Glossary entry for
Jefferson, Blind Lemon

Considering he was the most popular male blues recording artist of the 1920s, we know surprisingly little about Blind Lemon Jefferson. The bare bones of his biography are as follows. Born in Couchman, near Wortham in Freestone County, Texas, probably sometime in (July?) 1897. Blind from childhood, possibly even from birth. May, like Sonny Terry, have had some residual sight (which would explain his wearing clear, rather than dark, glasses.) Between 1925 and 1929, he made at least 100 recordings, including alternate versions of some songs. Had 43 records issued, all but one on the Paramount label. Died in Chicago, in mysterious circumstances, towards the end of December, 1929. Taken back to Texas by pianist Will Ezell. Buried at the Wortham Cemetery, reputedly on New Year's Day, 1930. 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.

As a young man, Jefferson took up the guitar and became a street musician, playing in Wortham and nearby East Texas towns like Groesbeck (mentioned in his Penitentiary Blues,) Buffalo and Marlin, the birthplace of Blind Willie Johnson, who Lemon may well have encountered in his travels. Drawn to the city of Dallas sometime before 1917, he became a resident there, playing in the area centered on 'Deep Ellum,' Dallas' equivalent of Memphis' Beale Street. It was here that he met up with Leadbelly, nearly ten years older than Lemon and a very experienced musician with a large repertoire of songs. Nonetheless, it was the younger man who had the greater command of the blues. Many years later, Leadbelly paid tribute to Lemon's greatness by recording several pieces inspired by Jefferson's playing (notably, Blind Lemon's Blues.) For an indeterminate period of time, they played together in Dallas, but from 1918 to 1924, Leadbelly served a prison sentence, afterwards returning to Louisiana, so their association may have been relatively brief.

As his reputation grew, Lemon started traveling further afield to play, and in the early 1920s, he played in most Southern states, if all reports are to be believed. (The lyrics to some of his songs certainly seem to suggest a familiarity with many different musical locales.) He most certainly penetrated the Mississippi Delta/Memphis region, where there was lucrative work for an itinerant bluesman. How did he travel so widely? Presumably by train, riding boxcars or sometimes paying his fare. The stories of Lemon being led around by various blues singers can probably be dismissed as, by other accounts, he had, like Blind Willie McTell in Georgia, an uncanny ability to get around. Both Jefferson and McTell display vivid visual imagery in their lyrics, perhaps stemming from, to borrow a phrase from Stevie Wonder, "inner visions."

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