BLJ pic for websiteLemmon Jefferson was born in Wortham, Texas in 1893 where he first sang sacred songs to his own guitar accompaniment. Soon he was being hired to play at local Baptist Church functions and supplemented his income by busking in the streets of his hometown and nearby Kirvin and Groesbeck. While still a teenager he moved to Dallas and with a tin cup wired to the neck of his guitar he played daily in a bustling part of the city known as Deep Ellum. Blind Lemon may not have been completely sightless—besides being a gifted musician, he also had a brief career as a side-show wrestler and was said to have carried a loaded six-shooter!

In Deep Ellum, sometime after 1910, Jefferson met Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and the two played music together for a number of years, riding the rails from town to town. Although Leadbelly was imprisoned in 1918 on a murder charge, Blind Lemon continued to travel far and wide in the Deep South, often accompanied by a young apprentice who would lead him about—Aaron “T-Bone” Walker was one such helper who benefitted greatly from his time with the master.

The first blues recordings were made in the early 1920s by such vaudeville artists as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. In 1925 Paramount was doing a good business with its “race” records and secured a deal with a Dallas record store to promote its disks. After Paramount suggested recording a local celebrity to boost sales Jefferson was brought to their studios in Chicago, releasing his first record in March 1926. Booster Blues was a massive hit and throughout 1926-1929 Jefferson recorded more than a hundred tracks, 43 of which were released during that time. He literally went from rags to riches, soon sporting his own chauffeur and car. In 1929, at the height of his career, he died in Chicago after getting lost in a snowstorm.

All of Blind Lemon’s recordings feature him singing his “rural blues” compositions to his own rich guitar accompaniments which often include call-and-response riffs. The standard 12-bar blues form was not yet established and so we find many irregular formal variants among his works, as well as unique contrasting sections. Because he recorded as a soloist, he made liberal use of changing meters and asymmetrical phrase lengths to suit his texts and his improvisatory whims. Characteristics which we associate with this repertoire such as blue notes, melodic references to the field holler, and motives and harmonies from contemporary vaudeville music are found in abundance.

His original lyrics have been compared to the Symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Lines such as these from Rabbit Foot Blues have stumped many scholars:

Blues jumped a rabbit, running one solid mile.
Blues jumped a rabbit, running one solid mile.
This rabbit sat down, cried like a natural child.

Some examples of the Music of Blind Lemon Jefferson

That Black Snake Moan Chicago, October 1926
Black Horse Blues Chicago, May 1926
One Dime Blues Chicago, October 1927
Prison Cell Blues Chicago, February 1928
Jack O’ Diamonds Blues Chicago, May 1926
Matchbox Blues Chicago, April 1927
Bad Luck Blues Chicago, October 1926
Tin Cup Blues Chicago, March 1929
Hangman’s Blues Chicago, August 1928
Mosquito Moan Richmond, Indiana, September 1929
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean Chicago, October 1927
Rabbit Foot Blues Chicago, October 1926