Greetings, I’m Michele Myers, producer of KEXP Documentaries. We’re making a huge step with our new series “Blues for Hard Times”. These stories on blues songs and artists are going to be part of a class at the University of Washington! This special Wednesday evening class (also called “Blues for Hard Times”) is open to the public and is taught by UW Music History Professor Larry Starr. It starts 3/31 and you can sign up at lectures.org.
In today’s episode, we’re taking a look at one of the most distinctive artists of all time: Blind Lemon Jefferson. He grew up in poverty and learned to sing among the farm workers — you can hear the “field holler” tone in his voice. And he picked up guitar styles from country players, just like you’d expect. But unexpectedly, he pulled in Latin flavor from the Mexican field workers he knew.
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s raw sound is hard to listen to at first, but after a while it starts to stay with you. It’s haunting, undeniably beautiful… The subtle changing rhythms, the primal outcry of emotion. The sexy simmering quality. All this found on a scratchy recording made in the 1920’s.
Once city blues — songs like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong’s St. Louis Blues became popular in the early 20s, record companies started looking for the roots of the blues. Blind Lemon Jefferson was recorded in 1925, and in just a few years made over 100 recordings. Marketed to African-American audiences, these songs made Blind Lemon Jefferson the first truly popular male blues singer of all time. This song “Black Snake Moan” was known as a double entendre song, which means it had sexual undertones (or overtones, oh my!), a big taboo in the 1920s.
KEXP Documentaries are produced and written by Michele Myers. Assistants are John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. All our documentaries are made possible by a grant from the American Music Partnership of Seattle. You can listen to all the series: Punk Evolution, The Heart of Soul, Pop Goes Electronic and more here.