American bluesman (1897-1929). Born blind in Couchman, Texas, he learned how to play the guitar so he could earn a living. He moved to the Deep Ellum section of Dallas in 1917, where he played on street corners for spare change. His reputation as a performer attracted regular patrons when he played, and he earned enough money to support a wife and child.

Jefferson traveled throughout the South and up to Chicago, where he cut some records for Paramount and Okeh. He recorded country blues under his own name and spirituals under a pseudonym (Deacon L. J. Bates). His success persuaded Paramount to seek out other male blues artists (the blues scene in the 1920s was dominated by female singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox).

Though he recorded for only three years, getting fewer than a hundred songs on tape, Jefferson is considered one of the most influential blues musicians, and his vocal and guitar styles have been imitated by many different artists. Some of his best known songs include "See that My Grave Is Kept Clean", "Jack O'Diamonds", and "Boll Weevil Blues".

There is no official death certificate for Jefferson. It's believed that he either died of a heart attack or that he froze to death in a Chicago snowstorm.

Popular Mystery Man of the Blues

Beginnings and Career

A Texas Lone Star is Born

The records are not clear about Blind Lemon Jefferson whether he was born blind at birth, at his father's Couchman, Texas dirt-farm, or even the date of that blessed event (traditionally put in July, 1897, but a census document recorded it in September four years earlier). What have learned about this sixth member of his family is from his songs, and stories handed down from relatives and friends. He derived his musical inspiration from not only the cotton-pickers' field songs, and area guitarists, but the flamenco flavored Mexican guitarists. He was just a fifteen year old when he was using this in an eclectic manner, with complicated and quick styling; and since he could not be of much use as a ranch-hand, he found work entertaining at local parties and picnics. This influential but never duplicated artist was wearing his trademark clear glasses, possibly indicating only legal blindness -- like another bluesman -- Sonny Terry. The youth played the streets in other Freestone County towns like Wortham, near Couchman, Buffalo, Groesbeck, location of his Penitentiary Blues and Marlin, the birthplace of yet another vision impaired contemporary he could have met, Blind Willie Johnson. After also playing in Waco, by 1915 he expanded his horizons to Dallas and met the ten years his senior and prolific Leadbelly in the Deep Ellum (similar to Memphis' Beale Street) part of town. Mr. Ledbetter paid lyrical homage in several recordings referring and deferring to the junior superior instrumentalist, for example, in his Blind Lemon's Blues. Lemon learned to shift from secular--as circumstances dictated-- to religious songs as learned from the elder blues statesman. Unfortunately their time spent together musically was cut short by Leadbelly's 1924 Louisiana incarceration.

Southern Exposure

He traveled up into 1920 --by probably riding boxcars, or sometimes money could be earned to buy fare-- picking up ideas and leaving his own throughout the South, and even joining the relatively lucrative Mississippi Delta blues scene. The story of people helping him around maybe exaggerated, but T-Bone Walker benefited from his time with him, nevertheless. He had a sixth sense like Georgia's Blind Willie McTell; both wrote with visionary insight-fulness in their songs. He married someone he met around this time, Roberta, in around 1923 with whom he fathered a boy a couple of years later, and it is reported there were other children.

The Roaring Twenties

The first recording made of this talented young man was a demo made in 1925 by a Texas talent scout for Chicago's Paramount Records. Paramount was convinced with the strange high delivery and string dexterity and brought him around the beginning of Winter 1926 to the Windy City where Blind Lemon recorded under the name Deacon L.J. Bates: I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart and All I Want Is That Pure Religion. A couple of months later Jefferson started his short career and record, under his own name, approximately one hundred recordings, forty-three which were released, most of which were for Paramount; and the rest were with various labels. He did one more for them in 1927, He Arose From the Dead as Deacon L.J. Bates and that year he was Elder J.C. Brown doing, Where Shall I Be? on the Herwin Label. He also did a forty-eight hour session with Atlanta's Okeh in March of 1927 where he did Black Snake Moan as a re-version of the previous November's That Black Snake Moan; and more importantly the flip side of this seventy-eight was Matchbox Blues. His records, in spite of the folksy style, sold well right off the starting block, and he was so popular that he toured from Chicago to Saint Louis (at the Booker T. Theater) to work with one of Son House's comrades, Reverend Rubin Lacy in Mississippi. He recorded for the Paramount's Broadway label in Richmond, Indiana, Bed Spring Blues and Yo Yo Blues. He was to break into a genre big-time that up to this point was the sole reserve of blues women like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox

Partial (re-recordings omitted) Historic Discography

1926

      January

     March

    • Got the Blues
    • Long Lonesome Blues
    • Booster Blues
    • Dry Southern Blues

     April

     May

     August

     November

    • Stocking Feet Blues
    • That Black Snake Moan
    • Wartime Blues
    • Broke and Hungry
    • Shuckin' Sugar Blues

     December

1927

     March

     April

     May

    • Rising High Water Blues
    • Weary Dogs Blues
    • Right of Way Blues

     June

     September

    • Struck Sorrow Blues
    • Rambler Blues

     October

1928

     February

     March

    • Cannon Ball Blues
    • Long Lastin' Love
    • Piney Woods Money Mama

     June

     July

    • Competition Bed Blues
    • Lockstep Blues
    • Hangman's Blues
    • Sad News Blues
    • How Long, How Long

     August

1929

     January

    • Eagle Eyed Mama
    • Dynamite Blues
    • Disgusted Blues

     March

     September

Albumography

Aldabra Label
One Dime Blues
Cat Man Blues (2001)
Tradition Label
Collectables Milestone label
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol 1-4 (1991)
Blind Lemon Jefferson (1961)
Virgin Label (Music Memorial)
All Time Blues Classics (1996) Wolf Label
The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson (1994) Yazoo Label
King of the Country Blues (1985)

See That My Grave

That last trip to Chicago around Christmas of 1929 ended in the blinding frigid snowstorm, the only thing known is that he was found frozen dead in the snow outside, the thirty something year old did not even have an official death certificate. The stories abound about how he was lost going to or from a party, that he was abandoned by his driver, there was a car wreck or he just suffered a heart attack outside. We do know that his pianist friend, Will Ezell took him back to be buried New Year's Day, 1930 in Wortham, Texas. This was in a "clean" perhaps as he musically requested, albeit not marked grave until 1967 (with the July 1897 date) on a metal historical plate. It had to be re-marked in the 90's due to the ravages of time and weather, and this time the September 1893 date was discovered, and they inscribed his lyric:

Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of You-- See that my grave is kept clean.
His songs, around three quarters of a century old, have been covered by Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Jr., and others. Can you get any bigger than Carl Perkins and the Beatles doing his Matchbox? His influence traveled on down through other Texas legends besides Leadbelly: Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. The Blues revival of the late 50's through the 60's can be seen with the Jefferson Airplane (Starship) giving nominal homage, and of course, in 1980 he was inducted in the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.


Source: AMG Bio (online)
The Memphis Guide (online)
Blue Flame Cafe

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