Yes, he was really blind. (And his parents really named him “Lemon.”)
Blind Boy Fuller was really blind too. And so were Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Mamie Forehand and all the other blues and gospel artists with “blind” in front of their names.
It’s funny how often people ask me that question.
I don’t know of any early blues artists who feigned blindness. I have heard that John Hammond Jr. did that for awhile, probably in the 1960s. And there was a routine on the first Cheech and Chong album, from the 1970s, about a bluesman named Blind Melon Chitterling (comedy, made-up — I don’t think that counts as pretending to be blind). The most famous and successful case of feigned blindness, in a way, is the Blues Brothers. Their big Ray-Ban sunglasses can be read as suggesting both blindness and blackness (a la minstrel blackface, in slightly subtler and up-to-date version).
But all those 1920s and ’30s artists with the “blind” in front of their names really were sightless. I’m not sure why so many people wonder about that.
Why were there so many blind blues artists? That is a question worth pondering a little more. An answer that seems pat to some people is “blind people really have the blues.” But like many pat answers, this one is clearly untrue. Studies show that blind people are about as happy as sighted people. Even sighted people who lose their sight, after an initial depression over that, recover and become as happy as anyone else. Human beings are resilient.
And blues is a musical skill, not just an expression of inner sadness. There are plenty of sad people who can’t sing very well at all. They don’t immediately start singing and playing the blues at the level of Blind Lemon Jefferson as soon as their woman leaves them, sorry! And as the great barrelhouse pianist-singer Roosevelt Sykes once explained, a blues singer doesn’t have to be blue any more than a doctor has to be sick.
Blind people became musicians (if they had musical aptitude) because it was difficult for them to do other types of work. In music, blindness is not much of a handicap (as I often try to explain to my students while telling them they don’t have to stare at their left hand to play the guitar).