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Blind Lemon Jefferson

Considering he was the most popular male blues recording artist of the 1920s, we know surprisingly little about Blind Lemon Jefferson. Between 1925 and 1929, he made at least 100 recordings, including alternate versions of some songs. Had 43 records issued, all but one on the Paramount label, where he became the first black male singer/guitarist to have a hit. He inspired a generation of male bluesmen, but had few imitators, due to the complexity of his guitar playing and the distinctiveness of his high, clear voice.

Born in Couchman, in Freestone County, Texas, blind from childhood, possibly even from birth, he may have had some residual sight (which would explain his wearing clear, rather than dark, glasses.)

Jefferson received no formal education and instead traveled from town to town in the Wortham area, playing his guitar and singing songs, most of which were his own compositions. He later moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and became a well-known figure in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas. There he met Huddie Ledbetter (better known as “Leadbelly”), and for a time they played together in some of the brothels of Texas' cities. Leadbelly's “Blind Lemon Blues” was in honor of his friend.

Jefferson was discovered by a talent scout for Paramount Records while in Dallas and was taken to Chicago. He made seventy-nine records for Paramount in the 1920s, each estimated to have sold 100,000 copies; he also made two recordings under the “Okeh” label. Recordings included “Matchbox Blues,” “Black Snake Moan,” and “See that My Grave is Kept Clean.” He recorded spirituals under the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bates. Jefferson is recognized as one of the earliest representatives of the “classic blues” field, considered to be one of the best folk blues singers of the 1920s, and said to have influenced such artists as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Bix Beiderbecker, and to have encouraged Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins when Hopkins was an eight-year-old boy in Buffalo, Texas. As his reputation grew, Lemon started traveling further around the country to play, and in the early 1920s, he played in most Southern states, if all reports are to be believed. (The lyrics to some of his songs certainly seem to suggest a familiarity with many different musical locales.) He most certainly penetrated the Mississippi Delta/Memphis region, where there was lucrative work for an itinerant bluesman.

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