Blind Lemon Jefferson, a seminal blues guitarist and songster, was born on a farm in Couchman, near Wortham, Freestone County, Texas, in the mid-1890s. Sources differ as to the exact birthdate. Census records indicate that he was born on September 24, 1893, while apparently Jefferson himself wrote the date of October 26, 1894, on his World War I draft registration. He was the son of Alec and Clarissy Banks Jefferson. His parents were sharecroppers. There are numerous contradictory accounts of where Lemon lived, performed, and died, complicated further by the lack of photographic documentation; to date, only two photographs of him have been identified, and even these are misleading. The cause of his blindness isn't known, nor whether he had some sight.
Little is known about Jefferson's early life. He must have heard songsters and bluesmen, like Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and "Texas" Alexander. Both Thomas and Alexander traveled around East Texas and performed a variety of blues and dance tunes. Clearly, Jefferson was an heir to the blues songster tradition, though the specifics of his musical training are vague. Legends of his prowess as a bluesman abound among the musicians who heard him, and sightings of Jefferson in different places around the country are plentiful.
By his teens, he began spending time in Dallas. About 1912 he started performing in the Deep Ellum and Central Track areas of Dallas, where he met Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, one of the most legendary musical figures to travel and live in Texas. In interviews he gave in the 1940s, Lead Belly gave various dates for his initial meeting with Jefferson, sometimes placing it as early as 1904. But he mentioned 1912 most consistently, and that seems plausible. Jefferson would then have been eighteen or nineteen years old. The two became musical partners in Dallas and the outlying areas of East Texas. Lead Belly learned much about the blues from Blind Lemon, and he had plenty to contribute as a musician and a showman.
Though Jefferson was known to perform almost daily at the corner of Elm Street and Central Avenue in Dallas, there is no evidence that he ever lived in the city. The 1920 census shows him living in Freestone County with an older half-brother, Nit C. Banks, and his family. Jefferson's occupation is listed as "musician" and his employer as "general public." Sometime after 1920, Jefferson met Roberta Ransom, who was ten years his senior. They married in 1927, the year that Ransom's son by a previous marriage, Theaul Howard, died. Howard's son, also named Theaul, remained in the area and retired in nearby Ferris, Texas.
In 1925 Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make records. Though he was not the first folk (or "country") blues singer–guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. His extremely successful recording career began in 1926 and continued until 1929. He recorded 110 sides (including all alternate takes), of which seven were not issued and six are not yet available in any format. In addition to blues, he recorded two spiritual songs, "I Want to be Like Jesus in My Heart" and "All I Want is That Pure Religion," released under the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bates. Overall, Jefferson's recordings display an extraordinary virtuosity. His compositions are rooted in tradition, but are innovative in his guitar solos, his two-octave vocal range, and the complexity of his lyrics, which are at once ironic, humorous, sad, and poignant.
Jefferson's approach to creating his blues varied. Some of his songs use essentially the same melodic and guitar parts. Others contain virtually no repetition. Some are highly rhythmic and related to different dances, the names of which he called out at times between or in the middle of stanzas. He made extensive use of single-note runs, often apparently picked with his thumb, and he played in a variety of keys and tunings.
Jefferson is widely recognized as a profound influence upon the development of the Texas blues tradition and the growth of American popular music. His significance has been acknowledged by blues, jazz, and rock musicians, from Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and T-Bone Walker to Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Carl Perkins, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles. In the 1970s, Jefferson was parodied as "Blind Mellow Jelly" by Redd Foxx in his popular Sanford and Son television series, and by the 1990s there was a popular alternative rock band called Blind Melon. A caricature of Blind Lemon appears on the inside of a Swedish blues magazine, called Jefferson. He appears in the same characteristic pose as his publicity photo, but instead of wearing a suit and tie, he is depicted in a Hawaiian-style shirt. In each issue, the editors put new words in the singer's mouth: "Can I change my shirt now? Is the world ready for me yet?" Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde have composed a musical, Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues, staged at the Majestic Theatre, Dallas (1999), and the Addison WaterTower Theatre (2001), and have also developed a touring musical revue, entitled Blind Lemon Blues.
Jefferson died in Chicago on December 22, 1929, and was buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery. His grave was unmarked until 1967, when a Texas Historical Marker was dedicated to him. Musicologist Alan Lomax and Mance Lipscomb were among those in attendance at the dedication ceremony. Jefferson was inducted in the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980. In 1997 the town of Wortham began a blues festival named for the singer, and a new granite headstone was placed at his gravesite. The inscription included lyrics from one of the bluesman's songs: "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean." In 2007 the name of the cemetery was changed to Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery. Among Jefferson's most well-known songs are "Matchbox Blues," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," "That Black Snake Moan," "Mosquito Blues," "One Dime Blues," "Tin Cup Blues," "Hangman's Blues," "'Lectric Chair Blues," and "Black Horse Blues." All of Blind Lemon Jefferson's recordings have been reissued by Document Records.