Blind Lemon Jefferson: His Life, His Death, And His Legacy
Blind Lemon Jefferson remains a shadowy figure. As with Charley Patton, only one photograph of him exists. Like Robert Johnson, he died under mysterious circumstances, found frozen to death on a Chicago street in 1929.
With his mixture of blues and spirituals delivered in a thin, piercing voice, Jefferson had an undeniable impact on American popular music. Lead Belly and Lightnin’ Hopkins pointed to him as an influence. Bob Dylan concluded his first solo album with a rendition of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. Other Jefferson songs, such as “Black Snake Moan” and “Match Box Blues”, became blues standards.
Author Robert Uzzel, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, adopts a straightforward approach in recounting Jefferson’s life, from his birth in 1893 to his mastery of the guitar as a teenager and his signing with Paramount Records, where he became the biggest-selling male blues singer in the late 1920s.
Jefferson’s life had its share of mystery and ambiguity. Uzzel notes that some musicians who knew Jefferson in the 1920s believed he was not totally blind. In his lone photo, Jefferson is wearing wire frames, instead of the tinted lenses typically favored by the blind. Uzzel reveals some tantalizing information — Jefferson worked as a wrestler to make extra money, for example — but is unable to develop it.
This text is a slim, workmanlike effort; the biography accounts for 70 pages, with 39 pages of end notes, appendices and index. The omission of a discography is curious, given that Jefferson’s recordings are the most public documentation of his life.