Pete's Blog

Blind Lemon Jefferson

I have long flattered myself at being a music scholar, record collector, archivist, etc., especially in early jazz and blues. That there are holes in this knowledge may be expected, but one hole, filled only this week, is hard to confess. The fact is, however, that I've been listening to old blues records for forty years and this week I heard Blind Lemon Jefferson for the first time. Ever. Like others of my generation, I subscribed to the view put forward by the British blues stars of '60s: blues came from Mississippi and migrated to Chicago, period. Its greatest exponents are Robert Johnson and anyone who sounds like, met, or looked at a picture of Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is all well and good, but part of his appeal is the romance of his obscurity. He didn't sell many records in his lifetime. Jefferson, a Texan, was the first great recording star of the guitar-playing solo style usually called Country Blues. His influence was profound across the form - even more recent stars like B.B. King claim his influence. One reason Jefferson's music doesn't turn up in the set lists of today's players is that it's really hard. His irregular phrase lengths and tempos can be baffling, moreso because they are probably improvised. Even the most exact transcription will seem static, lacking the propulsive expressiveness that is the central truth of Jefferson's music. Plenty of early bluesmen vary their phrase lengths, but Jefferson's variations serve the forward momentum of the performance in ways few if any later players can boast. He is a great guitarist, full of daunting technical effects (like triple pull-offs) not found in the work of others. It's wonderful stuff, and anyone wanting to learn more would do well to find Yazoo Records' "The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson."

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