From time to time I like to return to my Central Texas roots not for the sake of self indulgence (ok maybe a little bit) but to inform and enlighten readers about larger than life Central Texas figures who have made significant contributions to greater society. One book I’ve recently read fits the bill more than adequately. Pioneer Blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson is the subject of that book:
Blind Lemon Jefferson: His Life, His Death, and His Legacy – Robert Uzzel (Eakin Press)
Since childhood, I’ve been familiar with the name of Blind Lemon Jefferson but never explored the legacy of this seminal Blues music figure. But thanks to author Robert Uzzel, the definitive biography of Jefferson has been written. He traces the steps of Jefferson from his humble beginnings in the Central Texas farming community of Wortham to his ultimate artistic success in Chicago, Illinois. Between the years of 1926 to 1929, Jefferson was the biggest selling black blues artist in the United States. His country blues was a precursor to the Chicago/urban style of the blues. Uzzel also draws a distinction between Jefferson’s approach to the blues and that of the Delta bluesmen. And Jefferson could more than hold his own when he traveled and played the Delta circuit.
Jefferson not only had the disadvantage of growing up blind, but also living under the restraints and indignities of the segregated South. Uzzel calls him a “Texan whose life and music were deeply rooted in the Central Texas soil.” His powerful wail was derived from the field hollers and spirituals he heard as a child. Bluesman Reverend Gary Davis (who was himself blind), remembered Jefferson performing as if "...someone was hitting him all the time.” As a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), Uzzel offers his unique insight into the carnal/spiritual battle blues singers as well as congregants of African American churches dealt with at that time. Often called the “devil’s music”, Jefferson claimed, “I get my music from God”. Famed Delta bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil according to legend, but Jefferson at least kept a lifeline open to heaven. But several of his songs such as Black Snake Blues seemingly straight forward lyrically are sexually charged odes to unfaithful lovers according to Uzzel.
At some point, Jefferson made his way to Dallas playing in the historic Deep Ellum district. Life there was rough and tumble, but he seemed to thrive there with nothing but his guitar and a tin cup. It was in Deep Ellum that he met and teamed up with Huddie Ledbetter better known as Leadbelly. But Leadbelly’s incarceration soon ended their musical collaboration. It was during this period of his life that the 1920 census listed him as an entertainer – his employer “the general public”.
A very rough demo Jefferson recorded ended up in the hands of Paramount Records talent scout Mayo Williams. Williams liked what he heard and brought Jefferson to Chicago for the most productive years of his career. During his Chicago phase, Jefferson would record over a hundred titles. He would make enough money to buy a new Ford and a chauffeur to drive it for him. The country boy from Wortham,Texas had scored big in the Windy City. But by the end of the Roaring Twenties the life and career of Blind Lemon Jefferson came to an abrupt end as well. But his death as well as much of his life remains a mystery. Uzzel has done a magnificent job in following the written accounts of Jefferson’s life where they lead. But that information is appallingly scant. In many instances, he has had to rely on oral histories provided by friends, traveling companions, fellow musicians, and relatives. Sometimes there are contradictory recollections, but Uzzel does yeoman’s work in sorting through the narratives. There are times however, when it seems he’s chasing a ghost. Pinning down dates can be troublesome but while recently conversing with the author one is impressed by his attention to detail and his knack for remembering dates once they are documented.
Some questions will remain unanswered. What was the actual extent of his blindness? Did he wrestle as part of a novelty act? Did he serve time in prison as some of his later songs suggest? And then back to the mystery of his death. Was he murdered as some allege? The best available evidence points to a death by natural causes. Jefferson left the Paramount offices on December 19th to play a hose party on Chicago’s South Side. His lifeless body was found in drifting snow early the next morning, victim of an “apparent” heart attack. Uzzel’s book details other speculation.
Jefferson’s body was brought back to his hometown of Wortham. He was buried in an unmarked grave that was left untended. This is ironic, given the fact that one of Jefferson’s signature songs implores divine intervention to “see that my grave is kept clean”. However, with the blues and folk revivals of the 60’s, a rediscovery and appreciation began and continues to this day thanks in no small part to folks like Robert Uzzel. Funds were collected to place a granite headstone at the gravesite. In 1967, a Texas Historical Marker was dedicated to him as well.
Blind Lemon Jefferson has had a profound influence on diverse musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane (named in honor of Jefferson) and yes even the Beatles. Fans of the 70's sitcom “Sanford and Son” might remember Fred (Redd Foxx) always searching for his elusive Blind Mellow Jelly records. He was actually referring to Jefferson. One can only hope that he will someday be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just the way Woody Guthrie was for his compelling effect upon a later generation of rock musicians. It would only be fitting for Robert Uzzel to be at the induction ceremony.