Saturday, 19 December 2009


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.


Michael Gray said...

Someone who posted a comment in response to the blog about Lemon on my Dylan blog has pointed out that a second photograph of Blind Lemon Jefferson was published in Blues & Rhythm 121, together with an article by Paul Swinton that included further observations about the circumstances of Lemon's death.

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:

Mats said...

Hello Michael Gray

First I'd like to say thank you very much for your book on Blind Willie McTell.
I've been a fan of him for a couple of years now and still listen to his work a lot. Your book gave me a better picture of his life and the circumstances he grew up in and lived his life.
Also I enjoy reading your blog, and the updates on Blind Willie's story.

I am also a great fan of Blind Lemon, and after your blog post on his death 80 years ago, I listened to some of his music again.
While listening to match box blues, I ventured across the internet for background stories about the song.
I came across this:

Which talks about the song and the possible source of the line 'I'm sitting here, wondering will a matchbox hold my clothes'. And interesting story about the song and it's background.

I thought I'd share this in case you haven't read it already, you might find it interesting.

Hope to be able to attend one of your talks someday.
Please keep up the blog, and thanks again for the fantastic book!

Greetings from the Netherlands

Mats Boswijk

Michael Gray said...

Great to have your message about my work - and many thanks also for the URL to that mysteriously anonymous but rather wonderful blog. I'm going to alert more people to it by posting the URL again - and since the contents are also about rockabilly, I'm posting it on my other blog (about Dylan) too. Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins - and of course Blind Lemon Jefferson - all have entries in my Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. So thank you again.

By the way, I'd love to give a few talks in the Netherlands but I don't know anyone at an arts centre or festival, nor any gigs promoter. Do you?

Mats said...


Very nice to see that you enjoyed the story about matchbox blues as well. Indeed a mysterious blog, and great background material. The internet can be a great place for stories sometimes.

As for performing in the netherlands; as the matter of fact I do know quite a lot of people that run festivals and such in my country. But most of them are more about theatre, which is where I make a living.
So actually I don't know many people that organize music events, but I will drop the idea to the few I do.
I figure though that Dylan would be a more popular subject here in the Netherlands, as opposed to Blind Willie. But it's worth a shot... who knows.

Hard Luck Child said...

Thank you so much, Mr. Gray. This information is greatly appreciated!