of his big voice that they jacked down the levels and subsequently got a poor signal-to-noise ratio even for the best copies. By contrast, Blind Blake’s fidelity was better because his voice was less powerful than Blind Lemon’s, and so Paramount could keep up the levels. And unlike Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blake’s accompaniments got more adventurous as his career went along.”
Jefferson’s Stylistic Hallmarks
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 78s made an immediate impact upon musicians, especially country artists. “Up ’til then,” recalled Roscoe Holcomb, a white mountain musician from Kentucky, “the blues were only inside me. Blind Lemon was the first to ‘let out’ the blues.” Country guitar pioneers Frank Hutchison and Riley Puckett were among the first to attempt recording in Jefferson’s style, and the great Jimmie Rodgers certainly imitated Jefferson.
I asked Steve James why Blind Lemon’s records became popular among white buyers. “They could understand what he was saying, and his subject matter was sometimes funny,” James says. “To poor white people there would be a bond of commonality, and to town whites it was what they expected a blues singer to sing about – his lucky charm, his prison sentence, his fat girlfriend, and that kind of stuff. This was unlike someone like Skip James, who really lost them coming out of the gate by singing about ‘You’re gonna die, it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna be pretty soon.’ Lemon was perceived a lot as old-timey, and that helped, too.”
While Lemon’s greatest appeal was his field-holler-powerful vocals, his idiosyncratic guitar playing certainly set him apart. For starters, his fingerpicking approach wasn’t always governed by the steady bass beat and deliberate bar structure common to most bluesmen. He was a master of the open pentatonic scale, and several of his stronger pieces plied only the first, altered third, fifth, altered seventh, and octave.
“He had something in his phrasing that’s so funny,” describes B.B. King. “He had a way of double-time playing. Say, like, one-two-three-four, and then he’d go [in double-time] one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. And the time was still right there, but double time. And then he could come out of it so easy. And then when he would resolve something, it was done so well. I’ve got some of his records now – I keep them with me. But he’d come out of it so smooth. His touch is different from anybody on the guitar – still is. I’ve practiced, I tried, I did everything, and still I could never come out with the sound as he did. He was majestic, and he played just a regular little 6-string guitar with a little round hole. It was unbelievable to hear him play. And the way he played with his rhythm patterns, he was way before his time, in my opinion.”
Mike Bloomfield described Jefferson as “really a great player, very fast, very strange. Blind Lemon didn’t play with a beat – you couldn’t dance to his music.” James, though, has a different take: “People say Lemon had no meter, but he had fabulous meter – he just stretched the verses out. It’s a Texas thing; he basically did the same thing that Lightnin’ Hopkins did on his Gold Star stuff. For instance, sometimes he had a lick that was a bar longer than the 12-bar structure dictated. Sometimes he’d do as many of these fast single-note lines as he wanted to before going back to the chord, and then he’d strum. Other times he’d do some rolls a la Blind Blake – he had a tremendous thumb – and then he’d break his bass pattern. Sometimes he would do an alternating bass line, or he’d just smack a monotonic bass line and then walk boogie lines.
“He had beautiful arrangements where he’d walk a bass line up against a descending melody, almost like classical or ragtime counterpoint. I don’t want to compare his playing harmonically to Blind Blake, but like Blind Blake he was a very economical player. He could do some stunning licks, and he was obviously in real command of the fingerboard. He could do so much business below the fifth fret, it’s unbelievable. Like ‘Bad Luck,’ one of my favorite Lemon tunes, is a stunning performance in the key of C, where he actually sets up a treble figure and changes the bass line over it as he changes chords. Then he winds up the turnaround on the V, and the resolution of the song is this really beautiful counterpoint line.
“Lemon played in a lot of different keys, and he recorded ‘Jack O’ Diamonds Blues’ in open-G tuning. And there’s a difference between the way he plays in E and C. The way he plays in A reminds me of Funny Paper Smith and Texas Alexander, with that spread A chord where you bridge the top four strings on the second fret and use the pinky up on the fifth fret. While some people have said that things like ‘Black Snake Moan’ were played with a flatpick, I’m not sure that’s true. I think he just played with his thumb and finger and was able to do that. And it sounds to me that he played some of his denser fingerpicking stuff with his thumb and two fingers.”
Stefan Grossman believes Blind Lemon was both flatpicker and fingerpicker: “His ‘Black Horse Blues’ was almost like Gary Davis, this intricate Carolina picking that’s definitely done with his fingers. But then there’s that whole slew of blues in C, which are definitely imitations of Jimmie Rodgers, the big star of American music at that time. When Blind Lemon plays the bass parts on those songs, it sounds like a flatpick. Then when he takes his breaks, you don’t hear any fingerpicking. On the early Lonnie Johnson solo sides, when he’s doing single-string runs, every once in a while you start to hear the bass come in, so you know he’s using fingers. I would almost bet that Lemon was using a flatpick. It makes sense: Here’s a guy on the street corners, singing the songs that people want to hear.” Aural evidence suggests that he sometimes tuned a half-step low or high.
