Today it's 80 years since the death of that most influential bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. Here's what I write about him at the start of Chapter 12 of Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes, at the point in the narrative at which Willie McTell has just made his first record, in October 1927, for Victor Records:
Willie hoped his first record would make him a big star rising: that it would launch him into that elusive blues stratosphere, with sales to match those of Bessie Smith, Georgia’s own Ma Rainey and the Texan singer-guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had shot to prominence only the year before, the first male blues singer to achieve a hit. Jefferson’s second release, ‘Got The Blues’, combined thrilling guitar virtuosity with the striking opening line “The blues come to Texas, loping like a mule”, and he would soon colonise “race records” for male singers with guitars rather than women with pianists and orchestral combos. Jefferson would also reach out over the airwaves, in time, and come to influence generations of white Appalachian mountain musicians who wouldn’t have liked his face at their cabin doors but who loved his music and his high-pitched voice coming out of their crystal-set radios. He didn’t live to enjoy stardom long: he recorded nearly 100 sides in under four years and then died in Chicago at the age of 36, six days before Christmas 1929. It used to be said that he froze to death on the street in a blizzard, but his producer, J. Mayo Williams, alleged later that he’d collapsed in the back seat of his automobile and that his chauffeur, instead of helping him, had run away.
Willie McTell couldn’t freeze to death in Atlanta, but nor did he rise among the stars. He never had a hit record - but he continued to be able to record for major labels, and the sides he made kept on glistening with promise, so that everyone who heard him recognised his artistry and his name became known all over the South. For the first two or three years he must have felt that next time, next time, he’d have a hit.
There's also an entry on Blind Lemon in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, which includes discussing his influence on Elvis Presley as well as on Dylan (and of course on the blues in general). I've reprinted this entry as today's blog entry here on my Dylan blog.