Blind Lemon Jefferson – Classic Sides

Time for another revenant – a standby of the Old Weird America: Blind Lemon Jefferson. The man who practically defined the sound of ‘One crazy guy with a guitar, belting his lungs out and playing things that no respectable white person would want to listen to’ and the industry supporting it, which led to the recording of hundreds of great bluesmen, a few of whom have been featured on this blog, and without whom America would be the poorer. Here is his life’s recorded work, an incredible trove of American roots music. I hope you can listen past the mountain of surface noise and hear what generations of slack-jawed musicians, from Leadbelly to Geoff Muldaur (who in his early years hitchhiked across the south with a broom trying to get to Texas so that he could sweep off Blind Lemon’s tombstone). With that, I’ll turn you over to the words of others:

In 1925 Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make his first records either in December 1925 or January 1926. Though he was not the first country blues singer/guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. His extremely successful recording career continued until 1929 when he died under mysterious circumstances. He recorded 110 sides including alternate takes. Jefferson’s first session produced “I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart” b/w “All I Want Is That Pure Religion” using the name Deacon L.J. Bates. It was the second session, however, that made Jefferson a star. “Got The Blues” b/w “Long Lonesome Blues” hadn’t been on sale long in the spring of 1926 when Paramount asked him to record it again because of the huge demand for the record. This was unheard of for a male blues artist. Prior to Jefferson the blues had been recorded primarily by women backed by piano or bands. This was reflected in the ads in the Chicago Defender which featured women almost exclusively, women such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Clara Smith and Bessie Smith among others. Tony Russell describes Jefferson’s impact: “Jefferson offered instead blues sung by a man playing guitar – playing it, moreover, with a busyness and variety that showed up many of those pianists and bands as turgid and ordinary. The discovery that there was an audience for Jefferson’s type of blues revolutionized the music business: within a few years female singers were out of favor and virtually all the trading in the ‘race’ market (jazz aside) was in men with guitars.”
– from

The seventh and youngest child of sharecroppers Alex and Clarisa Jefferson, Lemon was born in 1894 or 1895 where the family was farming, around Streetman, Texas. Many say that he was blind from birth, but that has not been confirmed. Not much else is known about Lemon’s early life, other than he must have been aware of players like Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas and “Texas” Alexander who were traveling and playing around East Texas at that time. Around 1904 Lemon began to perform himself. His cousin, Alec Jefferson has been quoted as saying, “They was rough. Men was hustling 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.”

It is known that Lemon was performing in Dallas around 1912, finding employment not only as a musician, but as a professional wrestler. He was probably among the first of many street musicians who played on and inhabited the streets of Deep Ellum and Central Track areas of Dallas. They say that Lemon also traveled widely by walking the railroad tracks to secure his arrival to other urban areas. It has been reported that he played as far away as Johnson City, Tennessee. Sometime after 1920 Lemon met and married Roberta Ranson, who was ten years his senior.

Blind Lemon was discovered by Paramount Records in 1925 and was taken to Chicago where he started his extremely successful recording career. By 1929 he had recorded 110 sides, not only blues, but spirituals such as “I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart” under the name of Deacon L. J. Bates. Among his more famous tunes are “Broke and Hungry”, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, and “Black Snake Moan”.

Legend has it that Lemon died in a snowstorm in Chicago on December 22, 1929. He was buried in Wortham Negro Cemetery in Wortham, Texas. His grave was not kept clean for many years but that has changed. The graveyard was renamed Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery in 2007, and a fund was established to honor his musical request.

Biography by Joslyn Layne

Country blues guitarist and vocalist Blind Lemon Jefferson is indisputably one of the main figures in country blues. He was of the highest in many regards, being one of the founders of Texas blues (along with Texas Alexander), one of the most influential country bluesmen of all time, one of the most popular bluesmen of the 1920s, and the first truly commercially successful male blues performer. Up until Jefferson’s achievements, the only real successful blues recordings were by women performers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, who usually sang songs written by others and accompanied by a band. With Jefferson came a blues artist who was solo, self-accompanied, and performing a great deal of original material in addition to the more familiar repertoire of folk standards and shouts. These originals include his most well-known songs: “Matchbox Blues,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and “Black Snake Moan.” In all, Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded almost 100 songs in just a few years, making his mark on not only the bluesmen of the time (including Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins) but also on music fans in the years to come. The legacy of Jefferson’s unique and powerful sound did not fade with the passing decades.

