The Grave of Blind Lemon
By T. DeWayne Moore
Director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
Blind Lemon Jefferson died in Chicago in December 1929. His remains were sent by train to his family in Wortham, Texas, where he was buried in a black cemetery tucked into the western corner of Freestone County. No marker was placed on his grave, but some members of the Jefferson family later received markers in the 1950s.
In the mid-1960s, a group of blues enthusiasts from the urban Northeast drove to the burial ground and located a cement grave marker inscribed with the name Jefferson. It was time for a strange ritual. The visitors “solemnly” poked brooms, which had been “baptized” in the Mississippi River, into the ground and buried a bottle containing a written message. According to one Dallas newspaper, these folks were devotees of the “real practitioners” of “authentic, original folk-music,” which “developed almost mystically out of the early day trials and tribulations of a land where living was hard and the only thing harder was dying.”
The buried broom ritual was a tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Though the group left town “with the glow of having stood at his grave,” they had conducted the ceremony on top of his mother and young sister’s graves. One newspaper claimed that the singer’s true burial site was on the opposite side of the burial ground, some fifty yards away. Uel L. Davis, Jr., the local authority on the blues singer, revealed that Jefferson was buried “just inside the gate of the cemetery.” Since the time of his death in 1929, however, the gate had been moved to the other side of old cemetery.
In the summer of 1967, the Texas State Historical Survey Committee officially designated the site a Texas Historical Grave, which impelled the county historical society to commission a permanent plaque marking the grave The citizens of Wortham funded the project and dedicated the marker in the summer of 1967. Folklorist Alan Lomax, local historian Uel Davis, and Joe W. Bates, of Wortham, among other devotees of the blues, came out in a thunderstorm to hear blues artist Mance Lipscomb perform one of Jefferson’s most famous songs, “Please See My Grave is Kept Clean."
In 2006, John Pronk from the Dallas Morning News found himself in the hometown of Lemon Jefferson, and he wanted to find his grave. "Is it as he asked it would be?" he queried, "Kept clean?"
He drove to a cemetery south of town, walked through the old and faded headstones, but it was not the correct cemetery. Sp he drove to the bigger, better-kept cemetery on the north side of town and located many graves, but none were Jefferson's. Then he glanced across a brushy fence line and noticed another cemetery nearby. He walked over to the gate, on which hanged a box with a coin slot for donations. He had located the old black cemetery. And there, in the back, a gravestone read "Lemon Jefferson - September 1893 - December 1929." It was inscribed with that famous plea: "Lord it's one kind favor I'll ask of you / See that my grave is kept clean."
As he looked upon the large granite stone, he realized that tt was clean. Coins had been left on it and a harmonica, too. He snapped a photo, thought about the man and his music for a moment, then got back into his car. Later, he called Wortham and spoke to Brent Jones, a local banker who along with other blues enthusiasts, organized the inaugural 1997 Wortham Blues festival. An organization called Blues Legends had raised the money to buy and install a headstone. Anton Glovsky, of Tradition Records, which reissued some of Jefferson's work, took up a collection from employees at Tradition and Rykodisc and contributed more than $1000 toward the effort to mark his grave. On his website, he exclaims that he "is most proud of coordinating and funding the (long overdue) purchase and perpetual maintenance of a gravestone for blues great, Blind Lemon Jefferson." The group dedicated it during the first year of the festival. Now, the Wortham Black Cemetery Association sees that the graveyard is kept clean.
The day of his visit he had wondered, as he walked away from his grave, why the inscription simply reads "Lemon Jefferson." "Blind" was not chiseled onto the stone. And then an inner voice said: "Son, now Mr. Jefferson can see perfectly."