Lynchburg Luke: A Profile of an Influential Local Songster

Had you found yourself walking the streets of downtown Lynchburg any time from the 1920s until World War II, chances are you would have heard the songs and rhythms of local blues great Luke Jordan. The singer-guitarist was often seen performing throughout the downtown area. Though he was a well-known sight and sound to residents, many of the details of Jordan’s life outside of his performances are murky at best.

The only known photograph of Luke Jordan, taken by Lynchburg resident Henry Smith in the 1940s near the corner of Fifth and Polk. 

The only known photograph of Luke Jordan, taken by Lynchburg resident Henry Smith in the 1940s near the corner of Fifth and Polk. 

Jordan was born in West Virginia in 1892. There is very little information on the early years of his life. Jordan was drafted into the United States Army after the US entered into World War I. Had this not occurred, it is likely that even his birth and death dates would still be unknown. By the 1920s, after his release from the military and probably some traveling to other parts of the east coast as well, Jordan had taken up residence in downtown Lynchburg and was playing regularly. Jordan continued to travel throughout his musical career and during the summer of 1927 in Charlotte, NC, he became one of the first country blues players to be recorded.

 The Victor Record Company spent much of the 1920s scouring the south for black musicians. It is unclear how they came into contact with Jordan. Some sources say he was encouraged by fans in Charlotte to audition, others that he was possibly referred by a record shop either in Richmond or Lynchburg. The latter is a distinct possibility since record shop owners of the time often acted as talent scouts for local artists. However it came to be, Jordan recorded four of his songs for release by Victor on two double sided records, including the popular “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” “Cocaine Blues,” and “Church Bells Blues.” Due to the success of these albums, Jordan was contacted by Victor once again in 1929 and recorded six more songs in New York City during the fall of that year. Unfortunately, Jordan’s recording career came to an early end due to the Great Depression.

" Church Bells Blues " (LUKE JORDAN) August 1927

Jordan’s rendition of “Church Bells Blues,” generally considered his most outstanding work.

As is heard in the video above, Jordan had a smooth, sweet voice in comparison to many of his contemporaries. His vocal style complimented the Piedmont blues style in which he played guitar. Piedmont blues features an upbeat playing style that often contrasts its darker lyrics. It mixes blues with influences from country, ragtime, and old-time music and is characterized by a two-finger picking method that allows the guitarist to sound like he is accompanying himself. The melody is generally played by the fore finger on the higher pitched strings while the bass accompaniment is played on the lower strings by the thumb. The late Etta Baker, a renowned Piedmont blues musician, demonstrates this style in the video below:

Etta Baker, who learned the style from her father, gives a demonstration of Piedmont blues guitar.

This method is very similar to the contemporary ragtime piano style referred to as “stride,” in which the left hand makes great leaps across the keyboard in order to play both a bass line and a chordal accompaniment to the melody played in the right. 

Despite the talent of musicians such as Jordan, the Piedmont blues style fell out of favor by WWII. Jordan himself had lost his voice and was no longer singing by the 1940s, by many reports likely due to his alcoholism. Luke Jordan passed away in 1952. His grave can be found in the Forest Hill Cemetery off Route 221. 

Photo of Jordan’s grave by Kevin Cleary.

Photo of Jordan’s grave by Kevin Cleary.

However, the years just following Jordan’s death saw a renewed interest in the various country blues styles thanks to a folk music revival that brought the Piedmont blues back to the stage. Luke Jordan’s influences can be heard in the music of many later Virginia blues artists. Today, through the help of the James River Blues Society, Jordan is honored with a Virginia Historical Highway Marker on the corner of Jefferson and Horseford streets, near an old apartment where he stayed and the musical stomping grounds of his youth.

Holly Phelps
Staff, Lynchburg Museum System