Many specifics on the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson are not available, but general information on the man and his career can be traced somewhat through recordings, a few public records, and the memories of those who knew him. Although his birth has long been placed in July of 1897, research almost a century later uncovered a census record that listed his birth in September of 1893. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his birth date, a few things are certain: Jefferson was born on a farm in Couchman, TX, outside of Wortham, and, blind from the time of birth, he grew up as one of seven children. Around 1912, he began playing guitar and singing at picnics and parties in his home area. His musical influences included not only the singing of the cotton pickers and local guitar players but also the guitarists among the area’s Mexican workers who often incorporated flamenco patterns in their playing. These influences eventually led to Jefferson’s unique style of complex phrases and intricate, yet fast, finger work. Within a couple of years, Jefferson widened his performing radius to include Groesbeck, Buffalo, Waco, and other surrounding towns. Sometime around 1915, Jefferson also began playing in Dallas and, by 1917, was a resident of the city. He was most often found playing in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas where he eventually met another bluesman who would one day be famous, Leadbelly. Although Leadbelly was the senior bluesman of the two, it is generally recognized that Jefferson was the better guitarist. Leadbelly was so impressed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, in fact, that he would later record songs in tribute to Jefferson’s ability, including the song, “Blind Lemon’s Blues.” The two men even played together for a short while, sometime before Leadbelly’s first prison sentence.

From the late teens into the early ’20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson traveled and performed his passionate brand of blues, hitting (at the very least) the Mississippi Delta and Memphis regions, although it is likely that his travels took him further. In 1922 or 1923 he married a woman named Roberta with whom he would have children, including a boy in the mid-’20s. It was in 1925 that a Texas talent scout finally made a demo recording of Jefferson and sent it to Mayo Williams at Paramount Records in Chicago. Jefferson was soon (circa 12/25 and 1/26) brought to Chicago to record for the first time. The results were two gospel songs: “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” and “All I Want Is That Pure Religion,” both of which were released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. Two months later, Jefferson began recording blues 78s under his own name, but that initial session wasn’t the last time Jefferson recorded under a pseudonym. In 1927, “He Arose From the Dead” and “Where Shall I Be?” were released under the names Deacon L.J. Bates and Elder J.C. Brown for the Paramount and Herwin labels, respectively. Jefferson recorded over 90 songs total in less than four years’ time. Almost all of his recordings were for the Paramount label, with the exception of his two-day session for Okeh, which took place in Atlanta in March of 1927. This session resulted in the second version of “That Black Snake Moan,” (11/26) this time entitled “Black Snake Moan,” as well as the first recording of another song that became one of Jefferson’s most famous originals, “Matchbox Blues,” which he recorded again for Paramount just one month later. Jefferson’s records did well immediately, making him one of the best-selling race recording artists of the time. This is surprising considering his decidedly noncommercial sound; his high, eerie voice (often described as having a “lonesome” sound), the desperate (and sometimes suggestive) nature of his lyrics, and his often-complex guitar work all combined into a particularly raw and hard-hitting blues.

In addition to his frequent recording sessions in Chicago throughout the late ’20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson still performed in Texas and traveled around the South. He played Chicago rent parties, performed at St. Louis’ Booker T. Washington Theater, and even worked some with Son House collaborator Rev. Rubin Lacy while in Mississippi. In late September of 1929, Jefferson went to Paramount’s studios in Richmond, IN, for a fruitful session that included two songs — “Bed Springs Blues” and “Yo Yo Blues” — that were also issued on the Broadway label. Jefferson was back in Chicago in December of 1929 when, sadly, he was found dead following a particularly cold snowstorm. There are several stories regarding his death: It has been said that he got lost in the storm after leaving a friend’s party at a late hour, or that he was abandoned by his chauffeur, or was killed in a car accident, while yet another version claims Jefferson had a heart attack and froze in the snow. Regardless, the influential bluesman was still in his thirties when he died, and no death certificate was issued, so the date of his passing is only known to be toward the end of December. Pianist and labelmate Will Ezell escorted Jefferson’s body back to Wortham, TX, where Blind Lemon Jefferson was laid to rest, purportedly on New Year’s Day, 1930. Unfortunately for the author of the pleading “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” the grave itself went unmarked. This was finally remedied in 1967 when a metal Texas Historical Marker was placed on the approximate spot. By the 1990s, however, Jefferson’s grave was discovered to be in disrepair. A fundraiser was organized and, thanks to the efforts and donations of blues fans around the world, a granite headstone was finally placed upon Jefferson’s grave, inscribed with his lyric, “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.” It was also discovered during the preparation of the headstone that there is no support for the date widely believed to be that of Jefferson’s birth — July 1897 (which even appeared on the original grave marker) — while the census documents in the State Archives listed Lemon Jefferson’s birth to be in September of 1893. Thus, the new date was put on the gravestone.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was to Texas blues what Charley Patton was to Mississippi blues. His performances had a direct influence upon such legendary Texas musicians as Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and Leadbelly, while his recordings helped bring his influence to an even larger audience. In the decades since, Jefferson’s songs have been covered by countless musicians including Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Jr., and Kelly Joe Phelps, to name just a few. The late ’50s and early ’60s brought the reissue of some of Jefferson’s recordings on the Riverside and Milestone labels, sparking a renewal of widespread public interest in the bluesman. As a result, Blind Lemon Jefferson Clubs were opened in California and New York during the ’60s, and the rock band Jefferson Airplane reputedly chose their name after the great bluesman. A good single album compiling selections of Jefferson’s music remains the Yazoo label’s appropriately titled King of the Country Blues, which was eventually remastered for CD release. For completists, the Document label has since issued his entire recorded works in a four-volume CD series. In 1980, Blind Lemon Jefferson was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Blind Lemon Jefferson – Classic Sides [The Complete 94 Classic Sides Remastered]

