Jefferson was born blind, near Coutchman in Freestone County, near present-day Wortham, Texas. He was one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa Jefferson.
Disputes regarding his exact birth date derive from contradictory census records and draft registration records. By 1900, the family was farming southeast of Streetman, Texas, and Lemon Jefferson’s birth date is indicated as September 1893 in the 1900 census.
In the early 1910s, Jefferson began traveling frequently to Dallas, where he met and played with fellow blues musician Lead Belly. In Dallas, Jefferson was one of the earliest and most prominent figures in the blues movement developing in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas.
Jefferson likely moved to Deep Ellum in a more permanent fashion by 1917, where he met Aaron Thibeaux Walker, also known as T-Bone Walker. Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar in exchange for Walker’s occasional services as a guide.
By the early 1920s, Jefferson was earning enough money for his musical performances to support a wife, and possibly a child. His only known photograph, taken from a Paramount publicity shot, shows a portly man of indeterminate age wearing clear glasses over closed eyes set in a ‘baby’ face.
He was accorded the distinction (shared with Ma Rainey) of having a record issued with his picture on the label and described as ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Birthday Record’.
He had a good vocal range, honed by use in widely different venues, and a complicated, dense, free-form guitar style that became a nightmare for future analysts and copyists due to its disregard for time and bar structure; however, it suited his music perfectly and spoke directly to his black audience, both in the city and in the country.
Jefferson died in Chicago on December 19, 1929, of what his death certificate called “probably acute myocarditis”. For many years, apocryphal rumors circulated that a jealous lover had poisoned his coffee, but a more likely scenario is that he died of a heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm.
Some have said that Jefferson died from a heart attack after being attacked by a dog in the middle of the night. More recently, the book, Tolbert’s Texas, claimed that he was killed while being robbed of a large royalty payment by a guide escorting him to Union Station to catch a train home to Texas. Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by pianist William Ezell.
Jefferson also recorded spiritual songs, using the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. Among his best-known songs are “Black Snake Moan,” “Matchbox Blues,” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
The circumstances of Jefferson’s death are uncertain, though there were reports that he suffered a heart attack on the street and died of exposure. He was buried in the Wortham (Texas) Negro Cemetery, and his grave went unmarked until October 15, 1967, when blues devotees placed a metal marker on the plot; in 1997 it was replaced by a granite headstone.
Jefferson’s later recordings seemed to lose some of the originality and impact of his earlier work but he remained popular until his sudden and somewhat mysterious death.
Legend has it that he froze to death on the streets of Chicago, although a more likely story is that he died of a heart attack while in his car, possibly during a snowstorm, and was abandoned by his driver. At this late date it is unlikely that the truth will ever be established.