Black Horse Blues (Lemon Jefferson)

I always appreciated Blind Lemon Jefferson’s records, but didn’t attempt to learn his guitar style until shortly before recording my CD, Street Corner Cowboys — and then went through a crash course and ended up recording two of his songs, playing a bunch of others, and eventually teaching his style at a couple of blues camps.

Jefferson was the defining “down home blues” artist — quite literally, since as far as I can tell that phrase was first used in print to advertise his records. That was in 1926, when the blues record business was still dominated by women like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. The only significant male artist was Lonnie Johnson, who had a smooth urban style like the blues queens — but a Dallas record store employee wrote to Paramount Records saying there was a street singer there who was very popular and suggesting they take a chance on him.

That was Jefferson, and I’m guessing the Paramount folks were dubious when they heard him. His guitar playing was quirky and idiosyncratic, with an odd, jerky rhythm, and his voice was a full-throated street corner shout. To everyone’s surprise, his records instantly took off, selling spectacularly to black consumers throughout the South and Midwest, and soon scouts were combing the South for other quirky street corner guitarists. The result was one of the richest periods of American recording, preserving the music of Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt, Jim Jackson, William Moore and myriad others… a world of astonishingly varied and creative musicians reaching from the Southwest to the Atlantic Coast. None of them equaled Jefferson’s sales figures, but they redefined blues as a rural style with guitar as its main instrument — an image that would fade on the African American market a few years later with the arrival of Leroy Carr, but remains central to folk-blues and blues-rock.

Getting back to my own experience… I learned a bunch of Jefferson’s pieces and it was a thrilling and liberating project. His guitar work was brilliant and opened up new possibilities in several keys, exercising my fingers and my mind, and I loved playing his stuff.

Nonetheless, over the next few years most of his songs drifted out of my repertoire. They were fun and interesting to play, but somehow never felt natural to me, and most of his arrangements were developed to fit his singing, which I couldn’t begin to match. So I went back to listening and admiring his work, and just kept a couple of his pieces in my repertoire: “Bad Luck Blues,” which I’ve used in this series as the accompaniment to “Keep It Clean,” and “Black Horse.”

“Black Horse Blues” was one of Jefferson’s first recordings and is unusual because the guitar part stands alone. Usually he played licks that followed or answered his voice, but for this one he created a quirky but thoroughly developed instrumental composition, full enough to serve both as accompaniment and an instrumental break . That meant I could learn it, then come up with a different way to sing the song rather than trying to imitate his vocals. It struck me that Jefferson was from Texas, and one of the things about his guitar playing, compared to players from further east, is that he sometimes relaxes into a kind of cowboy strumming — so I went with that, and sing in a cowboy-blues style, closer to someone like Woody Guthrie, who came from Oklahoma and grew up on Jefferson’s records.

The lyric is also interesting as an example of an American singer borrowing and reshaping an English ballad verse for blues performance. I noticed this when I was writing a chapter on blues poetry for my pocket guide for Oxford: The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. In the ballad of Gypsy Davey–which I first heard on one of Woody’s records–a woman runs off with a troupe of Gypsies and her husband follows her and tries to convince her to come home. Being a lord, he has servants, and when he finds his wife is gone he cries:

Go saddle me my old grey horse, the black one’s not so speedy.
I’ll ride all day and I’ll ride all night, until I find my lady.

Jefferson reworked those lines for his title verse:

Go get my black horse, saddle up my grey mare
I’m going after my good gal, she’s in the world somewhere.