Blind Lemon Jefferson: Father of Texas Blues
Of all the musical geniuses born in East Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson set the standard for all Texas blues musicians that followed. Born blind to sharecroppers in 1893, Lemon was the youngest of seven children; his birthplace of Coutchman, in Freestone County, is now a ghost town.
By the time he was in his early teens, he had acquired a guitar and was performing at parties and bordellos. He soon became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns in front of barbershops and on street corners, singing from eight in the evening to four in the morning. Some reports state that young Lemon was travelling all throughout the Southern states.
In Dallas, he met the blues musician Lead Belly and Lemon eventually moved there in 1917. He became a regular performer in Deep Ellum, where he met T-Bone Walker, who exchanged services as a guide for guitar lessons.
During the winter of 1925-26, Lemon was taken to Chicago to record his first tracks under the alias of Deacon L.J. Bates (“I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” and “All I Want Is That Pure Religion”). His high-pitched smooth voice and complicated guitar riffs that mimicked ragtime piano licks proved to be a popular combination.
“While you may not wish to learn a Jefferson piece note for note, you can easily cherry-pick from his goldmine of turnarounds, bass runs and clever dominant-7th triads, and his piano-like approach,” wrote Jim Campilongo in the September 29, 2021, issue of Guitarplayer.
The first releases under the name “Blind Lemon Jefferson” became runaway hits; “Booster Blues” and “Dry Southern Blues” were recorded in March 1926. Of the 100+ tracks he recorded between 1926-1929, 42 records were issued for Paramount Records.
Varying reports of his compensation say that he could afford a car and chauffeur or that Paramount gave him a car; others claim he was unhappy with the royalties. In 1927 Lemon left the label and recorded his best-selling songs – “Matchbox Blues” backed with “Black Snake Moan” – for Okeh Records (Paramount issued a new release of the record when he returned to the label).
Just as Lemon’s career was riding high, his life was cut short. On December 19, 1929, he was found dead in the middle of a Chicago Street. Despite rumors of foul play, his death certificate lists “acute myocarditis” as cause of death.
Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, where he was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (later Wortham Black Cemetery) in Wortham, Freestone County, Texas. His grave was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas historical marker was erected. In 1997 a new granite headstone was erected with the inscription: “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean” In 2007, the cemetery’s name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.
The list of musicians he influenced is a long and diverse one; even The Beatles covered “Match Box Blues.” B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Peter Paul & Mary, Counting Crows, Phish, Chet Atkins, and many others have mentioned, or emulated, his body of work.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected Jefferson’s 1927 recording of “Matchbox Blues” as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Jefferson was among the inaugural class of blues musicians inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.