BLIND LEMON’S PENITENTIARY BLUES
And other folk-blues by BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
Blind Lemon Jefferson (g, vcl)
1. Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues
2. Bad Luck Blues
3. Big Night Blues
4. Peach Orchard Mama
1. Sunshine Special
2. Chock House Blues
3. Long Distance Moan
4. Baker Shop
This is the second Riverside album devoted to the voice and guitar of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON, surely one of the most remarkable folk-artists this country has ever produced.
Like the earlier Jefferson LP*, this is a sampling of the fair substantial number of recordings he made in Chicago between 1926 and ’29. Lemon was probably brought North, as several other blue singers were, specifically to record for Paramount, the long-defunet company that was among the outstanding jazz and blues labels of the ‘20s.
His records proved quite popular with the Negro audiences 8h Chicago and , more particularly, the South, who formed the bulk of Paramount’s market. He achieved more fame than a wandering folk singer might reasonably have expected and so he settled down (although Aletha Robinson, who was Paramount’s recording director during the final years of the decade, recalls that he constantly spoke of going back to his native Texas), until his sudden death in 1930. Jefferson apparently died of a heart attack; he may have been no more than middle-aged-and there is very probably no one who could give anything like a full and accurate biographical sketch of the man.
There is nothing either unusual or mysterious In the vagueness surrounding such a figure He was-by profession and, it’s undoubtedly safe to say, by nature – a rootless and on-the-move man, and during his lifetime no one would have thought it of value to document him. Before the Chicago period, all that is known is what can be gleaned from the folk singer Huddie Ledbetter – best known as Lead Belly – who has noted his close friendship with and indebtedness to Lemon in several recorded songs and reminiscences. The folklore authorities John and Alan Lomax obviously had their information directly from Lead Belly when they wrote, in their 1936 book “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly,” that the two singers had joined forces sometime before 1920, and “with Huddie’s mandolin and Blind Lemon’s Hawaiian guitar . . . made a good living in the saloons and red light district of East Dallas. Certainly Lead Belly learned a lot about music from Blind Lemon.”
Actually, of course, Lemon’s music tells of his life – or at least of his kind of life – in a most revealing and moving way. The blues he sings are the rugged and unpolished kind that he and men like him sang and played on the streets and in the brothels and gambling houses of hundred Southern and Southwestern towns in the early years of the century. East Dall as, for example, was a rough, wide-open section, full of what Lemon, in Penitentiary Blues, calls “hard cabarets.”
A man like Jefferson was probably a singer a professional singer more by accident than by design. A ,man like this had the knack of handling the guitar, could remember the blue verses he had heard and create his own variations of the same basic themes (like Lemon’s Sunshine Special, quite different from the standard blues with this title). Thus, he had at his command a way of leading a more interesting life than the next man, with less routine and drudgery in it. If he were a blind man, it meant he could avoid probably having to choose between starvation and begging.
Lemon sang of what he knew: of hard luck and of getting drunk, of “wild women” and of how mean the “warders at the state penitentiary” could be, of the railroad lines that criss-crossed the South and where they could take you. He was a folk singer in the true sense of the word: a man who sang for and about his own people, and his records supply their own powerful evidence in support of the claim that jazz in general, and the blues in particular, is an important and authentic American folk music.
For more than one reason, his music is not easy for the preset-day listener to understand The harsh, nasal voice, and the heavy layer of dialect, leave few verses totally decipherable. There are also some rather cloudy special references (it would, for example, help greatly in understanding Penitentiary Blues to know exactly what the place he calls something like (“Grossbeck’s” might have been). The music itself is rough-hewn: the early, so-called “country blues” often slurred the standard 12-bar blues construction into strange meters like that of Bad Luck Blues. Then, too the specific circumstances involved are a long way from our experience – although the basic emotions are surely universal ones. (It should be noted that this was a man as earthy as he sounds: Aletha Robinson recalls seeing his literally eat with his hands.)
For such reasons, Lemon could never have achieved the wider popularity of two of his “pupils”,” even if he had lived into the period in which folk-singing became something of a night club and recording fad. It’s hardly possible to conceive of his becoming a polished entertainer like Josh White, who in his ‘teens served for a while as the bind man’s “lead boy” and has always readily admitted how much he learned from his. It’s even difficult to think of this rough and rough-voiced man ever turning into the sort of comparatively gentle and charming figure that Lead Belly became in his last years.
But Lemon is decidedly worth the trouble of hard listening. He was clearly capable of using folk material to far greater advantage than most: there is great impact and accuracy in his guitar chords, and in the strong, steady vocal lime (try forgetting about the words at times, and listen only to the powerful instrumental quality of the voice). And there is more than a little of genuine folk poetry in that he sings:
From Chock House Blues –
So many wagons, done cut that good road down; (repeat)
And that woman I love, mama, don’t want me ‘round.
Baby, I can’t drink whiskey, but I’m a fool about my home-made wine; (repeat)
And no sense I leavin’ dice that makes the seven all the time.
From Bud Luck Blues –
The woman I love, she’s five feet from the ground ( I mean the ground):
She’s still a big woman; she ain’t no hand-me-down.
From Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues –
I hung around Grossbeck (?), worked in hard cabarets; (repeat)
I never felt the least bit uneasy, ‘til I caught that penitentiary-bound train.
I used to be a drunkard, rowdy everywhere I go; (repeat)
If ever I get out of this trouble I’m in, man, I won’t rowdy no mo’.
The many important blues albums in the Riverside Jazz Archives Series include:
MA RAINEY, Vols. 1, 2 & 3 (RLPS 1003, 1016, 1045)
THE GREAT BLUES SINGERS: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Chippie Hill (RLP 1032)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG Plays the Blues for Ma Rainey, Trixie Smith, Grant and Wilson (RLP 1001)
KING OLIVER Plays the Blues for Sara Martin, Ida Cox (RLP 1007)
MUTT CAREY Plays the Blues for Hociel Thomas (RLP 1042)
NOTE: Reissued by special arrangement with Paramount Records and John Steiner.
Produced by Bill Grauer. Notes written by Orrin Keepnews.
Cover art by Robert J. Lee; typographical design by Gene Gogerty.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N. Y.