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Presidents Day Blues: Jefferson, Jackson, and Johnson

Blind Lemon Jefferson was a veritable giant during his time and an unqualified commercial success to boot. Nevertheless, the photo seen here is the only known image of the artist. The autograph, by a blind man, is the work of a publicist. From Nothing But the Blues.

Here at the Abbeville Blog, we thought: what better way to celebrate the holiday than in remembrance of a few unforgettable historical figures? Jefferson, Jackson, and Johnson are names that have gone down in history, men whose leadership and defining influence made for groundbreaking cultural change. Of course, we’re talking about Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, who each in their own part pioneered the blues in the 1920s.

Lawrence Cohn has assembled a comprehensive collection of essays and photographs on the history of blues and blues musicians in his book Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, which documents the early roots of the genre, the emergence of various traditions—Delta blues, country blues, gospel, urban blues, the origins of R&B—then continues into the blues revival of the 1960s, and through into the 1990s.

In Nothing But the Blues, we learn the history of legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson and his “primordial” blues. Though Jefferson had a brief stint as a wrestler, his music is his legacy, and as one of our authors, David Evans, describes:

He was blessed with a strong, expressive, high, clear voice, a gift for creating poignant lyrics and for drawing others from the folk tradition, and a seemingly unlimited fund of interesting and often technically difficult ideas on the guitar. He was a true artist, obviously absorbed in making and creating music. … Mississippi bluesmen accused him of “breaking time” and playing music that wasn’t danceable, but none of this lessened his popularity.

Papa Charlie Jackson, from Nothing But the Blues.

Another blues giant, Lonnie Johnson, grew up playing the violin in his father’s string band, but he made a revolutionary leap when he “transferred a violinist’s sensibility—an emphasis on single line playing enhanced by slurs and vibrato—to the guitar, on which such playing was new.” We also discover banjo player Papa Charlie Jackson, who “played an archaic ragtime/minstrel style on the six-string banjo-guitar.” The appeal of these three musicians, we learn, “soon rivaled the vaudeville ladies of New York.”

These three are just a few among countless musicians and stories described in Nothing But the Blues. In consideration of today’s holiday, we would be amiss not to mention Hammie Nixon, harmonica player extraordinaire and accompanist to legendary Sleepy John Estes. And of course, let’s not forget to pay our respects to Lightnin’ Washington and Laughing Charlie Lincoln, our official honorees. Happy Presidents Day!


To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on Nothing But the Blues. Click here and use code BLUES2013 at checkout to save 30% off the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code BLUES2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.