"Blind" Lemon Jefferson
(Lemon Henry Jefferson)
September 24, 1893 – December 19, 1929)Lemon Henry Jefferson was born blind near Coutchman, Texas in Freestone County, near present-day Wortham, Texas, one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa Jefferson. Disputes regarding his exact birth date derive from contradictory census records and draft registration records. By 1900, the family was farming southeast of Streetman, Texas, and Lemon Jefferson's birth date is indicated as September 1893 in the 1900 census. The 1910 census, taken in May before his birthday, further confirms his year of birth as 1893, and indicated the family was farming northwest of Wortham, near Lemon Jefferson's birthplace.
In his 1917 draft registration, Jefferson gave his birth date as October 26, 1894, further stating that he then lived in Dallas, Texas and had been blind since birth. In the 1920 census, he is recorded as having returned to Freestone County and was living with his half-brother, Kit Banks, on a farm between Wortham and Streetman.
Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties. He became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns, in front of barbershops and on streetcorners. According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson, quoted in the notes for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides:
They were rough. Men were hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night... he'd start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning... mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night.
By the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician LeadBelly. In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas. Jefferson likely moved to Deep Ellum in a more permanent fashion by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, also known as T-Bone Walker. Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar, in exchange for Walker's occasional services as a guide. By the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child. However, firm evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is unavailable.
Prior to Jefferson, very few artists had recorded solo voice and blues guitar, the first of which was vocalist Sara Martin and guitarist Sylvester Weaver. Jefferson's music is uninhibited and represented the classic sounds of everyday life from a honky-tonk to a country picnic to street corner blues to work in the burgeoning oil fields, a further reflection of his interest in mechanical objects and processes.
Jefferson did what very few had ever done - he became a successful solo guitarist and male vocalist in the commercial recording world. Unlike many artists who were "discovered" and recorded in their normal venues, in December 1925 or January 1926, he was taken to Chicago, Illinois, to record his first tracks. Uncharacteristically, Jefferson's first two recordings from this session were gospel songs ("I Want to be like Jesus in my Heart" and "All I Want is that Pure Religion"), released under the name Deacon L.J. Bates. This led to a second recording session in March 1926. His first releases under his own name, "Booster Blues" and "Dry Southern Blues", were hits; this led to the release of the other two songs from that session, "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues," which became a runaway success, with sales in six figures. He recorded about 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929; 43 records were issued, all but one for Paramount Records. Unfortunately, Paramount Records' studio techniques and quality were bad, and the resulting recordings sound no better than if they had been recorded in a hotel room. In fact, in May 1926, Paramount had Jefferson re-record his hits "Got the Blues" and "Long Lonesome Blues" in the superior facilities at Marsh Laboratories, and subsequent releases used that version. Both versions appear on compilation albums and may be compared.
Jefferson died in Chicago at 10:00 am on December 19, 1929, of what his death certificate called "probably acute myocarditis". For many years, apocryphal rumors circulated that a jealous lover had poisoned his coffee, but a more likely scenario is that he died of a heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm. Some have said that Jefferson died from a heart attack after being attacked by a dog in the middle of the night. More recently, the book, Tolbert's Texas, claimed that he was killed while being robbed of a large royalty payment by a guide escorting him to Union Station to catch a train home to Texas. Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist William Ezell.
Jefferson was buried at Wortham Negro Cemetery (later Wortham Black Cemetery). Far from his grave being kept clean, it was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was erected in the general area of his plot, the precise location being unknown. By 1996, the cemetery and marker were in poor condition, but a new granite headstone was erected in 1997. In 2007, the cemetery's name was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery and his gravesite is kept clean by a cemetery committee in Wortham, Texas.