Blind Lemon Jefferson

Although a few other guitar-playing bluesmen had made records before Blind Lemon Jefferson, it is he who wears the crown for being the first popular star of folk (or “country”) blues.

His rivals for this distinction (i.e., his predecessors in the recording studio) either had brief and commercially unsuccessful recording careers, were accompanists to more famous vocalists, were not solo guitarists but worked instead in combinations with other instruments, or were professional stage entertainers and thus did not fit easily into the model of a folk/country-blues singer-guitarist.

Nevertheless, some of these predecessors probably laid the groundwork for Paramount Records` decision to record Jefferson and for Jefferson`s spectacular reception by black record buyers. His commercial success in turn opened the door to recording opportunities for hundreds of other guitar-playing blues singers, male and female, black and white, and for blues-singing pianists and small combinations of singers and instruments variously known as jug, washboard, skiffle, hokum, and juke bands.

The era of blues recording began in 1920, and until Jefferson`s debut in early 1926 virtually all recorded blues singers came from the vaudeville stage circuit, northern urban cabarets, and black theater shows. The vast majority of them were female, and almost all were accompanied by a pianist or a larger combination of instruments. When male blues singers were recorded, it was usually in a duet with a female singer, accompanied by one or more other musicians.

These trends reflect the predominant patterns of blues performance that had been established on the vaudeville stage in the 1910s. Although a few male blues singer-pianists became well known on the vaudeville circuit prior to 1920, solo performers with guitar are virtually unreported in this setting.

We know, however, that there were plenty of them performing all over the South and in northern cities since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Undoubtedly, blues singer-guitarists served as “filler” acts on local vaudeville stages from time to time prior to 1926, but the highest level to which any of them could apparently aspire as a touring professional was as a member of a medicine show or small tent show working a very limited southern circuit. If they aspired to tour otherwise, they were on their own. Their normal venues were universally considered to be on the fringes of popular entertainment – the realm of musical amateurs, hustlers, freelancers, or even beggars – and it is mainly for these reasons that it took six years after they first began to record blues by black vocalists for the record companies to discover that they could successfully market recording artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson…

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