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The first artist to take the blues back “down home” on a national scale was Blind Lemon Jefferson, the “King of Country Blues.”

Proud Texan

He became the first male blues recording star, and by far the most popular country bluesman of the 1920s in terms of record sales.

Jefferson, a native of Couchman, Texas, was born on Sept. 24, 1893, the blind son of Alec and Cassie Jefferson, according to the 1900 census, or Oct. 26, 1894 and according to his registration for the World War I draft (required even though he was blind).

He had no formal music education and instead traveled from place to place in Freestone and Limestone counties, playing his guitar and singing songs, most of which were his own compositions.

Career History

By the time he was in his twenties, Lemon had moved to Dallas and had become successful enough, playing the streets, brothels, and other affairs, to buy himself a car, get married, and find himself a recording contract.

Jefferson became a well-known figure in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas. There, he met Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, and for a time they played in brothels throughout Texas .

He traveled far and wide, preceded by the fame of his records wherever he went.

Jefferson was discovered by a talent scout for Paramount Records while in Dallas and was lured to Chicago. He made 79 blues and jazz records for Paramount in the 1920s, each estimated to have sold 100,000 copies. He also made two recordings under he Okeh label.

In Chicago, he most of his sides for Paramount, but Lemon reportedly also earned most of his income from playing house rent parties.

Popular Song Originals

Among Jefferson’s most recognizable songs are “Match Box Blues”, recorded not only by Carl Perkins and the Beatles but by Albert King; “Jack o’ Diamonds Blues,” a favorite among Texas bluesmen; “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a folk-blues standard; “Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues,” “That Black Snake Moan,” “Rabbit Foot Blues,” “One Dime Blues,” and “Bad Luck Blues.” His songs have been recorded by bluesmen from all parts of the country, from Detroit and Chicago to Mississippi to the Piedmont and East Coast to Texas, Oklahoma and California.

He also recorded spirituals under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates.

Influential Impact on Music  & Artists

Jefferson undoubtedly paved the way for Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Big Bill Broonzy, the urbane city blues of the 1930s, the so-called ‘Bluebird Beat,’ T-Bone Walker, and by extension, the modern electric blues of HIS emulators. He saturated, as well, the blues traditions of his native state, as is readily apparent in the work of Texas Alexander, Smokey Hogg, Lil’ Son Jackson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and scores of others.”

Voice Still Speaks From The Grave

On Dec. 19, 1929, less than two months after his final recording session, he died from causes that continue to be questioned. According to Welding, “Some accounts allege foul play, while others attribute his death to overexertion, heart failure, freezing to death in the bitter winter cold of Chicago, or some combination of these causes.”  His body was shipped back to Texas for burial.

Jefferson was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980.

Decades after his death a marker was finally placed on his grave, and today there are fans who visit the site and recall the words he sang: “See that my grave is kept clean.”

 

Sources: Blues Hall of Fame, Memphis; Jim O’Neal, www.stackhouse-bluesoterica.blogspot.com; Bob Bowman, All Things Historical, March 25, 2001

 

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