This new reissue of blues, party songs and hymns by Lemon Jefferson begins brilliantly with what is probably his best-known song today, "Match Box Blues." The name "Blind Lemon" is familiar to many people in one guise or another, but his music is not. So those who haven't heard Lemon should prepare to be startled, once they adjust to the inevitably antiquated sound. Alongside a rich and expressive voice, Jefferson's guitar laughs and swoops, bends and chatters and defies you not to tap your foot, to a beat that has little regard for the 12-bar lockstep that many people (even many musicians) think is the sum total of "blues." In this 1927 masterpiece, he seems to be looking decades ahead even as he remains rooted in the northeast Texas countryside where he did his early rambling.
Blind Lemon Jefferson is an essential American folk music artist. As the booklet notes say, he basically created the recording market for male blues singers; his influence on the form was profound, though his style was so personal that he had few direct imitators; and almost every blues guitarist who's thrown off a flashy lick in a bid to impress is walking in Lemon's footsteps. B.B. King, viewed by some as the ultimate Mississippi bluesman, says that Lemon, along with T-Bone Walker - both Texans, as he points out - remain to this day his deepest influences. Beyond that, Jefferson's a wonderful, soulful singer whose voice cuts through today's hi-tech speakers just as it did the old acoustical horns. His lyrics, while containing their share of "floating" blues verses, are often unusual and original-sounding.
Yazoo's "The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson" takes the place of the now-deleted "King of the Country Blues." Brand new digital transfers have been made from the original 78s; there also seem to be fewer scratches audible than in the former disc, though to be sure there's plenty of surface hiss. Still, Yazoo has always had, to my taste, superlative standards in 78 remastering, and this one holds fast to that quality.
To be truly celebrated about "Best of" is the presence of almost all of Lemon's earliest blues sides, including some that were skipped on "King of." During his first two years of recording, and especially the first, Jefferson displayed great variety in his guitar arrangements, and the earliest sessions show awesome energy, in addition to the assured professionalism of a seasoned street singer.
Lemon Jefferson recorded the first blues hit by a male vocalist and one of the first hits by a country musician - "Long Lonesome Blues," paired with "Got the Blues," issued in early 1926. Even more to be celebrated is that the versions of both of these that appear here are the second takes, recorded about a month after the first when staggeringly good sales caused the original masters to simply wear out. The earlier takes are both fantastic, but for the later ones, Lemon has upped the intensity yet again; both are pitched a whole tone higher, his singing is more confident, and on "Long Lonesome" he reaches a fevered tempo that would be hard for your average metal-axe hero to keep up with even today. It's one of the best recordings ever made, and it's great to have it here in the best sound. (But Lemon's first several sessions were recorded acoustically, before there were microphones, and Jefferson's label had no regard for quality as to engineering and pressing, so the sound can never be that great.)
Almost as good as the earlier two-sided hit is another two sides paired on 78, both recorded at the same session (early 1928) on a day when everything - Lemon's voice, his playing, his inspiration, the technical staff, the recording setup - must have been just right. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is Lemon's signature tune (the words adorn his grave monument) and the mastering job here is the best I've heard, with the vocals especially clear. The other tune, "Electric Chair Blues," is not common in reissues, but it's stunning in every respect; again, Lemon's vocal is especially impassioned, and the song is truly disturbing. Both songs also feature the audible thump of Lemon's presumably-unshod foot, pounding out the beat.
Fans and completists will note that again, Yazoo has chosen to exclude one of his most notorious records, "That Black Snake Moan," which has a characteristic Lemon arrangement in C, of which there are no examples on this new "Best of." Equally puzzling to me is the inclusion of "How Long How Long," an early version of the "Sitting on Top of the World" melody that features a mournful vocal by Jefferson and a jaw-dropping disconnect between him and the accompanying pianist. The CD times at 67 minutes, and given that Yazoo has recently issued anthologies of up to 79 minutes, it's odd that room couldn't have been found for a couple of additional tracks, such as "Bad Luck Blues, "Shucking Sugar" or "Stocking Feet Blues."
Stephen Calt's notes from the earlier Yazoo CD are reproduced here, though abruptly shortened.
Completists should appreciate the upgraded sound (Yazoo's approach does have its detractors), as will Jefferson fans who should also enjoy some of the more unusual track choices. Among these is his very first recording, the hymn "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart." Not usually anthologized, it is simple, stately, and quite beautiful. If you're new to this, if you've come to like country blues (through, say, R. Johnson) and are ready to explore Lemon's world, this is the one to get. If he manages to get under your skin, which can happen, then there's more to hear, as all his issued recordings are available on various CDs.
Blind Lemon Jefferson should be heard, and on this CD he really can be heard. Dig him.