Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897–1929)
Considering he was the most popular male blues recording artist of the 1920s, little is known about Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was born in Couchman, near Wortham, in Freestone County, Texas, in 1897. He was blind from childhood, possibly even from birth. Between 1925 and 1929, he made at least 100 recordings, including alternate versions of some songs, and issued forty-three records.
He had few imitators, due to the technical complexity of his guitar playing and the distinctiveness of his high, clear voice. As a young man, Jefferson took up the guitar and became a street musician, playing in Wortham and nearby East Texas towns such as Groesbeck (mentioned in his “Penitentiary Blues”), Buffalo, and Marlin. Around 1917, he moved to Dallas, playing in the area centered on Deep Ellum, Dallas's equivalent of Memphis's Beale Street.
It was here that he met up with Leadbelly, an older and more experienced musician with a large repertoire of songs. Nonetheless, it was the younger man who had the greater command of the blues. They played together in Dallas until Leadbelly was sentenced to prison on an assault charge.
Blind Lemon Jefferson played a Stella guitar, developed from twelve-string guitars (made up of six pairs of strings, with some strings tuned in unison and others an octave apart), which were common in Central and South America.
In the early 1920s, Jefferson played around the South, especially the Mississippi Delta region, where there was lucrative work for an itinerant bluesman. He sold more than a million “race records” to the emergent African- American market during the 1920s, but nevertheless died a pauper in Chicago, in mysterious circumstances, toward the end of December 1929.