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Monday, May 21, 2012

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1925-1926)


1) I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart; 2) All I Want Is That Pure Religion; 3) Got The Blues; 4) Long Lonesome Blues; 5) Booster Blues; 6) Dry Southern Blues; 7) Black Horse Blues; 8) Corinna Blues; 9) Got The Blues; 10) Long Lonesome Blues; 11) Jack O' Diamond Blues (take 1); 12) Jack O' Diamond Blues (take 2); 13) Chock House Blues; 14) Beggin' Back; 15) Old Rounder Blues; 16) Stocking Feet Blues; 17) That Black Snake Moan; 18) Wartime Blues; 19) Broke And Hungry; 20) Shuckin' Sugar Blues; 21) Booger Rooger Blues; 22) Rabbit Foot Blues; 23) Bad Luck Blues.

The cool thing about Blind Lemon Jefferson is not that he was the first country blues «superstar», the person to make the «tough black guy with acoustic guitar wailing into the mike» image mar­ketable and profitable, opening the doors for dozens of followers. Many of these followers could get the job done on their own. The truly cool thing about Blind Lemon is that, at his best, he play­ed that country blues like no one else, with a level of creative freedom, inventiveness, and unpre­dictability that was never matched by any of these followers. Forget Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy: they have nothing on this guy when it comes to taking the basic blues idiom and strip­ping it free of boredom. In all honesty, I think Blind Lemon's stature among his pre-war acoustic blues colleagues should be deemed equal to that of Hendrix in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Blind Lemon made all of his recordings on the shittiest of all major labels in the 1920s: Paramount. Had he hit it big with the likes of Columbia, it would have been much easier to appreciate his works today, as they would not be covered by almost unbreachable walls of hiss and crackle, from under which the thin, subtle, suffocated guitar lines feebly call out for your at­tention. Note: if you are new to Blind Lemon, do not, at all costs, begin right off the bat with the Complete series on the Document label — the songs here have not been properly cleaned up or remastered.  Go with Yazoo's The Best Of instead: it has most of the highlights, and the people out there did a laudable job of removing much of the original tape hiss, even though it still sounds like crap. But in this business of studying in pre-war music, you have to commit yourself to distinguishing between different sorts and flavors of crap.

I am still reviewing the Document series simply because of completism, although it should be stated that, like everyone else at the time, Blind Lemon was never about «originality». He was, however, about «inspiration», and he could easily record the same song in a routine, boring, per­functory man­ner when he was not in the spirit, or as a jaw-dropping exploration of the limits of sound when he was. And in his earliest years, fortunately, he happened to be in the spirit way more often than out of it.

For some reason, the man's first two recordings, from December 1925, Chicago, are in the gospel genre (they were even credited to a pseudonym — «Deacon L. J. Bates»). But even the first track already gives a brief glimpse of the man's love for flourishes, with mandolin-style trills disrupting the steady choppy flow of the melody and adding an almost sentimental touch. It also introduces his unique voice, an odd combination of «whiny» and «earthy»: Blind Lemon was the first of the great blues «wailers», oozing loneliness and soul torment a whole decade prior to Robert John­son. Of course, ʽI Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heartʼ actually oozes humility and friendship rather than loneliness, but that's just the beginning.

Most of the songs that follow are played in the standard 12-bar blues pattern and are generally interchangeable in terms of basic structure. But that's not the gist of it: real excitement comes from watching Blind Lemon fuck that structure from each possible point of entry, if you pardon the rudeness of the metaphor. The early sessions actually let you see the evolution. For instance, on ʽDry Sou­thern Bluesʼ, one of the man's earliest hits, the choppy ragtime-influenced pattern is technically accomplished and almost «danceable», but stays more or less the same throughout. (Sidenote: it also marks the first appearance of the "when the train left the station, it had two lights on behind" line, later to become the lyrical cornerstone of Johnson's ʽLove In Vainʼ). ʽLong Lonesome Bluesʼ is also strictly disciplined, although the melodic potential is already much wi­der, with little high-pitched country flourishes played at top speed in between the choppy rhythm work, and an occasional trill or two woven into the mesh.

But then at the end of Vol. 1, you already get stuff like ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ, which just might be the single greatest «fight the structural limits!» statement of the entire decade. On that track, almost every single bar comes out different — slowed down, sped up, played choppy, played lyrical, syncopated, trilled, aggressive, super-calm, whatever, but never losing track of the root notes, so that nobody could accuse the man of just fooling around. The effect is utterly confusing: the song has no general mood or «aura» per se, just a whirring flash of different feelings. It cannot be qua­lified as straightahead entertainment, because it's hard for the listener to even follow it rhythmi­cally, but it isn't an intimate emotional lament, either. What is it? I have no idea, really. An avant­garde experiment, at least in the context of its usual genre.

Most of the other tracks are less outrageous, with one or two chord patterns dominating over the rest, but even so, each side chooses its own pattern, and the only thing that prevents us from en­joying this diversity to its fullest is the ugly crackle wall. The one track that stands out the most is ʽJack O' Diamond Bluesʼ, presented here in two takes: a spirited wail set to a threatening slide guitar part (a relatively rare occasion: Blind Lemon did not employ slide techniques too often). That despairing yell of "jack o' diaaaaaamond's a hard card to play!" must have raised plenty of hairs back in 1926 — time, and shellac rot, have dimmed its impact, but with a little time-travel­ling effort on the part of your mind, it is still possible to recreate that feeling.

Since these early sessions capture Blind Lemon at his youngest and freshest, unspoiled by com­mercial success, booze, or boredom, Vol. 1 is simply one of the greatest blues «albums» of the pre-war era, period. The horrendous sound quality poisons the effect, for sure, but in compensa­tion, just put on ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ in the highest quality you can find and ask yourself: who ever afterwards played acoustic (or electric) guitar just like that? ... That's right. Most of the time, people are trapped by the blues, and show no strength of will to spring the trap. Hilarious, then, that the very first person who made authentic country blues into a household name had already shown how to spring it way back in 1925. Unfortunately, very few people understood the lesson, and most of them just got it wrong. Thumbs up for something so way ahead of its time — or, more precisely, so out of any sort of timeline.


  1. Just one thing to correct: there was no "tape hiss" to remove. These recordings were made long before the advent of tape, which was perfected after WWII. The real reason for all the crackle and hiss is simply because the duplication plates used to make new copies of these recordings were lost years before. Thus, the compilers had nothing but original 78 RPM records to make new recordings of. Most of these were, of course, in crappy shape, made even worse by the fact that Paramount was indeed the worst label of its era to work for (shoe string recording budgets, second rate vinyl material, etc.).

  2. Yes, of course, "tape" just crept in there by accident. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Two of my personal favorites here are Shuckin Sugar and Bad Luck Blues. B.B. King also does a terrific remake of Bad Luck Blues among his 1956 releases. What is really special about Blind Lemon's playing on Bad Luck is the contra-punctual performance, where the singing part is something different from what he's doing on the guitar. I've tried this one and it's not a beginner's piece. For me, the Yazoo anthology "King of the Blues" is definitive.

    I'm looking forward to your review of Bo Carter. Another great Pre-Depression blues man.