King of the BLUES

It’s the birthday of “Blind” Lemon Jefferson , born on a farm in Coutchman, Texas, in about 1893. Jefferson began playing picnics and parties in the region, and eventually he made his way to Dallas. He performed every day on the corner of Central and Elm, near a train stop where the black workers would get off at the end of their day to visit the neighborhood bars and dance halls. Stories vary, but Dallas was probably the place where he first met fellow blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Lead Belly later wrote “Blind Lemon’s Blues” in tribute to his friend.

In the early 1920s, Jefferson began traveling: to the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, and maybe even farther than that. Late in 1925, he was “discovered” by a Texas talent scout, who took Jefferson to Paramount Records in Chicago; there he recorded two gospel songs under an alias. Over the next three years, he recorded nearly a hundred songs and became the first country blues musician to develop a national following. He was expected to produce one record a month, and in between recording sessions, he traveled around the South. Everybody had a story about seeing him at the local venue. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to “see” even through sightless eyes; musician Lance Lipscomb said later: “He had a tin cup, wired on the neck of his guitar. And when you pass to give him something, why he’d thank you. But he would never take no pennies. You could drop a penny in there and he’d know the sound. He’d take and throw it away.” Delta musician Ishman Bracey said: “He carried a pearl-handled .45, and he could shoot the head off a chicken. And he couldn’t see nary a lick. Just did it from the sound he heard.”

In 1929, Jefferson was buried in Wortham, Texas, in a grave that remained unmarked until 1967; in the 1990s, fans raised money to erect a granite marker engraved with Jefferson’s own lyrics: “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.”

Taken from Writer’s Almanac.