Art&Seek presents This Week in Texas Music History. Every week, we’ll spotlight a different moment and the musician who made it. This week, Texas music scholar Gary Hartman looks at the short by influential life of bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson.
You can also hear This Week in Texas Music History on Saturday on KERA radio. But subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. And our thanks to KUT public radio in Austin for helping us bring this segment to you.
And if you’re a music lover, be sure to check out Track by Track, the bi-weekly podcast from Paul Slavens, host of KERA radio’s 90.1 at Night.
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This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll honor a Texan who performed in both churches and bordellos before becoming one of the most prolific and influential blues musicians of all time.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Couchman, Texas, on Sept. 24, 1893. As a young man, he performed in churches, brothels and on street corners in Deep Ellum, alongside other pioneering Texas-based blues players, including Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker (original moniker: “Oak Cliff T-Bone”). Between 1926 and 1929, Jefferson made dozens of recordings for Paramount Records and became the best selling “race” artist in the country. His tremendous commercial success helped persuade major labels to begin recording other blues artists, thereby helping to bring blues to a worldwide audience. As remarkable as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s career was, it did not last long. Following a performance in Chicago on December 22, 1929, he froze to death while walking back to his hotel room. Nevertheless, Jefferson had an enormous impact on his contemporaries and on an untold number of younger musicians. His “Matchbox Blues” became a hit for 1950s rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, as well as for the Beatles. Elvis Presley borrowed from Jefferson’s “Teddy Bear Blues” to produce one of his earliest hits, “Teddy Bear.” And Bob Dylan included Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his debut album.
Next time on This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll celebrate a Texas singer who earned the first gold album in country music history.