Happy Birthday, “Blind” Lemon Jefferson

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“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!” – blues singer Victoria Spivey on Texas bluesman “Blind” Lemon Jefferson

He was blind but people who knew him thought he could probably see. “He could shoot the head off a chicken …” said one guy.

Born in 1893, he got his start playing on street corners in Dallas. He then traveled around the Mississippi Delta, playing in whatever joint that would have him. (Legend has it T-Bone Walker was his guide, and he paid him in guitar lessons.) He and the legendary Lead Belly were friends, and Lead Belly wrote a song in tribute to Jefferson called the “Blind Lemon Blues”:

A talent scout heard him somewhere along the way, thought he was amazing (as he was, both voice and musicianship) and brought him up to Chicago to record a couple of songs. That “couple” turned into 100+ songs. These songs cast a long shadow. His first song on Paramount Records was 1926’s “Got the Blues” and it was a hit:

One of his songs – “Match Box Blues” – somehow resurfaced, in another form, maybe subconsciously, in a Carl Perkins song. You couldn’t easily access music, of course, in the 1940s. You had to catch a note, a chord change, on the fly – and make sure to remember it. Maybe you saw someone playing an old blues song in a bar, or on a street corner, and you had no idea what the song was, and when you came back to the hotel room you wrote your own version, or you tried to match the version in your memory. But Blind Lemon was clearly if not THE source than an important source of everything that was to follow over the next 40, 50 years, which is pretty wild.

Another example of this is Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan”. Listen closely and you can hear Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Elvis, of course, knew Crudup’s song, and recorded it at Sun in 1954, and it became his first hit.

Jefferson was famous on a national level (unheard of for bluesmen of the era who mostly toiled in obscurity in their own particular region. It would take Alan Lomax in the 30s/40s seeking out all those guys, many of whom were still alive, and it would take British Invasion guys like The Rolling Stones whose early career paid tribute to rhythm and blues. Lomax put them all on tape. We have a record of them now. Suddenly dudes living in shacks in the Delta were playing folk festivals all around the country and the world.)

Unfortunately, Jefferson didn’t live long enough to experience that. He died at the young age of 36, an event cloaked in mystery. His dead body was found on the street on Chicago after a harsh snowstorm. People thought he might have had royalty money in his pocket and someone robbed him. Nobody really knows though.

His most famous song has the heart-stopping title “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”

Those are the words on his gravestone in Wortham, Texas.

Fans raised the money for the stone.

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4 Responses to Happy Birthday, “Blind” Lemon Jefferson

  1. Jessie says:

    This is great! Hadn’t heard the Leadbelly song before. I love Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar work, it’s fun and surprising to someone like me at least who is much more used to Mississippi Delta blues. He is one of those people I came to through secondary sources. For the longest time I thought Nick Cave had just made him up. Wow, I thought. How clever is Nick Cave, coming up with such a perfect bluesman name as Blind Lemon Jefferson.

    • sheila says:

      Jessie!! I had no idea about that Nick Cave song. Thank you thank you for linking to it!

      • Jessie says:

        I’m always eager to share about this very overlooked NC album, The Firstborn is Dead! Opening track is the relentless and prophetic Tupelo, which draws on John Lee Hooker and Leadbelly to turn a song about the Tupelo flood into an almost eschatological tale of Elvis’s birth. It’s so good!

        Thus endeth my youtube linking privileges for the near future!

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