Blind Lemon Jefferson Biography

July 1897, Wortham (Couchman), Texas, USA, d. December 1929, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Jefferson was one of the earliest and most influential rural blues singers to record. He was one of seven children born to Alex Jefferson and Classie Banks (or Bates) and was either blind or partially blind from early childhood. As his handicap precluded his employment as a farm-hand he turned to music and sang at rural parties, on the streets of small towns, in cafes, juke joints and brothels. This mode of life turned him into a wanderer and he travelled far, although he always maintained his links with Texas. Like many ‘blind’ singers, stories are told of his ability to find his way around and read situations. He was usually armed and was even said to have been involved in shooting incidents.

In late 1925 or early 1926, Jefferson was taken to Chicago by a Dallas record retailer to record for Paramount Records. His first offerings were two religious tracks that were issued under the pseudonym ‘Reverend L.J. Bates’. Soon after this, he was to begin the long series of blues recordings that made him famous throughout black America and even affected the work of rural white musicians. Between 1926 and 1929 he had more than 90 tracks issued, all bar two appearing on Paramount. His only known photograph, taken from a Paramount publicity shot, shows a portly man of indeterminate age wearing clear glasses over closed eyes set in a ‘baby’ face. He was accorded the distinction (shared with Ma Rainey) of having a record issued with his picture on the label and described as ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Birthday Record’. He had a good vocal range, honed by use in widely different venues, and a complicated, dense, free-form guitar style that became a nightmare for future analysts and copyists due to its disregard for time and bar structure; however, it suited his music perfectly and spoke directly to his black audience, both in the city and in the country. His success can be measured by the fact that he once owned two cars and could afford to hire a chauffeur to drive them. He is also said to have employed boys to lead him. Lead Belly and T-Bone Walker both claimed to have worked for him in this capacity during their youth.

Jefferson’s later recordings seemed to lose some of the originality and impact of his earlier work but he remained popular until his sudden and somewhat mysterious death. Legend has it that he froze to death on the streets of Chicago, although a more likely story is that he died of a heart attack while in his car, possibly during a snowstorm, and was abandoned by his driver. At this late date it is unlikely that the truth will ever be established. His records continue to be issued after his death and some recorded tributes have been made. His body was transported back to Texas for burial.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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