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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, December 19, 2009


Blind Lemon Jefferson died 80 years ago today. I've posted a short piece about him today here on my other blog Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes, but here is the entry on him from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Jefferson, Blind Lemon [1894 - 1929]
A great blues singer, also a guitarist and composer, born on October 26, 1894 (given until recently as September 26, 1893) in Wortham, Texas, about 60 miles south of Dallas. Hugely influential because he shaped the Texas blues and put it on record, though his recording career was, typically, very short (1926-1929). He was the main blues influence on Leadbelly and, through Leadbelly, an important tutor to many, many others. It is said that Blind Willie McTell was encouraged to take up the 12-string guitar thanks to a personal encounter with Jefferson (though Jefferson was a 6-string guitarist). His records were also a significant influence on hillbillies, who heard them on the radio. This is clear in the marvellous work of ROSCOE HOLCOMB in the 1950s-60s.

There is only one extant known photograph of Lemon. He sits against a photo-studio backdrop, besuited, with his guitar across his lap. He’s a young man and looks a Bunterish outsider, a goody-goody deacon, plump and polished-skinned, his hair too neat. He has the thinnest-possible pencil moustache, though this utterly fails to lend him a dandyish air. His spotted silk tie has been drawn onto the picture afterwards. Contradicting the sharp creases of the suit trousers, the guitar strap around his neck is of crude white string. Most oddly, he is wearing glasses - and written across the foot of the picture in a large, confident, regular hand is the comically formal message ‘Cordially Yours Blind Lemon Jefferson’.

More reliably, Jefferson wrote the line ‘I’m standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes’, which crops up 25 years after his death in CARL PERKINS’ ‘Matchbox’ and, around the same time as Dylan’s first album was released, in SAM COOKE’s ‘Somebody Have Mercy’. (It’s odd that Cooke should be wondering will a matchbox hold his clothes, because earlier in the same lyric he’s standing at the bus-station with a suitcase in his hand.)

Jefferson first recorded the song that Dylan includes on his first album, ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, as ‘See That My Grave’s Kept Clean’, Chicago, c.Oct 1927; this was first available on vinyl on Blind Lemon Jefferson Volume 2, Roots RL-306, Vienna, 1968. But Jefferson’s re-recording, as ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, Chicago, c.Feb 1928, was the one Dylan knew. It had been included on the seminal HARRY SMITH compilation AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC (3 double-LPs, Folkways FP 251-253, New York, 1952; CD-reissued as Anthology Of American Folk Music [6-CDs box set with copious notes by many hands and including a CD-ROM of extras], Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SRW 40090, Washington D.C., 1997), which was crucial to Bob Dylan from very early in his career, as it was to everyone in the FOLK REVIVAL of the late 1950s to early 1960s. The Jefferson track is also CD-reissued on King Of The Country Blues, Yazoo CD-1069, c.1990.

Dylan records ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ for that first album - and with a timeless, fresh vividness - NYC 22 Nov 1961, is taped singing it at the home of Eve & Mac Mackenzie, NYC, Sep 1962, and performing it ‘live’ at the Gaslight the following month - and then revisits it, trying out a proto-Nashville Skyline voice, during the Basement Tapes sessions an aeon later. He also alludes to it elsewhere. In the opening line of ‘Call Letter Blues’ (recorded at the Blood On The Tracks sessions but left off the album and issued, in the end, on Bootleg Series I-III in the 1990s) when Dylan sings that he is ‘hearin’ them church bells tone’, one of the things we might recognise him as hearing is the church bell tone that Blind Lemon imitates on the guitar in his performance of ‘Grave’. And though there are horses galloping all over balladry and the blues, white horses are rare in the latter - but having whinnied their way into the Jefferson song, they play a cameo role in Dylan’s ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ and his terrific (unreleased) later song ‘Yonder Comes Sin’.

