June 13, 2024


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Blind Lemon Jefferson, a country blues singer in the early days of recorded music, made enormously popular records: Video

24.09. – Happy Birthday !!! Blind Lemon Jefferson, a country blues singer in the early days of recorded music, made enormously popular records for Paramount in the mid-1920s, but the known details of his life would fit comfortably inside a small toolbox.

His vague biography, however, did not deter Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde from creating a lively and intelligent new musical about his life and work, “Blind Lemon Blues,” currently in a limited run from the York Theater Company.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Texas in 1893 and played his guitar at the corner of Elm Street and Central Avenue in Dallas until Paramount, the primary purveyor of blues in the ’20s, turned him into one of the biggest-selling country blues musicians of his time.

He might or might not have had children; he might or might not have died of a heart attack in a snowstorm. He was an inspiration to later blues musicians, among them Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly, and this musical’s conceit is to imagine Leadbelly reminiscing about Jefferson.

The songs come mostly from Jefferson’s repertory, but Mr. Govenar and Mr. Babatunde (who also plays Jefferson) reinterpret them in a 60s blues-gospel style. This may dismay purists, but it infuses the show with an energy and cohesion that a precise rendering of Jefferson’s volatile style might have lacked.

Jefferson’s recordings are famously compromised by poor sound quality, which can make listening to them seem less like pleasure and more like work, an experience these new arrangements easily reverse.

In recent years, a meticulous effort has been made to transcribe Jefferson’s lyrics, and the audience for “Blind Lemon Blues” is a beneficiary: his surreal, melancholic words are actually audible.

In liner notes to the CD “Long Lonesome Blues: Lemon’s Texts Revealed,” it’s pointed out that one line of Jefferson’s “Corrina Blues,” a version of which is presented here, had been commonly misread. It isn’t “Ain’t no potatoes, cross-hound killed the vine.” The line is simply, “Frost has killed the vine.”

Although Lemon was one of the major blues artists of the 1920s (akin to the likes of LEADBELLY and ROBERT JOHNSON), the man’s personal beginnings and his later whereabouts were just as mysterious as his death and his unique style of music. Partially blind since birth; he’d wear small spectacles instead of dark glasses, JEFFERSON (born on 1893, Coutchman, Freestone County, Texas) took to playing the streets in East Texas, Groesbeck, a place that was famously addressed in his classic song `Penitentiary Blues’. Frequenting Buffalo and Marlin, the latter the hometown of BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON, whom JEFFERSON had encountered whilst busking, his songs developed from hustling a buck from the odd bootlegger.

Soon afterwards, Lemon moved to Dallas to continue his role as a popular blues man, and met a slightly more famous LEADBELLY, who was five years his senior. The blues giant introduced JEFFERSON to his backwater community in Dallas, inviting him to play regular shows organised by the man himself. The two had struck up a strong friendship and apparently spent many nights in the “Deep Ellum” area drinking and discussing life while playing the blues until the early hours of the morn. However, this friendship was short-lived when LEADBELLY was arrested and put in prison for assault in 1918; he later paid tribute to JEFFERSON in his song `Blind Lemon Blues’ and several other pieces.

JEFFERSON’s intricate guitar playing and unusually high-pitched voice attracted much attention in the early 20s, and reputation made it possible for him to tour and travel upstate and to the South, where he spent a brief period playing most states. For an independent blues artist, JEFFERSON had to find his own way around the country and did so by using any means of transport necessary: trains, boxcars, pushbikes and sometimes cargo trains. Somehow, between 1925 and 1929, he had recorded an outstanding 100 tracks (most alternate takes), and issued 43 records on the primitive Paramount label. Lemon’s hypnotic pitch and surreal slide, plus his picked guitar formula became a standard JEFFERSON stamp, with deep and vivid lyrical imagery that threw even the likes of ROBERT JOHNSON into perplexity.

On December 19, 1929, whilst visiting Chicago, JEFFERSON died in mysterious circumstances; with the police noting on his death certificate, “cause of death: unknown”. Many believed that JEFFERSON had a heart attack or was merely killed in an accident. Texan pianist, and close friend Will Ezell, brought JEFFERSON back to his home state where he was buried in the Wortham Cemetery on New Year’s Day 1930. Unlike many of the unsung blues heroes, JEFFERSON had a keen sense of direction when it came to his music. Most of the lyrics in his songs (See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’,Matchbox Blues’ and `Mean Jumper Blues’, among them) suggested that he liked the traveling bluesman life, but perhaps they’re just as polysome as the figure himself. Recommended compilation: KING OF THE COUNTRY BLUES (1985/cd-1990)

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