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JoeMc on 08/05/2009 at 03:41PM

Lemon Luck

The only known picture of Blind Lemon Jefferson (with painted-on tie!)

Musicians have always used psuedonyms for one reason or another, but I think the art of self-rebranding reached a sort of apex in the 1920s and 1930s. Although there are some rappers who drop some whoppers these days, for me nothing compares with the stage names and nicknames of the bluesmen from this earlier era. A few casually gleaned favorites: Wee Bea Booze, Bumble Bee Slim, Sloppy Henry, Black Bottom McPhail, Blind Gussie Nesbit, Flat Foot Rockmore, Rabbits Foot Williams, Sweet Papa Stovepipe, and (the not-to-be-outdone) Sweet Papa Tadpole.

If you want to have a little fun, you can find out your "blues name" at one of those silly name generators that are all over the Web. There's a representative one here. I think I'll be trading under the name Boney Gumbo Lee from now on. 

Among these name generators, there's one that takes as its template the name of this post's featured bluesman: Blind Lemon Jefferson. (See here.) In a way, you can't get more iconic than Blind Lemon Jefferson. His name is so well-known that it can be the basis for lame lampoons like this and everybody gets the joke.

Of course, the reason Blind Lemon Jefferson's name is so well-known has less to do with his name than with the fact that he recorded some of the best blues songs of the 20th Century. This post features one of them.

Given this introduction, you may be surprised to learn that Blind Lemon Jefferson's name is not a concocted one. He really was named Lemon. And he really was blind. Born in Texas in the late 1890s (records are inexact), little Lemon was blind from birth. He was one of eight kids (no, their names weren't Tangerine, Lime, etc. etc.), the son of struggling sharecroppers. Despite his disability, Lemon was an independent sort, and by the time he was a teenager he was playing guitar and singing at parties and on streetcorners for change all around Texas. The lifestyle was cash-poor and harsh, but such experiences would serve him well later.

In the early 20s, BLJ moved to Dallas, where he played with and schooled folks like Leadbelly and T-Bone Walker. Paramount Records of Chicago got wind of the blues scene developing around him in Dallas and headed down to snatch him up for their growing label. In 1926, BLJ started recording for Paramount. His first record, two gospel tunes, didn't do much, but his subsequent releases sold like crazy. "Got the Blues"/"Long Gone Lonesome Blues" is said to have sold over 100,000 copies.

Today's song, "Bad Luck Blues," was recorded in December of that same year of 1926. Although by this time Blind Lemon was a success, he had plenty of material to draw on given his rough-and-tumble early years. The song is a catalog of bad luck: losing at gambling, losing at love, death. Since the quality of almost all of Blind Lemon's records is so lousy (Paramount was notorious for poor recording facilities and even worse pressings), here are the hard-to-hear words:

I wanna go home and I ain't got sufficient clothes, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
Wanna go home and I ain't got sufficient clothes; 
             I mean sufficient, talking about clothes, 
Well, I wanna go home, but I ain't got sufficient clothes. 

I bet my money, and I lost it, Lord, it's so, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
Mmm, lost it, ain't it so? 
             I mean lost it, speakin' about so, now, 
I'll never bet on the deuce-trey-queen no more. 

"Mama, I can't gamble." "Son, why don't you quit tryin'?" 
             Doggone my bad luck soul, 
"Mmm, why don't you quit tryin'? 
             "Why don't you quit, I mean tryin'?" " 
"That joker stole off with that long-haired brown of mine." 

Sugar, you catch the Katy, I'll catch that Santa Fe, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
Sugar, you catch that Katy and I'll catch that Santa Fe; 
             I mean the Santy, speakin' about Fe, 
When you get in Denver, pretty mama, look around for me. 

The woman I love's 'bout five feet from the ground, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
Hey, five feet from the ground; 
             Five feet from the, I mean ground, 
She's a tailor-made woman, she ain't no hand-me-down. 

I ain't seen my sugar in three long weeks today, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
I ain't seen my sugar, three long weeks today; 
             Three long weeks to- I mean day, girl, 
It's been so long, seems like my heart's gonn' break. 

I'm gonna run 'cross town, catch that southbound Santa Fe, 
             doggone my bad luck soul, 
Mmm, Lord, that Santa Fe; 
             I mean the Santy, speakin' about Fe, 
Be on my way to what they call lovin' Tennessee.

(Transcribed not by me but by a guy named Chris Smith at, incidentally)

You can hear a few of the things that make BLJ so unique on this recording: his warm, expressive singing, his lively finger-picking, and the very structured but almost meandering-sounding melody line. There's also the sense of humor. I especially like the line about how the Joker from the card game stole his woman away.

No one really knows much about what BLJ was really like. Blues singer Victoria Spivey once cagily asserted that he "could sure feel his way around," adding to a common perception that he was a womanizer. It's also been said that he was a drunk and a church-going man, so it's difficult to know the truth. His lyrics, although rooted in certain blues stand-bys, do seem to betray a real acquaintance with both hard times and good times.

Sad to say, the good times were pretty short for Blind Lemon. He recorded "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" twice, in 1927 and 1928, and by 1929, he was in a position to be concerned about it. (Until recently, his grave wasn't kept all that clean, incidentally.) He left behind him over 100 songs, though, and a mania for generating blues names based on his. One 90s alternative rock band aside, not a bad legacy!

For more BLJ, check out "Long Lonesome Blues: Lemon's Texts Revealed" on World Arbiter (a release which very helpfully prints the words to the songs), "The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson" on Yazoo, or "Complete Recorded Works, Vols. 1 and 2" on Document (almost the whole magilla).



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