Blind Lemon Jefferson
( ca. 1893 – 1929 )
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Blind Lemon Jefferson, a seminal blues guitarist and songster, was born on a farm in Couchman, near Wortham, Freestone County, Texas, in the mid-1890s. Sources differ as to the exact birthdate. He was the son of Alec and Clarissy Banks Jefferson. His parents were sharecroppers.
There are numerous contradictory accounts of where Lemon lived, performed, and died, complicated further by the lack of photographic documentation. The cause of his blindness isn't known, nor whether he had some sight.
By his teens, he began spending time in Dallas. About 1912 he started performing in the Deep Ellum and Central Track areas of Dallas, where he met Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, one of the most legendary musical figures to travel and live in Texas. In interviews he gave in the 1940s, Lead Belly gave various dates for his initial meeting with Jefferson, sometimes placing it as early as 1904.The two became musical partners in Dallas and the outlying areas of East Texas
In 1925 Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make records. Though he was not the first folk (or "country") blues singer–guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. His extremely successful recording career began in 1926 and continued until 1929. He recorded 110 sides (including all alternate takes), of which seven were not issued and six are not yet available in any format.
His compositions are rooted in tradition, but are innovative in his guitar solos, his two-octave vocal range, and the complexity of his lyrics, which are at once ironic, humorous, sad, and poignant.
Jefferson is widely recognized as a profound influence upon the development of the Texas blues tradition and the growth of American popular music. His significance has been acknowledged by blues, jazz, and rock musicians, from Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and T-Bone Walker to Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Carl Perkins, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles.
Jefferson died in Chicago on December 22, 1929, and was buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery. His grave was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was dedicated to him. He was inducted in the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980. In 1997 the town of Wortham began a blues festival named for the singer, and a new granite headstone was placed at his gravesite. The inscription included lyrics from one of the bluesman's songs: "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean." In 2007 the name of the cemetery was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.
David Evans, ed., Journal of Black Music Research, 20.1 (Spring 2000). Alan Govenar, Meeting the Blues (New York: Da Capo, 1995). Alan B. Govenar and Jay F. Brakefield, Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1998). Robert Uzzel, Blind Lemon Jefferson: His Life, His Death, and His Legacy (Austin: Eakin Press, 2002).