Blind Lemon Jefferson

Paramount promo portrait of blues singer & guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson

Overview

  • Born: 24 September 1893
  • Died: 19 December 1929

Background

Jefferson was a mentor to so many musicians, personally teaching the next generation of Texas blues musicians, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and T Bone Walker. As well, his guitar playing is one of a kind. Unlike other strains of blues musicians, where there’s a common thread of ideation and riff development from mentor to apprentice (ie. Son House to Robert Johnson), it’s as if few dared to even emulate Jefferson, with his irregular and highly-improvised, intricate lines.

Topped with his magnificent, booming vocals, Jefferson is a gem among the pre-war musicians, and fortunately made many recordings during his all too brief tenure with Paramount.

Guitar style

Although Texas blues musicians are often characterized with thumping, freight-train like monotone basslines paired with juicy riffs layered on top, Blind Lemon employed this as only one of many other techniques. Certainly, he could play this style with ease, as shown in Broke & Hungry (where he sounds nearly identical to his close friend Lead Belly), though he also deployed a myriad of techniques that could shoddily be labelled as Piedmont, Country & Western, and others.

It’s sometimes said that Jefferson was influenced very much by piano players, freely tickling bursts of notes with an improvised feel and jumping from octave to octave. This does seem to be in line with his style, for example in Got The Blues, Jefferson pulls out double-time pull-offs, ringing tremelo notes, and ascending runs, all the while fading in and out of more business as usual, chordal accompaniment. This kind of free reign over the guitar, especially at higher tempos, is probably why few of his contemporaries, despite how popular his records were, copied his style; it was just out of reach probably for most players.

Another aspect which is special about Jefferson is that he had many song “templates”, in that out of his approximately 100 recordings many had unique arrangements. On the other hand, players like Robert Johnson only recorded a few different “templates”, while using different lyrics over top of these common templates. This variety adds much depth to Jefferson’s discography, so that there’s lots to explore.

History

It wouldn’t be out of the question to say that perhaps Blind Lemon Jefferson, in addition to being a magical player of the guitar with a thundrous voice, was one of the most important pre-war blues guitarists of all. Why is this? Well, even from a commercial point of view, Jefferson recorded before well-known legends such as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, among many others. Recording for Columbia first in 1925, Jefferson proved from a commercial standpoint that this solo guitar style with vocals was viable, as he sold tens of thousands of records and even reportedly earned, in today’s dollars, at a rate of several thousand per day, at one point.

Thus, without Blind Lemon proving that blues is worth recording, later Paramount recruits such as Blind Joe Reynolds, Son House, and Charley Patton may not have recorded; who knows.

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