Personalities | Blind Lemon Jefferson | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

Although he is often cited as the first ‘folk’ bluesman to record, Blind Lemon Jefferson was actually much more than that: he was America’s first male blues pop star. On the strength of his recordings for the Paramount label – some of which are said to have sold upwards of 100,000 copies – Jefferson became a celebrity throughout the southern blues circuit and beyond.

From Couchman To Deep Ellum

Jefferson was born in Couchman, Texas, most likely in 1897. ‘Lemmon’ was probably his given name. He may have been partially sighted, at least as a youth. He taught himself guitar early on, and by his mid-teens he had travelled as far as Dallas to perform. There he sang on street corners and in the jukes and whorehouses that lined Deep Ellum, the wide-open entertainment district that ran along Elm Street in the city’s African-American quarter. He teamed up with Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter for a while, before Leadbelly went to prison in 1918.

In 1925, someone – possibly pianist Sammy Price – recommended him to a Paramount Records talent scout. For Paramount, Jefferson recorded approximately 100 sides (counting alternate versions), of which 42 were issued. In 1927 he also paid a brief visit to the OKeh label, for whom he cut a version of his already popular ‘(That) Black Snake Moan’, as well as the first incarnation of ‘Match Box Blues’, which he soon re-cut for Paramount. He became such a celebrity that Paramount adorned some of his discs with a designer label featuring that now-famous photo of him, surrounded by bright lemon-yellow trim.

‘Don’t Play Me Cheap!’

By all accounts, he carried himself like the star he was. He usually travelled alone – or at least without a personal guide – and he comported himself like a dandy, decked out in suits, demanding respect and appropriate remuneration everywhere he went (one of his favourite catchphrases was ‘Don’t play me cheap!’).

Although many of his best-known songs – ‘Tin Cup Blues’, ‘’Lectric Chair Blues’, ‘Match Box Blues’ – portrayed a man suffering under oppressive conditions, his musical persona was that of a resolute survivor. His voice was high-pitched and supple, his diction and enunciation crisp and sure. His lyrics expressed the desires, passions and day-to-day struggles of working-class black people with an unadorned yet poetic directness that had never before been captured on disc.

As a guitarist he was superbly inventive within the confines of the 12-bar form, to which he generally adhered – at least on record (Leadbelly recalled him crooning ballads like ‘Careless Love’ in performance). Creating separate voices with his bass lines and his trademark high-treble arpeggios, and sometimes interrupting the rhythmic flow for a bar or two of unaccompanied single-string solo work, his playing reflected the two-handed contrapuntal attack of the pianists he’d no doubt heard as a young man in the gin mills of Deep Ellum.

‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’

In December of 1929, Jefferson was found dead on a...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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