Recently, I discovered that September is the birth month of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a tried and true guitar player and singer who is celebrated in the American folk-blues world. It’s been awhile since I’ve celebrated a musician’s birthday on this blog, by writing a post about their career and lasting accomplishments. I can’t resist the chance to talk about him because American music, the good old stuff, is some of my favorite music. Also, Jefferson is one of the most influential blues musicians in American history and one of the first successful country blues recording artists.
Born in the 1890’s in Freestone County, Texas, Jefferson died some 30 years later on the 18th or 19th of December, 1929. At an early age, he was blind, or nearly so. As a young man, he traveled around Texas as a street musician. Along the way, we know he played with Leadbelly, another famous bluesman from Texas. In the mid-1920’s, he began recording in Chicago. Jefferson was one of the first successful recording bluesman, reaching a large audience by selling an unprecedented number of records for that time. His singing voice, which is slightly high-pitched, is one trait he is remembered for, in addition to his unique guitar playing.
Here in the music section, you may want to check out Country Blues Guitar: Ten Radio Broadcasts (DBM01495). This book features guitarist Stephen Grossman narrating a wonderful history of country blues style playing. In addition to Jefferson, he talks about more blind musicians: Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Blake. Other musicians who are not blind, but ones you may recognize, include Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters among others.
I’ve mentioned this one before, but Bourgeois Blues (DBM03641, also available on BARD), one of the Music Section’s newer Smithsonian acquisitions, presents you with the music of Leadbelly, Jefferson’s companion in Dallas during the late nineteen-teens. This recording is a treasure because it’s a rare recording of Leadbelly singing and playing guitar. Though numerous contemporary artists have and do use his repertoire, such as Nirvana performing “In the Pines,” (see this New York Times article for more about “In the Pines”) this recording’s audio material was taken from various recorded performances of Leadbelly in the 1940s. The Music Section typically does not have music just for listening, and this title is no different. NLS narrators have recorded the accompanying liner notes written by Leadbelly’s friend, Woody Guthrie, and the Music Section provides them in braille. In this book, there is a lot of informative material interspersed with Leadbelly’s music. Some songs included are: “Fannin Street,” “Bourgeois Blues,” “Don’t You Love Your Daddy No More?,” “Midnight special,” and “Red Bird.”
I wish we could hear these and similar artists perform live today. For the most part, we are able to realize their one-of-a-kind sounds through recordings and books, like the ones I’ve mentioned here. Also, the Library of Congress keeps alive these traditions with its National Registry, an on-going list of historically significant recordings. In 2014, “Black Snake Moan” and “Match Box Blues” (1927) were added to the list, two of Jefferson’s songs.
Happy Birthday, Lemon Jefferson!