Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Musical Innovation in the Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Musical Innovation in the Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson

Article excerpt

Although a few other guitar-playing bluesmen had made records before Blind Lemon Jefferson, it is he who wears the crown for being the first popular star of folk (or "country") blues. His rivals for this distinction (i.e., his predecessors in the recording studio) either had brief and commercially unsuccessful recording careers, were accompanists to more famous vocalists, were not solo guitarists but worked instead in combinations with other instruments, or were professional stage entertainers and thus did not fit easily into the model of a folk/country-blues singer-guitarist. Nevertheless, some of these predecessors probably laid the groundwork for Paramount Records' decision to record Jefferson and for Jefferson's spectacular reception by African-American record buyers. His commercial success in turn opened the door to recording opportunities for hundreds of other guitar-playing blues singers, male and female, black and white, and for blues-singing pianists and small combinations of singers and instruments variously known as jug, washboard, skiffle, hokum, and juke bands (see Oliver 1969; Dixon and Godrich 1970; Barlow 1989). It would be well, therefore, to look at Jefferson's recorded predecessors in order to see how he differs from them and how he became the first to epitomize the solo guitar-playing bluesman (see Dixon, Godrich, and Rye 1997 for discographical information on these artists).

The era of blues recording began in 1920, and until Jefferson's debut in early 1926 virtually all recorded blues singers came from the vaudeville stage circuit, northern urban cabarets, and black theater shows. The vast majority of them were female, and almost all were accompanied by a pianist or a larger combination of instruments. When male blues singers were recorded, it was usually in a duet with a female singer, accompanied by one or more other musicians. These trends reflect the predominant patterns of blues performance that had been established on the vaudeville stage in the 1910s. Although a few male blues singer-pianists became well known on the vaudeville circuit prior to 1920, solo performers with guitar are virtually unreported in this setting (Abbot and Seroff 1996). We know, however, that there were plenty of them performing all over the South and in northern cities since the beginning of the twentieth century (Evans 1982, 32-41). Undoubtedly, blues singer-guitarists served as "filler" acts on local vaudeville stages from time to time prior to 1926, but the highest level to which any of them could apparently aspire as a touring professional was as a member of a medicine show or small tent show working a very limited southern circuit. If they aspired to tour otherwise, they were on their own. Their normal venues were universally considered to be on the fringes of popular entertainment--the realm of musical amateurs, hustlers, freelancers, or even beggars--and it is mainly for these reasons that it took six years after they first began to record blues by black vocalists for the record companies to discover that they could successfully market recording artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson. The recording of guitar-accompanied blues was also greatly aided by the discovery of the electrical recording process, which came into use in 1925. One result of this was less surface noise on the records and better recording quality of softer voices, regional diction, and accents, as well as of instruments such as the guitar and piano. Jefferson's initial recordings, however, were made with the older acoustical recording process, and his immediate success, therefore, cannot be ascribed to the advantage of a new technology.

Starting in late 1923 and lasting for about a year, there was a small flurry of recording of guitar-accompanied blues. Then the sound became scarce on records through 1925, only to burst out in a sustained fashion with Jefferson's recordings in early 1926. The first-known guitar-accompanied blues to be recorded were made by vaudeville blues star Sara Martin with Sylvester Weaver on guitar (Van Rijn and Vergeer 1982). …

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