A Blues Great - Blind Lemon Jefferson

Author: John Blackwood  

The stories of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters are those of talents which were for a time unrecognized since they were virtuoso's of a type of music, the blues, which was regarded as somehow lower class, temporary, too related to race, place and time to have any real call to be called music. In some cases they were sought out so that their music could be preserved, doubtless as some form of curiosity.

The early blues greats were mostly unable to read music, had no grounding in musical theory, or musical training. They often taught themselves or picked up what they could from other blues musicians. The first recordings of the blues were something quite different; a female singer (for example Sara Martin) backed by a trained band, performing songs written by professional musicians. All that changed with one man; Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson was born in Couchman, near Wortham, Texas in 1893, 94 or even 97. His parents were sharecroppers, but as Lemon was either blind or partially blind from birth he was useless in the fields and so devoted himself to music. He began to play at local dances and parties and by 1912 was performing regularly on the streets of Dallas where he met and worked with Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly.

In 1925 Lemon was spotted by a scout and taken to Chicago where he began a short but spectacular recording career. His first recordings (for Paramount records) were religious or gospel songs and he used the name Reverend L.J. Bates, but subsequent records were in his own blues style. Lemon had a wide vocal range and an interesting technique for plucking the guitar. He played in many different keys and using different guitar tunings, so his style is difficult to imitate and defies analysis, since it pays no attention to key or time signature.

Lemon's recordings were a great success, and although he was reputedly unhappy with the royalties he received, he is said to have had a bank account containing at least $1500 (equivalent to about $200,000 today) and was able to marry a woman (Roberta Ransom) 10 years his senior as well as employing a chauffeur for one of his two cars. Between 1926 and 1929 he recorded 110 sides including 'Matchbox Blues', a tune later recorded by the Beatles, and 'See that My Grave is Kept Clean', a song so successful it was re-recorded in 1928 and re-released.

His career came to a sudden end when Lemon died, unexpectedly, in December 1929. There seems to be great mystery surrounding Lemon's death. According to some he was poisoned. The most likely explanation appears to be that he died from a heart attack whilst in his car, his driver abandoned him and he then froze to death in the deep cold of a Chicago snowstorm.

Lemon's voice and style may have been too distinctive for his contemporaries as few tried to copy him despite his commercial success. In more recent years he has been the inspiration for many modern artists and his songs, particularly 'See That My Grave is Kept Clean' have been covered by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and B B King, who said that Lemon was a particular inspiration.

Lemon was buried in his home town of Wortham, Texas, in an unmarked grave, however a memorial marker was erected in 1967. In 2007 the graveyard 's name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and a committee was formed to carry out his wishes and make sure that Blind Lemon Jefferson's grave would always be kept clean.
John Blackwood

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