Monday, January 26, 2009

Blind Lemon Jefferson - "Father of the Texas Blues"

Blind Lemon Jefferson was a very influential blues singer and guitarist from Texas. He was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920's and has been called "Father of the Texas Blues". He probably was born in 1897 in Coutchman, Texas, but some claim some earlier and some later dates. In his 1917 draft registration he gave his birth date as October 26, 1894, further stating that he then lived in Dallas, and that he had been blind at birth. He was one of eight children born to a sharecropper.

Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens and played at picnics and parties. He also became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns performing in front of barbershops and on street corners with a tin cup. By the early 1910's, Jefferson began traveling to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Leadbelly. He was one of the most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in Dallas' Deep Ellum area.

In 1917, he moved more permanently to Deep Ellum where is met T-Bone Walker. Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar in exchange for Walker occasionally serving as a guide.
What distinguishes Jefferson from the other blues performers of his generation was his singular approach to the guitar, which established the basis of what is today known as the Texas style. He strummed or "hammered" the strings with repetitive bass figures and produced a succession of open and fretted notes, using a quick release and picking single-string, arpeggio runs. T-Bone Walker later applied this technique to the electric guitar and, combined with influences of the jump and swing blues of the regional or "Territory" jazz bands of the 1920's and 1930's, produced the modern sound.

But is was also his extraordinary voice which gave him his popularity in every town he visited. His repertoire reached beyond the blues form into rags and dance pieces. Jefferson traveled extensively and seems to have met a great many bluesmen, from Robert Wilkins to Son House, who remembers meeting him not only in Texas but also in the Delta area, Memphis and beyond.

In late 1925 or early 1926, he was taken to Chicago, Illinois to record his first tracks. Two gospel recording were released under the name Deacon L. J. Bates. This led to a second recording session in March, 1926. His first release under his own name, "Booster Blues" and "Dry Southern Blues" were hits and led to the release of two other songs "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues", which became a runaway success, with sales in six figures. Between 1926 and 1929, 43 records were issued, all but one for Paramount Records. Studio techniques and quality were infamously bad, sounding as if they had been recorded in a hotel room. He re-recorded his hits "Got the Blues" and Long Lonesome Blues" in superior facilities and subsequent releases used that version.
Due mainly to his popularity, along with Blind Blake and Ma Rainey, Paramount became the leading recording company for the blues. He was reportedly unhappy with his royalties and in 1927 he moved to Okeh Records. They quickly recorded and released "Matchbox Blues" and "Black Snake Moan", which was to be his only recording for Okeh, because of his contractual obligations. Also in 1927, he recorded another of his now classic songs, the haunting "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". It was such a hit, it was re-recorded in 1928.

As his fame grew, so did the stories regarding his life. T-Bone Walker stated that as a boy, he was employed by Jefferson to lead his around the streets of Dallas. A Paramount employee stated that Jefferson was a womanizing sloppy drunk. On the other hand, Jefferson's neighbors report that he "warm and cordial", and singer Rube Lacy states that Jefferson refused to play on Sunday.
The best of what he did became the bedrock of the country blues, and his songs later became standards recorded many hundreds times over - often scoring hits for rock 'n' roll performers from Lonnie Donegan to Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

He died in 1929, probably from a heart attack suffered during the time of a chilling cold in Chicago. Jefferson became a legend who's career never suffered the hardships of the Depression, or the gradual shift of popularity away from country blues to other forms of musical entertainment. But he will always be known as "The Father of the Texas Blues".

Sources: Blues-Keeping the Faith, The Handbook of Texas and Wikipedia

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, May 11, 1911, but spent most of his early life in levee camps and on plantations in the Northern Delta. He moved with his family to Memphis in 1914, staying there until 1918, when his stepfather sent him to live at the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation near Robinsonville, Mississippi. There Johnson began playing harmonica and associating with older blues musicians. He followed local bluesman Willie Brown to parties and fish fries, accompanying him on many songs. Soon Johnson was playing with Brown and his partner, Charley Patton, when Patton came to town.

He was very young when he jumped into marriage in 1929; she was 15, he was 18. The marriage was short lived, in that the mother and baby died in childbirth a year later.

During this time of mourning Johnson met bluesman Son House, who had been released from prison at Parchman Farm. House's guitar playing had a profound effect on Johnson and he abandoned the harmonica for the guitar. Johnson tagged along with Brown and House to Memphis to play for tips at Church's Park. House and Brown would belittle Johnson for his lack of guitar skills when they had been drinking. So Johnson left and returned to Hazlehurst.

While in Hazlehurst in 1931, Johnson married an older woman, Caletta Craft, who supported him, during which time he practiced his picking and learned new songs from phonograph records. He had a excellent ability to pick up tunes on his first hearing.

There are several stories on how Johnson became so proficient at playing the guitar. There is a story that he met and practiced with Ike Zimmerman and that he learned to play the guitar while sitting on tombstones in a graveyard. Another, more popular story, was that Johnson, who was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it, giving him the mastery of the guitar, and handed it back to him in return for his soul. In exchange, Johnson became able to play, sing and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.

He and Caletta took to the road, but before long, he deserted her and severed all ties with her and her family. His wanderlust took him to coal yards, speakeasies, camps and taverns in the Midwest and East Coast. He returned in 1933, demonstrating his proficiency and was accepted as a truly outstanding bluesman.

But it was his recordings that were to have the widest impact. He recorded twice, once in San Antonio, Texas in November, 1936 and again in Dallas in June, 1937. Listening to commercial records yielded him artistic dividends. The 29 songs recorded during those two sessions display an appreciation for the medium by being tight, thematically coherent and short enough for one side of a 78 disc. The performances were unequalled. Bottleneck leads alternating with driving rhythms and lyrics sung in a high tense voice created masterpieces of the genre. When the recordings were over, Johnson presumably returned home with cash in his pocket, probably more money than he'd ever had at one time in his life.

He was quite young, 27, when his life was cut short when he was poisoned at a juke joint in Three Forks, Mississippi. There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson's death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says that she was the wife of the juke joint owner, who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband. Researcher Mark McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson's poisoner in the 1970's, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend, Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, warning him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. Johnson allegedly said "don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine. David "Honey Boy" Edwards, another famous bluesman was also present, and essentially confirms this account.

After feeling ill, he was helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died, August 16, 1938, in a convulsive state of severe pain, symptoms that are consistent with strychnine poisoning.

The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside Greenwood. Research in the 1980's and 90's strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, north of Greenwood.

Robert Johnson is considered to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll. His vocal phrasing, original songs and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians. He is ranked 5th in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time.