Year: 2003
Label: JSP

Review by Bruce Eder

This is an awe-inspiring four-CD set in a world that has no shortage of brilliant artists represented in their entirety. Listeners wishing to appreciate the spellbinding, primal sound of Blind Lemon Jefferson can start here, except they may never want to finish; 70-some years since his death, and nearly 80 years since his first record, Jefferson’s voice and guitar effortlessly cut through the decades. Starting with his earliest sides (from December 1925 — the same year that electrical recording debuted), “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” and “All I Want Is That Pure Religion,” a pair of gospel songs originally credited to “Deacon L.J. Bates,” the combination of the powerful, achingly expressive singing and playing makes them a dazzling listening experience — and this isn’t even the kind of music for which Jefferson was known. Even with the surface noise typical of pre-World War II 78s, the delicacy and intricacy of the playing comes through. On the next tracks, however, when he shifts gears to the blues, that’s when his fingers and his voice take flight from one song to another. On “Got the Blues,” “Long Lonesome Blues,” “Booster Blues,” “Dry Southern Blues,” “Black Horse Blues,” and others, he lofts himself like an eagle soaring across a landscape (and that was exactly how this came off in a recording world populated by distinctly lesser men). By the time of his fourth group of sessions, Jefferson’s records had acquired all of the attributes that made him a legend; even on a track like “Old Rounders Blues,” which is very nearly more surface noise than music, the sudden yet graceful trills and arpeggios in Jefferson’s playing come through, and when coupled with the voice — which is seldom muted by the surface imperfections in the sources — the results are spellbinding; later on, he does even more with less overt virtuosity and surprises listeners even more. Toward the end of his life (in 1929), he was pioneering what could be called the Count Basie approach to virtuosity, reducing his flourishes to figures of just two or three notes. And his voice comes through well enough to make it live up to its title, even on tracks such as the first version of “That Black Snake Moan,” despite some considerable surface noise in the source. Because of its inclusiveness, there’s no chance that this set can match the sonic workmanship on, say, Yazoo Records’ The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson, which is generally able to achieve a uniformly high standard. Still, modern remastering has allowed the producers to salvage some useful sound even on some of the roughest-condition masters, such as the 1928 vintage “‘Lectric Chair Blues” from 1928, which is as much hiss and surface noise as it is music but still reveals an amazing amount of the performance. Each of the four discs covers a year’s worth of recorded output in Jefferson’s life, from 1925/1926 to 1929; there’s no rhyme or reason to the quality of each cut, the producers limited by the condition of the few surviving 78s so that the dazzlingly clear “That Crawling Baby Blues” is followed by “Fence Breakin’ Yellin’ Blues,” the latter filled with surface noise but easily salvaged. These are all several cuts above the quality of work Document Records released in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and comes at a much lower price, as well. It’s not for the casual fan — though it could be absorbed, say, 12 songs or so at a time each week (which would make this a month’s listening). The annotation, such as it is — little hard information could be found on Jefferson in the 1950s and 1960s, when people who worked with him were still in abundance to be interviewed — is extensive.