After Harry Smith’s anthology, the most significant compilation was a crucial LP issue of previously hard-to-obtain pre-war blues material, The Country Blues, RBF RF-1, New York, 1959. It was compiled by SAMUEL B. CHARTERS and issued at the same time as his book The Country Blues, which was the main stimulus to the blues revival that hit Greenwich Village, Boston and elsewhere at the beginning of the 1960s. This LP too contained a number of recordings that plainly influenced Bob Dylan (see the entry on Charters), and among them was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Match Box Blues’, Chicago, c.Mar 1927. He re-recorded ‘Match Box Blues’ twice, Chicago, c.Apr 1927. The first of these re-recordings was on The Immortal Blind Lemon Jefferson, Milestone MLP 2004, New York, 1967, and the second on Blind Lemon Jefferson Volume 2, but the original recording is best: it was made for OKeh and exists in pretty good quality; the re-recordings were for Paramount, a label synonymous with cheap equipment, and hence with atrocious sound quality. Unfortunately almost all Jefferson’s sides were on Paramount. Dylan played around with a version of ‘Matchbox’ during his studio session with GEORGE HARRISON, NYC, May 1970.

Dylan’s extraordinary regenerative use of the blues - and especially of pre-war blues lyric poetry - is a huge subject (covered over 112 pages of Song & Dance Man III) and Jefferson’s presence is widespread within it; but Dylan’s usage isn’t always resourceful, and the presence of Jefferson’s ‘Lonesome House Blues’ is a case in point. I always thought that the weakest lines in that bluesy Blonde On Blonde song ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ were in the bridge section between the second and third verses, where he sings But is your heart made out of stone, or is it lime / Or is it just solid rock? The unrocklike limpness of that repetition, that tautology, seemed puzzlingly poor. It’s just as poor but no longer a puzzle, when we learn that Dylan has extrapolated it from Blind Lemon’s song, in which we get the more economical ‘If your heart ain’t rock, sugar it must be marble stone.’

Jefferson’s work also lies behind ELVIS PRESLEY’s first record, in a pleasing chain of transmission from the old to the new: ‘That’s alright, Mama, that’s alright for you’ figures in a much earlier blues classic than the ARTHUR CRUDUP song that Elvis turned into his revolutionary first record. It’s a stanza from Jefferson’s seminal ‘Black Snake Moan’, cut in Chicago as ‘That Black Snake Moan’ in 1926 and re-cut in Atlanta as ‘Black Snake Moan’ in 1927. His lines ‘Mama that’s alright, sugar that’s alright for you / That’s alright mama, that’s alright for you / ... just the way you do’ then recur the following year in one of the two takes of Ishman Bracey’s terrific ‘’Fore Day Blues’. Then on the early Crudup side ‘If I Get Lucky’, in 1941, he not only tries out the lines ‘That’s alright mama, that’s alright for you / Treat me low-down and dirty, any old way you do’ for the first time but he has a way of hollering that admits a debt to Bracey and to Blind Lemon. (The connection makes perfect sense: we know that Crudup hung out in Jackson Mississippi in the 1940s, when Ishman Bracey was the city’s most popular and active musician. In turn, it was 150 miles up Highway 55, in Memphis, that Elvis saw Crudup perform. Somewhere there’s an interview with Elvis in which he’s asked, when he’s the ultimate star, if he had imagined that kind of fame and success for himself when he started out. Elvis replies: ‘No. When I started out I just wanted to be as good as Arthur Crudup was when I saw him live in ’49.’)

Blind Lemon Jefferson is reputed to have frozen to death in the streets in a snowstorm in Chicago in December, 1929, but by his producer J. Mayo Williams’ account, he collapsed in his car and died after his chauffeur abandoned him. No death certificate has ever been found.


Anonymous wee tommy said...

A second photograph of Blind Lemon Jefferson was published in Blues & Rhythm 121, together with an article by Paul Swinton that included a few more observations about the circumstances of Lemon's death. The article is available in the archive section of the B&R website.

2:25 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I'm most grateful for this, and have now seen that extra photo and read Paul Swinton's invaluable article. It's available as a pdf file online at:

10:53 am  

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