Blind Lemon: classic folk-blues by BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
Accompanying himself on guitar (on Side 2, #1 and 2, piano accompaniment by George Perkins) Recorded in Chicago; 1926-29
That Growling Baby Blues (2:40)
Pneumonia Blues (3:17)
Oil Well Blues (2:29)
Long Lastin’ Lovin’ (2:48)
Tin Cup Blues (2:42)
Mean Jumper Blues (2:36)
Rising High Water Blues (2:27)
Teddy Bear Blues (2:32)
Bad Luck Blues (2:50)
Big Night Blues (3:06)
Peach Orchard Mama (3:01)
Sunshine Special (2:43)
I stood on the corner and almost bust ma head (repeat)
I couldn’t earn me enough money to buy ma a crust of bread- from Tin Cup Blues
… This stanza from one of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s blues represents one extreme of the full, lusty, often bitter life reflected in this album. It is impossible to say precisely whose life story is being old in blues like these: in part it is Lemon’s own, and also that of all the other rootless wanderers who sang and played on the streets an din the tough gambling houses and brothels of a hundred Southern and Southwestern towns in the early years of the century. To a very real extent, also, it is the story of Lemon’s original audiences; for these blues are “folk music” in the basic meaning of the term – the music that an entire group of people sang and listened to, helped to crate, believed in, needed, shared and lived.
This LP offers a sampling of the fairly substantial and quite popular quantity of recordings Jefferson made in Chicago between 1926 and ’29, for Paramount, one of the outstanding blues and jazz labels of that ear. These were, in the blunt terminology of the time, “race records” – aimed at Negro audiences in Chicago and the South. Through them Lemon achieved rather more fame than a wandering folk singer might reasonably have expected. Also, the recorded evidence indicated, he was outstanding among his contemporaries; so that he can stand today as almost a symbolic archetype of this kind of folk-artist.
Lemon is now usually described as “legendary” – meaning that there does not exist today anything like a full, accurate biographical sketch of the man. He was born in Texas (probably in either Galveston or Dallas) sometime in the late 19th century. He was probably born in about 1930. There had been just a few years of success to offset the long early period of hard scuffling and moving-about, and certainly during his lifetime no one would have thought it of value to document him. His early life is known only from the casual reminiscenes of Texas musicians like T-bone Walker (who was Blind Lemon’s lead-boy for a time), Sammy Price (“Everybody knew him … a chunky fellow in a big black hat”) and above all Huddie Ledbetter – the folk singer best known as Leadbelly. Huddie has told of his close friend Lemon (“him and me was buddies”) in several conversations and in recordings. They had joined forces sometime before 1920, earning their living together in the wide-open red light districts of East Dallas and Silver City, where they would “tear them guitars all to pieces,” and Leadbelly learned much from the association.
Even if Lemon had lived on into the period in which folk-singing became a white night club fad, it is hard to imagine his gaining the wide popularity of a polished entertainer like Josh White (who in his ‘teens served briefly as Jefferson’s lead-boy) or even turning into the sort of comparatively gentle and charming figure that Leadbelly became in his last years. No, Lemon belonged firmly to his time and his way of life. His blues – undoubtedly partly his own invention, partly assimilated from myriad sources – seem unalterably direct, rugged, and unpolished as they tell of what he knew best and most intimately: of hard luck and getting drunk, of “wild women,” of the railroads that criss-crossed the South and where they could take you, of true love and false, of great Mississippi floods when “water was all over Arkansas, people creaming in Tennessee.”
The specific circumstances involved are a long way from our experience, even though the basic emotions are surely universal ones, and the language of the early blues is uncomfortably lacking in sophistication or politeness (and Jefferson was a man as earthy as he sounds; an eye-witness tells of seeing him literally eat with his hands). There are other reasons, too, why Blind Lemon’s blues are not easy for the present-day listener to understand: the harsh, nasal voice and they heavy layer of dialect that leave few verses totally decipherable; the rough-hewn construction of the music itself (the early, so-called “country” blues often slurred the standard 12-bar format into strange meters like that of Bad Luck Blues).
But lemon is decidedly worth the trouble of hard listening . He was clearly capable of utilizing folk material to far better advantage than most: there is great impact and accuracy in his guitar chords and in the strong, steady vocal line. As an experiment, try forgetting the words at times, and concentrate on the powerful instrumental quality of the voice. On the other hand, do concentrate on understanding the words as best you can; there is more than a little of genuine folk poetry here …
Seven of these selections have not previously been reissued on Riverside. Rising High Water has been available only in the five-LP set, HISTORY OF CLASSIC JAZZ. The final four numbers of Side 2 were included on a 10-inch LP, RLP 1053.
A Discographical Note: All of these selections were first issued on Paramount. Original label numbers and (in parentheses) known master numbers are as follows: Growling Baby / Pneumonia made up Para 12880 (respectively, 15671 and 15689); Oil Well – 12771; Long Lastin’ Lovin’ – 12666; Tin Cup – 12756 (21198); Mean Jumper – 12631 (20380). Rising High water / Teddy Bear were 12487 (4491 and 4567(; Bad Luck – 12443 (3090); big Night / Peach Orchard made up 12801; and sunshine Special was on 12593. Although all written Paramount data has long since been lost or destroyed, some collectors have arrived at approximate dates of recordings, usually by interpolating from the master number sequence. (See, for example, the English multi-volume “Jazz Directory”.) The selections here seem to range from a probable Summer, 1926 for Bad Luck to March 1929, for Peach Orchard / big Night.
Recent recordings in the folk-blues tradition can be found in the Riverside “Folklore” Series, in –
SONNY TERRY (RLP 12-644)
AMERICAN STREET SONGS (RLP 12-611)
The Riverside “Jazz Archives” Series of 12-inch LPs features such important recordings as –
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: 1923 (RLP 12-122)
Young LOUIS ARMSTORNG (RLP 12-101)
BIX BEIDERBECKE (RLP 12-123)
Young FATS WALLER (RLP 12-103)
JAMES P. JOHNSON: Rare Early Solos (RLP 12-105)
JELLY ROLL MORTON Solos (RLP 12-111)
JOHNNY DODDS (RLP 12-104)
MA RAINEY: Classic Blues (RLP 12-108)
The Golden Age of RAGTIME (RLP 12-110)
NEW ORLEANS LEGENDS: Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Kid Rena (RLP 12-119)
JIMMY YANCEY (RLP 12-124)
Re-mastered, 1957, by Reeves Sound Studios. (The slight surface noise audible on this LP is due to the limitations of early recording processes; it has not been entirely removed in order to preserve highest fidelity possible and to give more faithful reproduction of original tone qualities.) This material reissued by arrangement with John Steiner and Paramount Records.
LP produced by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews.
Notes by Orrin Keepnews.
Cover by Paul Weller (photography) and Paul Bacon (design).
We acknowledge with thanks the cooperation of the New York Central Railroad in connection with the cover photograph.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCITONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.