His musical style was individualistic, and Jefferson's singing and self-accompaniment were distinctive as a result of his high-pitched voice and originality on the guitar. He was not influential on some younger blues singers of his generation, as they did not seek to imitate him as they did other commercially successful artists. However, later blues and rock and roll musicians attempted to imitate both his songs and his musical style.
In his 1917 draft registration, Jefferson gave his birth date as October 26, 1894, further stating that he then lived in Dallas, Texas, and that he had been blind from birth. In the 1920 Census, he is recorded as having returned to the Freestone County area, and he was living with his half-brother Kit Banks on a farm between Wortham and Streetman.
Black Snake Moan
Jefferson began playing the guitar in his early teens, and soon after he began performing at picnics and parties. He also became a street musician, playing in East Texas towns in front of barbershops and on corners. According to his cousin, Alec Jefferson, quoted in the notes for Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides:
They was rough. Men was hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night... he'd start singing about eight and go on until four in the morning... mostly it would be just him sitting there and playing and singing all night. By the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Leadbelly. In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in Dallas' Deep Ellum area. Jefferson likely moved to Deep Ellum in a more permanent fashion by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, also known as T-Bone Walker. Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar, in exchange for Walker's occasional services as a guide. Also, by the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child. However, firm evidence for both his marriage and any offspring is unavailable.
The beginning of the recording career
Success with Paramount Records
It was largely due to the popularity of artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and contemporaries such as Blind Blake and Ma Rainey that Paramount became the leading recording company for the blues in the 1920s. Jefferson's earnings reputedly enabled him to buy a car and employ chauffeurs (although there is debate over the reliability of this as well); he was given a Ford car "worth over $700" by Mayo Williams, Paramount's connection with the black community. This was a frequently seen compensation for recording rights in that market. Jefferson is known to have done an unusual amount of traveling for the time in the American South, which is reflected in the difficulty of pigeonholing his music into one regional category. He sticks to no musical conventions, varying his riffs and rhythm and singing complex and expressive lyrics in a manner exceptional at the time for a "simple country blues singer." According to North Carolina musician Walter Davis, Jefferson played on the streets in Johnson City, Tennessee during the early 1920s at which time Davis and fellow entertainer Clarence Greene learned the art of blues guitar.
Jefferson was reputedly unhappy with his royalties (although Williams said that Jefferson had a bank account containing as much as $1500). In 1927, when Williams moved to OKeh Records, he took Jefferson with him, and OKeh quickly recorded and released Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues" backed with "Black Snake Moan," which was to be his only OKeh recording, probably because of contractual obligations with Paramount. Jefferson's two songs released on Okeh have considerably better sound quality than on his Paramount records at the time. When he had returned to Paramount a few months later, "Matchbox Blues" had already become such a hit that Paramount re-recorded and released two new versions, under producer Arthur Laibly.
In 1927, Jefferson recorded another of his now classic songs, the haunting "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (once again using the pseudonym Deacon L. J. Bates) along with two other uncharacteristically spiritual songs, "He Arose from the Dead" and "Where Shall I Be." Of the three, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" became such a big hit that it was re-recorded and re-released in 1928.
Death and grave
Covers of Blind Lemon Jefferson
The White Stripes's "De Ballot of De Boll Weevil" is a cover version of "Boll Weevil Blues."
References to Blind Lemon Jefferson
King Solomon Hill recorded the song "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon" as a tribute to Jefferson in 1932.