Blind Lemon’s Celebrated Travels
In “Rambler Blues,” recorded in September 1927, Blind Lemon Jefferson sang of leaving home, where he “left his baby crying,” and of wanting to catch the Number Nine train. If someone takes his girl while he’s gone, so be it:
If you take my rider, I can’t get mad with you,
If you take my rider, I can’t get mad with you,
Just like you’re takin’ mine, I’ll take someone else’s too
He concludes with a lament to his women troubles:
I got a girl in Texas, I got a brown in Tennessee,
I got a brown in Texas, one in Tennessee,
Lord, but that brown in Chicago have put that jinx bug on me
In its ad copy for the song, Paramount conveyed the image of a man on the move: “Will he ever come back to his home and his sweetie? There he goes, roaming and rambling ’round the country – seems to be happy if you give him his guitar and a good smoke. His Pullman car is his palace and he seems to have a lower berth, with a through ticket wherever he wants to go.”
And ramble Jefferson did. Judging from reported sightings, Jefferson spent considerable time on the road. Sammy Price told Robert Palmer that Blind Lemon was playing boogie-woogie and using the term “booger rooger” as far back as 1917, when he heard him playing in Waco, Texas. Hobart Smith, a white musician in Saltville, Virginia, recalled seeing him before World War I: “It was along about that time that Blind Lemon Jefferson came through,” Smith explained to Sing Out! in 1965, “and he stayed around there about a month. He stayed with the other colored fellows and they worked on the railroad there. He’d just sing and play to entertain the men in the work camp. I think that right about there I started on the guitar.” Smith’s “Six White Horses” and “Graveyard Blues” echoed Jefferson material.
Albert King, who was born in Mississippi in 1923, claims to have seen him in Arkansas: “The first bluesman I saw was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Later I heard him on records, but I used to see him in these parks, like on Saturday afternoons in these little country towns around Forest City, Arkansas. We’d work till noon on Saturdays, and then my stepdad would hook up the wagon, and sometimes my sister and I and the other kids could go to town. This one particular day he was there playing acoustic guitar, and he had his cup. He sounded something like that folk singer, Richie Havens; something on that order. He had a crowd of people around him, and we’d put nickels in his cup, and he’d play a song. It was amazing to me to see him count his money. He could feel the face of the coin and tell you what it was. Then he’d put it in his pocket and play some more.” Lightnin’ Hopkins recalled seeing Blind Lemon play at a Baptist picnic in Buffalo, Texas. Others claimed to have watched him play with a band in Alabama. The common-law widow of Joe Holmes, who recorded for Paramount as “King Solomon Hill,” told Gayle Dean Wardlow that “folks wouldn’t go to bed at night” when Blind Lemon played in Minden, Louisiana.
Howlin’ Wolf remembered seeing Blind Lemon in Mississippi in 1926, the same year he first saw Charley Patton. According to Wardlow, Jefferson enjoyed a huge popularity in the Delta, where he was mimicked by nearly every player who had the skill to do so. Ralph Lembo, a Sicilian-born dry goods salesman who owned a furniture store in Itta Bena, Mississippi, paid Jefferson’s train fare from Chicago and arranged for him to play in his store. “He charged customers 25¢ admission for a view of the artist,” reported Wardlow and Stephen Calt in their Charley Patton biography, King of the Delta Blues. “Despite advanced fanfare (prior to the performance, he had paraded Jefferson about town on a wagon), the promotional stunt backfired, and after three hours of playing music Jefferson had grown so dissatisfied by the receipts Lembo collected that he refused to continue. Another financial dispute skewered his scheduled appearance (probably the same evening) at Itta Bena’s Rolling Wall High School: ‘They had a big dance there and Lemon come in and play, and they was chargin’ 75¢ to come in,’ David Edwards recalled. ‘That was a lot of money then, and they couldn’t get him to play for that 75¢.’” Lembo’s attempt to pair Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton at a recording session also failed.
Rev. Rubin Lacy, another early-generation Delta bluesman, met Jefferson during a March ’28 Paramount session at the Lamar Life Insurance Building in Chicago. Blind Lemon, it turned out, was there to record “Piney Woods Money Mama,” which was issued with a special multi-color picture label bearing his photo and the legend “Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Birthday Record.” “I invited Blind Lemon to come to Itta Bena and visit me,” Lacy told Dave Evans in 1966, “which he did, and we played in the theater in Greenwood and the theater in Moorhead together. And he stayed around there, I think, a week or two with me, played first one place, then another, ’til he had to go back again to make another record, because he had to make one a month. Directly after that he just died, I think, overnight. Some say he was just too fat. I know one thing, if you go to sleep here in the house at night, you could hear him snoring I don’t know how far.
