There are some rare artists — very few — whose work is so majestic that they forever reconfigure the nature of the idiom in which they work. In early blues, two names stand alone: Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. History has probably been kinder to the former; his story is in many ways easier to mythologize. But The Complete Classic Sides Remastered makes a worthy case for Blind Lemon Jefferson, tune after spellbinding tune. If the best blues can be seen as the crossroads where great singing and guitar playing encounter the emotional storytelling of one's time and place, then Jefferson's music was its most eloquent statement. In a sense, his truth is broader than Johnson's: he traveled more, lived longer, and absorbed a wider range of influences. If his voice doesn't possess the haunted urgency of his younger colleague, it expresses a more universal message of hard times, bad luck and the existential price paid for having nowhere to call home.
Although Jefferson's religious and novelty material doesn't compare favorably to the blues sides, he was a remarkably consistent performer. He never sounded less than good, and the best of the material is riveting. “Corrina Blues” (essentially the same tune as “See See Rider”) may be the single most beautiful blues recording ever made. There's more said about real life (“No more taters/ The frost has killed the vine.”) in three minutes than you're likely to hear in anyone else's entire recorded output. "Got the Blues" almost reads like an imprimatur for rock & roll. Jefferson must have made listeners dizzy with the way he bounced his voice and guitar back and forth. These recordings are beyond essential blues — they're nourishment.