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Flashback: Blind Lemon Jefferson

Lemon Henry Jefferson died during one of the worst Chicago winters on record, but his music lives on with quite the electric spirit.

By Mike Greenblatt

When Blind Lemon Jeffersonwalked out of the Paramount Records studio in February of 1928 after recording two songs — “’Lectric Chair Blues” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” — he had no way of knowing that it would be the “B-side” of the single that would wind up being a masterpiece for the ages. So while the record label picked “’Lectric Chair Blues” to promote, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” has been kept alive through the ages as recorded by the Grateful Dead, John Hammond, Jr., Peter Paul & Mary, BB King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Canned Heat, Michael Bloomfield, Lou Reed, Mavis Staples and, most notably, Bob Dylan on his 1962 self-titled debut album.


Paramount Records was notorious for not keeping information about its artists. From press releases to bios to photo shoots to studio logs, all documenting important early blues artists, Paramount didn’t think it was worth saving anything. They just had workers throw it out. After all, these were considered “race records” and, as such, who would even want this info in the future? Even the proper preservation of recorded masters were not kept in any condition whatsoever worthy for posterity.

“They just went out the window,” says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. In fact, it was Tefteller and his ragged crew of scientific investigators who unearthed many of the classic pictures you see in the annual Blues Images calendar (always featuring a CD of amazingly cleaned-up blues of the era) by scouring nearby dumpsters.

Born blind — real name: Lemon Henry Jefferson — in 1893 Texas, he died at the age of 36 on Christmas Day, 1929, in Chicago. There are those who say they saw him actually freezing to death in the gutter outside an establishment where he’d do his drinkin’ and where he’d perform for chump change on the side of the road. Chicago, records show, went through one of its worst winters of the 1900s that year. There are others, though, who said he died of a heart attack while singing one of these two songs in the street. Either way, by the time he passed, he had befriended the legendary folk singer Lead Belly, and became the first successful black male blues star (“Match Box Blues” is his and famously covered by Carl Perkins, The Beatles and dozens of others).

Three years after his death, singer King Soloman Hill recorded the long-lost “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon” as a tribute in 1932. Yes, it was Tefteller who rediscovered that particular song in 2002. In 2006, Samuel L. Jackson used Blind Lemon’s “Black Snake Moan” as the name of a Hollywood movie. Off-Broadway, “Blind Lemon Blues” thrilled audiences in 2009. And no less a guitar hero as Nashville’s Chet Atkins swore up and down that Blind Lemon was “one of my first guitar-picking influences.”

“I wonder why they like to kill a man at the 1:00 hour of the night/

Because the current is much stronger when the folksies turned out all they lights/

Let them get me a taxi to take me away from here/

I didn’t have but one friend in the world since they bring me to the ‘lectric chair.”

Blind Lemon sounds positively haunted on this one. It will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Tefteller says if you want to buy this double-sided doozy, it would run you $500 for a “trashed copy” and over two grand for “a half-decent” one.