“He was kind,” Lacy continued. “Wouldn’t play a guitar on Sunday for nobody – I don’t care what you offered him. I seed a fellow offer him $20 to play him one song one morning. Two men walked up and said, ‘We’ll give you $10 apiece if you’ll play “Blues come through Texas loping like a mule.”’ Shook his head. He say, ‘I couldn’t play it if you give me $200. I need the money, but I couldn’t play it. My mother always taught me not to play on Sunday for nobody. Today is Sunday.’ And I spoke and said, ‘I’ll play it!’ I might as well play it on Sunday as play it on a Monday.”
Ishman Bracey, a Delta musician who made his recording debut for Victor in 1928, also saw Jefferson in Greenwood. “Blind Lemon used to come to Greenwood every fall and let me follow him around,” Bracey told Gayle Dean Wardlow. “He didn’t trust them other people. He carried a pearl-handled .44, and he could shoot the head off a chicken. And he couldn’t see nary a lick. Just did it from the sound he heard. He broke time, but he was good, I’m telling you. He’d be down there in the fall when people’s pickin’ cotton. I could second him, but a lot of guitar players couldn’t stay with him.”
In an interview with Living Blues founding editor Jim O’Neal, Houston Stackhouse, a musician from Wesson, Mississippi, remembered seeing Jefferson around this same time: “1928, I believe it was, when I saw him. He came to Crystal Springs and playin’ for some little show for a doctor, you know, just sellin’ medicine there. He was the onliest one [in the show] playin’ the guitar at that time. They had it in Freetown there at the colored school. There’s plenty of people there. It was a big school, and it’s just crowded all indoors, people couldn’t get in to see him. They had to bring him out up to the front, on the porch. They come to see him. He was a big name then. He played many a song there that night. Yeah, he played great. He played that ‘Wonder Will His Matchbox Hold His Clothes’ and all that. And so Tommy Johnson came down that night. He just stood around and looked at him.” Stackhouse, who learned music from Tommy Johnson and his brothers, recalled that Tommy knew some of Lemon’s repertoire and that the two bluesmen played together: “They was runnin’ around. He’d come down, he’d say, ‘Well, me and that old Blind Lemon had it,’ you know, some nights like that. Say, ‘We got together. We balled awhile.’ Yeah, Blind Lemon was popular through that country.” Another witness reported seeing him at Parchman Farm on the Fourth of July.
Jefferson’s Later Recordings
As his recording career progressed, Blind Lemon Jefferson tended to rework the same musical themes. He continued to emphasize single-note runs, and his arrangements became less harmonically interesting. “Although the change from acoustic to electrical recording in 1927 gave his voice more presence,” wrote Sam Charters, “there was little change in his style in the Paramount recordings. His voice darkened, and his accompaniments became less hurried, but his last session, in the fall of 1929, was as compelling and direct as his first had been.”
There’s marked progression in Blind Lemon’s material, too. His earliest work tended to be traditional material or direct reworkings of field hollers and work songs. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” for instance, was based on a folk melody known throughout the South; “Corrina Blues” was partially derived from “See See Rider.” But by early 1928, his lyrics were becoming more thematic. For instance, he seemed to have a special concern for the fate of prison inmates, as evidenced by his first recordings in 1928, “Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues” b/w “‘’Lectric Chair Blues.” In February he recorded “Prison Cell Blues,” and July found him singing “Lock Step Blues,” and “Hangman’s Blues,” both of which he re-cut before the year’s end. In July, he also covered Leroy Carr’s big hit, “How Long How Long,” complete with piano accompaniment. The 78’s flip side featured a Tampa Red performance.
