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