Disc A: Chicago 1926

1. I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart
2. All I Want Is That Pure Religion
3. Got the Blues
4. Long Lonesome Blues
5. Booster Blues
6. Dry Southern Blues
7. Black Horse Blues
8. Corinna Blues
9. Got the Blues
10. Long Lonesome Blues
11. Jack O’ Diamond Blues
12. Jack O’ Diamond Blues
13. Chock House Blues
14. Beggin Back
15. Old Rounder’s Blues
16. Stocking Feet Blues
17. That Black Snake Moan
18. Wartime Blues
19. Broke and Hungry
20. Shuckin’ Sugar Blues
21. Booger Rooger Blues
22. Rabbit Foot Blues
23. Bad Luck Blues

Disc A

Disc B: Atlanta & Chicago 1927

1. Black Snake Moan
2. Match Box Blues
3. Easy Rider Blues
4. Match Box Blues
5. Match Box Blues
6. Rising Hig Water Blues
7. Weary Dogs Blues
8. Right of Way Blues
9. Teddy Bear Blues
10. Teddy Bear Blues
11. Black Snake Dream Blues
12. Hot Dogs
13. He Arose from the Dead
14. Struck Sorrow Blues
15. Rambler Blues
16. Chinch Bug Blues
17. Deceitful Brownskin Blues
18. Sunshine Special
19. Gone Dead on You Blues
20. Where Shall I Be?
21. See That Grave’s Kept Clean
22. One Dime Blues
23. Lonesome House Blues

Disc B

Disc C: Chicago 1928

1. Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues
2. ‘Lectric Chair Blues
3. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
4. Lemon’s Worried Blues
5. Mean Jumper Blues
6. Balky Mule Blues
7. Change My Luck Blues
8. Prison Cell Blues
9. Lemon’s Cannon Ball Moan
10. Long Lastin’ Lovin’
11. Piney Wood’s Money Mama
12. Low Down Mojo Blues
13. Competition Bed Blues
14. Lock Step Blues
15. Hangman’s Blues
16. Sad News Blues
17. How Long How Long
18. Lock Step Blues
19. Hangman’s Blues
20. Christmas Eve Blues
21. Happy New Year Blues
22. Maltese Cat Blues
23. D.B. Blues

Disc C

Disc D: Chicago & Richmond 1929

1. Eagle Eyed Mama
2. Dynamite Blues
3. Disgusted Blues
4. Competition Bed Blues
5. Sad News Blues
6. Oil Well Blues
7. Tin Cup Blues
8. Big Night Blues
9. Empty House Blues
10. Saturday Night Spender Blues
11. That Black Snake Moan, No. 2
12. Peach Orchard Mama
13. Big Night Blues
14. Bed Spring Blues
15. Yo Yo Blues
16. Mosquito Moan
17. Southern Woman Blues
18. Bakershop Blues
19. Pneumonia Blues
20. Long Distance Moan
21. That Crawlin’ Baby Blues
22. Fence Breakin’ Yellin’ Blues
23. Cat Man Blues
24. Cheaters Spell
25. Bootin’ Me ‘Bout

Disc D

all mp3 192kbps | w/ covers

See that it’s kept clean!

This entry was posted in Blues, Guitar, Roots. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Blind Lemon Jefferson – Classic Sides

  1. Joski says:

    After all these years, still so great


  2. Ernst says:

    I wonder how many “Blind” musicians there were back then? seems like it was a trend to be blind, like “the” bands today.

    anyways great music though.

    so to answer you, well why the change? i can't say for sure but some practical reasons are that i kept updating old post but nobody hardly noticed, so now every update is gonna get attention since i will write about it. i just don't like having hundreds of post, all comments scattered and if somebody does comment i don't know where it's at, gotta search for it. and yes i like to see covers too but in the updates they will show up. i think blogs are not for archiving music but readers who keep up with me. in forums they just put link lists, keep them for ages and ppl just download it because they found it on google.
    but actually the lesser known stuff like Scelsi which i put probably the most effort in yet, got by unnoticed, ppl be downloading only john fahey and shit, so why even keep it up?
    that's my concern, i got an unknown blog and nobody will think about the stuff i post, only if they know from somebody else but me.
    i don't know that's how it goes and i'll roll like that until i get tired of it.


  3. Ernst says:

    thanks for your support man. helped me out of this blog mess.


  4. neil says:

    My vinyl's getting worn, so many, many thanks for making these tracks available again…

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