Some of Jefferson’s most compelling compositions of 1929, the last year of his life, were packed with sexual metaphor and fantasy. “I don’t like me plenty of women,” he sang in “Saturday Night Spender Blues,” “but man, I likes them wild.” He portrayed women with terms such as “rider,” “pigmeat,” “brown,” “dirty mistreaters,” or even “fair-made” yet “cunning as a squirrel.” His “Black Snake Moan No. 2” began with the announcement, “Well, folks, Lemon is yet lookin’ for his black snake mama.” And few could miss the underlying meaning of his “Bakershop Blues,” cut at his final session on September 24, 1929:
I’m crazy ’bout my light bread and my pigmeat on the side,
I say I’m crazy about my light bread, my pigmeat on the side,
But I taste your jelly roll, and I’d be satisfied
In between his sessions and rambles, Jefferson stayed in Dallas or at his kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Even though he played for tips most of the time, his financial success was rumored to be such that he could afford a chauffeur-driven Ford and had $1,500 in the bank. An account in Sam Charters’ The Country Blues, though, suggests that he was regularly cheated by his label: “Lemon’s relationship with Mayo Williams and Paramount was far from pretty. He was paid very little, and seems to have gotten only token royalties from his many successful records. He stayed with Paramount because Williams pimped for him. Lemon, by this time, was a dirty, dissolute man, interested in very little besides women and liquor. At the end of a recording session, Williams would have a few dollars for him, a bottle, and a prostitute.” Within a few months of his final session, Blind Lemon was dead and gone.
Blind Lemon’s Mysterious Demise
Mystery surrounds the circumstances of Blind Lemon’s death, to the point where there have been as many version of his untimely demise as Robert Johnson’s. Mike Bloomfield expressed one popular version: “He froze to death in the gutter trying to get from one part of Chicago to another in December 1929. His chauffeur had split. One story has it that his guitar froze right to his hand. Very odd.” Others say he was poisoned by a jealous lover. Rube Lacy speculated “he just died overnight from being too fat, just smothered to death.” In May 1930, the duo Walter and Byrd released “Wasn’t It Sad About Lemon” on Paramount, singing: “’Twas on the streets of Chicago was where poor Lemon fell.” Another memorial recording, Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s “Death of Blind Lemon” eulogized: “Let us pause for a moment and think of the life of our beloved Blind Lemon Jefferson who was born blind. It is in many respects like that of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Like Him, unto the age of 30 he was unknown, and also like Him in the space of three years this man and his works were known in every home.”
The Wortham Journal reported his death in its January 3, 1930, issue. The article headlined “Lemon Jefferson Dies In Chicago” offered these details: “Lemon Jefferson, 45, a blind Negro who was reared in Wortham and the community, died of heart failure and was shipped to Wortham for burial, arriving here on Christmas Eve. Lemon was on the streets of Wortham almost every day singing songs of his composition and playing his guitar, until some two years ago he was visiting Dallas and a phonograph record scout picked him up and carried him to Chicago where he has sung many of his Negro songs for a record company, and it is said that his royalties from records has gained to a considerable sum. The last time he visited Wortham before his death, he came in a big automobile, his own, and was accompanied by a chauffeur.”
Ironically, just five months earlier, Jefferson had recorded an original song titled “Christmas Eve Blues”:
It’s the day before Christmas, let me bring your present tonight,
I said it’s the day before Christmas, let me bring me your present tonight,
I’m going to be your Santa Claus, even if my whisker’s ain’t white
More than two hundred people, black and white, watched as Blind Lemon Jefferson was lowered into the ground of the Wortham Negro Cemetery. Perhaps a few of those in attendance recalled his famous lyric:
Well, there’s one kind favor I ask of you,
Well, there’s one kind favor I ask of you,
Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,
See that my grave is kept clean
For years it wasn’t, but in 1967 the Texas State Historical Association provided a historical maker. Steve James describes the site: “The cemetery’s on Highway 14, a couple of miles east of Wortham. You have to park your car, open a cattle gate, and walk through somebody’s property to get to it. It’s a quiet place on a little hillock that overlooks this really beautiful east Texas Brazos bottomland. There’s a controversy about where Lemon’s grave is, because a lot of people said that the monument wasn’t placed over his grave. Lemon was said to have been buried just inside the gate; however, Uel Davis says that the gate used to be on the other side when they buried him. So maybe the monument’s actually on the opposite side of the cemetery.” In 1997, a proper headstone was placed over Jefferson’s grave.
Through the decades, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s style has reverberated through many players – Son House, Texas Alexander, Johnny Shines, Ramblin’ Thomas, T-Bone Walker, Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, J.B. Lenoir, Mance Lipscomb, B.B. King, Steve James, and the list goes on. Western swing’s most enduring hit, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’ 1939 “Swing Blues No. 1,” borrowed a verse from “Long Lonesome Blues.” Jefferson’s 78s of “Match Box Blues,” “That Black Snake Moan,” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” were covered by Southern musicians for decades. And today “Match Box Blues” is a rock standard, with notable root-true covers by Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and George Harrison, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Taj Mahal, and Jesse Ed Davis performing at the Silver Wilburys. For sheer spirit and vibe, though, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever surpass Blind Lemon Jefferson’s original recordings.
Thanks to Jonathan Black, Stefan Grossman, John Hammond, B.B. King, Steve James, and Gayle Dean Wardlow for their contributions.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.