Personalities | Blind Lemon Jefferson | A Country Bluesman | Guitar Heroes

Blind Lemon Jefferson (c. 1893–1929) opened up the market for blues records in 1926 when ‘Got The Blues’, backed with ‘Long Lonesome Blues’, became the biggest-selling record by a black male artist. It brought him the trappings of success, including a car and chauffeur, and he released nearly 100 songs over the next four years, before his death.

Jefferson played country blues, a style he customized by listening to the flamenco intonations of local Mexican guitarists in Texas, where he grew up, as well as cotton-field songs. He developed a fast, complex guitar technique that, unlike that of most blues legends, has never been duplicated. He was a direct influence on Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker, all of whom played and travelled with him. The full range of his shifting rhythms, boogie-woogie bass runs and rippling tremolos can be heard on ‘Match Box Blues’, a song that had a major impact on the rock’n’roll scene in the 1950s after Carl Perkins recorded it.

Little is known about Jefferson before 1926. He was reportedly born blind (although the only known photograph shows him wearing glasses), probably in 1893. He was playing house parties, brothels and drinking dens around Wortham, Texas, in his late teens, before travelling widely around Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia. He was eventually contacted by Paramount Records, who recorded him in Chicago. He would make most of his records there, although he remained settled in Dallas. Songs like ‘Black Snake Moan’, one of his biggest ‘hits’, had a blatant sexual theme, albeit couched in humour and double entendre. Cheating women were also a concern on ‘Eagle Eyed Mama’, but titles like ‘One Dime Blues’, ‘Prison Cell Blues’ and ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ (which Bob Dylan recorded on his first album) hint at deeper fears. He could cut a desolate sound, and while his instrumental style was hard to copy, his lyrics were widely appropriated by other performers for their own songs.

Confusion even surrounds Jefferson’s death in Chicago in 1929. It was said that he froze to death, but a heart attack in the back of his car seems more likely.

Essential Recordings

Solo: ‘Got The Blues’

Solo: ‘Match Box Blues’

Solo: ‘Black Snake Moan’

Solo: ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’

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