Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Myth and the Man

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Myth and the Man

Article excerpt

In recent years, the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson has been the subject of considerable speculation.(1) Although his recordings are extensive, details about his life are relatively few. The facts of Jefferson's life are scattered in an array of articles in newspapers, fan and collector magazines, record liner notes, local legends, first-person narratives, and mythic representations. There are numerous contradictory accounts of where Jefferson lived, performed, and died. All this is complicated further by the lack of photographic documentation; to date, only two photographs of him have been identified, and even these are misleading. The cause of Jefferson's blindness is not known, nor is it known whether he had some residual sight. Why would a blind man wear clear glasses, as he does in a record-company publicity shot?

Researchers traditionally have depended largely on secondary sources and anectodal evidence. Generally, blues scholars have identified Lemon Jefferson's birth date as September 24, 1897, although census records indicate that the year was in fact 1893 and that his registered name was spelled "Lemmon." His parents, Alec and Clarissy Banks Jefferson, lived and worked as sharecroppers on a farm in Couchman, a small community near Wortham in Freestone County, Texas, which was a stop on the Houston & Texas Central line seventy-five miles south of Dallas. Wortham had three cotton gins, and the Houston & Texas Central carried the crop to market in Dallas.

Little is known about Jefferson's early life. He must have heard songsters and bluesmen, such as Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, and Alger "Texas" Alexander. Both Thomas and Alexander traveled around East Texas and performed a variety of blues and dance tunes. Jefferson was clearly an heir to the blues songster tradition, although the specifics of his musical training are vague. Legends of his prowess as a bluesman abound among the musicians who heard him, and sightings of Jefferson in different places around the country are plentiful.

Jefferson came from a large family that included children from his mother's first marriage. He took up music at an early age and learned to get around the nearby little towns of Wortham, Kirvin, Streetman, and Groesbeck. "Lemon started out playing his guitar on these streets, and I was on those same streets," recalled Quince Cox (1999b), born in 1903, who once served as caretaker in the Wortham cemetery, where Jefferson is buried. "I pitched quarter and nickels to him, and he'd play his guitar at any time of night. He used to play at Jake Lee's [a white-operated] barbershop every Saturday, and people from all over came to hear him play. Then he'd get on this road at ten or eleven o'clock, and he'd walk to Kirvin, seven or eight miles. He'd play and keep walking, but he knew where he was going" (see also Steinberg 1982).

Alec Jefferson told writer Samuel Charters that his mother would not let him go to the country suppers where his cousin Lemon was playing. "They were rough. Men was hustling women and selling bootleg, and Lemon was singing for them all night. They didn't even do proper kind of dancing, just stomping" (quoted in Charters 1959, 178). According to Hobart Carter (1999b), another native of the Wortham area, Jefferson often played "breakdowns in the woods" near Couchman and was sometimes accompanied by a fiddler named Lorenzo Ross. "They had a hallelujah time. We had our suppers and things. Saturday nights and things like that. All through the winter, we'd have some cold nights and some rainy nights. We had plenty of chock houses at that time. You get some sugar, put it in a crock. Let it set three days and go to drinking it. Chock houses were everywhere at that time."

Quince Cox (1999b), a longtime friend of Carter, maintains that "Lemon played anything he had to play. And he played pretty good, too. What did we call them songs? Reels ... He could play anything you asked him to play. …

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