Sunday, 8 March 2009

History of Blues- 2. Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson- The Cornerstone of Country Blues

In the mid 1920's, a new style of American music came to national prominence. The popularity of Country Blues was propelled by the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Dates as to Jefferson's birth vary, but it is generally accepted that Lemon Jefferson was born blind on either September 24 1893 or October 26 1894. He was one of eight children and the birthplace was on his family farm near Coutchman in Freestone County, Texas. His parents, Alex and Clarissa Jefferson, were sharecroppers.

There were few career options for the blind, so he learnt the guitar at a young age and began performing in his late teens, around 1912. Jefferson was influenced by the singing of the local cotton-pickers and guitarists, but he also heard the flamenco-fused playing of Mexican workers, which probably influenced his intricate style of guitar playing.

Blind Lemon Jefferson Meets Leadbelly

He played picnics, houseparties and on the streets of Dallas, where he met Leadbelly. The bluesman was older than Jefferson, but was impressed with his musicianship and the two played together, teaching each other some of what they had learnt. For the next few years he would travel to Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama and Louisiana.

In 1925, a Dallas record store owner recognised Jefferson's rare talent and convinced Paramount Records to set up a recording session. The label obliged and even paid for him to journey to their offices in Chicago. Under the pseudonyn of Deacon L.J. Bates, he recorded two spirituals: "I Want to be like Jesus in my Heart" and "All I Want is that Pure Religion".

Blind Lemon Jefferson and Paramount Records

Paramount were pleased and arranged the recording of four more songs, including the hit that gained him national success, "Long Lonesome Blues" (released in May 1926). He went on to record around 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929. Of the 43 tracks issued, 42 of them were for Paramount. His success was instrumental in making paramount a major label in the 1920's.

In 1927, the musician had become disatisfied with his royalties from Paramount and he recorded and released two of his most popular songs-"Black Snake Moan" and "Matchbox Blues" with rival label Okeh. The superior sound quality on these tracks prompted Paramount to re-record new versions of these songs.

In September 1929, Jefferson recorded the last of his tracks with Paramount.

The Death of Lemon Jefferson

A couple of months later, in December, he was found dead in the Chicago snow under mysterious circumstanes. Some say a jealous lover poisoned his coffee, others that his chauffeur crashed the car, killing the artist. Some maintain that he was killed after somebody stole a large cash royalty payment from him. The most accepted theory is that he had a heart-attack and froze in a snowstorm.

Paramount paid for his body to be taken by train back to his Texas home. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wortham Black Cemetry (now Wortham Negro Cemetry). In 1967, a metal Texas marker was erected close to his burial site. There were still people alive at that time who knew approximately where Jefferson was buried and the marker stood on the spot they pointed to.

By the mid 1990's, the neglected headstone had become dirty and damaged and a new granite marker- paid for by fans, along with a donation to the cemetry- was erected. The stone stands today and the inscription includes a line from one of his songs, "Lord, one kind favour I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean".

In 2007, the cemetry changed its name to the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetry.

The Legacy of Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson became one of the most popular blues artists of that time. He has been named the "Father of Texas Blues" and has influenced many, including Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Louis Armstrong, Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles".

He had a unique style, with intricate, fast guitar playing that is often vastly different from his vocal lines. His voice is high-pitched and has a two octave range, with lyrics displaying an emotional complexity. He was also the first Country Blues singer to gain a national audience.

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