by Deirdre Donovan
a season with so many musicals suffering from elephantitis, the musical Lonesome
Blues is refreshingly intimate. An homage to the legendary bluesman Blind
Lemon Jefferson, it breezed into the York Theatre on June 12th and will sojourn
there for a brief run.
by Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde and performed by Babatunde, the show
features 32 musical numbers that are culled from the master’s oeuvre, gospel,
traditional blues, and original songs by Govenar and Babatunde. Set in Chicago, the whole piece is sung in a talkin’ blues style, with Babatunde insinuating
himself into Blind Lemon and various other personas.
isn’t the only performer on stage. Sitting at stage left on a small stool,
David Weiss accompanies the singer on a folk guitar. Weiss brilliantly plays a
mix of smooth mellow tones and syncopated rhythms, plucking away with his
finger pick to create sonic effects that evoke atmosphere or reinforce dominant
images embedded in a song. The connection between the two is palpable.
and David Weiss Photo
Credit: Carol Rosegg.
is part biography, part concert. For 80 minutes, Babatunde disappears into the
bluesman Blind Lemon and tells his story with unexaggerated concentration and
deep commitment. Babatunce doesn’t inundate us with biographical facts all at
once but slowly parcels out this, and that, detail about the musician who was
dubbed “The Father of the Texas Blues.”
those newbies who aren’t acquainted with Blind Lemon, he was born to Alec and
“Classie” Banks Jefferson on September 24, 1893, on a farm in Couchman (about
80 miles south of Dallas). He was the youngest of seven children (each and
every one a boy). Blind from birth, Blind Lemon grew up in Texas and
eventually crossed paths with the country blues singer “Lead Belly” (Huddie
William Ledbetter) in Deep Ellum in 1912. It was a momentous event for the
young Blind Lemon. Their friendship blossomed in that famous neighborhood in East
Dallas, a hotbed of country blues and fast living. The two musicians would
travel together for the next four years, finding gigs, breaking women’s hearts,
and getting into “trouble.”
two artists’ life together in Deep Ellum is echoed in the lyrics of old-time
ballads like “Deep Ellum Blues,” “Elm Street Blues,” and Bobbie Cadillac’s
“Carbolic Acid.” As Babaunde launched into this musical triptych at the York,
one can almost see the tattoo parlors, the beer pubs, and the hustle-bustle
that defines the steamy streets of Deep Ellum.
and Govenar’s original songs blend right into the dramatic fabric of the show
and give us a better foothold on Blind Lemon as an artist and man. In their
“Gossip Interlude,” we listen to the local gossips wag their tongues about
Blind Lemon, pointing out how foot-loose and carefree the bluesman seemed to
be. There’s Miss Annie (“He moves from town to town, hmmff”), Smittie (“Why
does a man who’s supposedly blind sometimes wear glasses?”), Quince (“He’s
blind all right”), and Emma (“Now, chile, I didn’t even know the man could
talk!”), all sizing up the legend. When this original song is through, we
might not have a crystal-clear picture of who Blind Lemon was, but we do sense
that he stirred up a heap of gossip and was a bluesman extraordinaire.
meanders along, uncovering the story of Blind Lemon in his native Big Sky
country and beyond. We learn in the paean “Choo Choo” that Blind Lemon was a
travelin’ man who rode the rails. While the song “Choo Choo” captures the aura
of train travel in the early 20th century, the ballad “Indiana
Harbor” gives a more realistic picture of how Blind Lemon and his soul-mate
Lead Belly survived as musicians. Yes, they would travel the trains
cost-free—but they had to sing for their supper and entertain the folks on
board till everybody got to their destination. To drive this point home,
Babatunde impersonates the Conductor and barks: “You boys sit down. You going
to play music?” And, naturally, the only answer for Blind Lemon and Lead Belly
the show, we learn how Blind Lemon got his big break. It happened, not with
him knocking on any doors, but simply by singing his heart out on the Dallas pavements, hoping passersby would toss coins his way. They did. But the
proprietor of R. T. Ashford Shoe Shine Parlor and Record Shop also heard Blind
Lemon’s high-pitched voice outside his shop. And he wrote to Paramount Records
about the tin cup troubadour who was blind. He got a reply back from a mogul
named Mr. Mayo Williams at Paramount Records. And the rest, as they say, is
history. Blind Lemon began recording with Paramount Records and the “second
city” became Blind Lemon’s second home.
best scene in the show? Perhaps watching the transformation of Blind Lemon
from small to big time. Babatunde, as Blind Lemon, re-enacts how the bluesman
sat in front of a recording studio microphone in Chicago in 1925, singing
“Broke and Hungry Blues” for Paramount Records. To ratchet up the drama even
more, Babatunde seamlessly morphs into the Recording Engineer who once
bombarded Blind Lemon with instructions for the recording. Naturally, Blind
Lemon grew weary of hearing “another take, please.” But he also knew that he
wouldn’t be paid unless he met the company’s demands. So Blind Lemon kept singing
for each “take”—and made himself a name.
is aptly titled. Loneliness, after all, is the dominant theme throughout. But
the “lonesome” in the title can also underscore how Blind Lemon’s physical
blindness permanently set him apart from the “seeing” world.
Blind Lemon, in fact, wears tinted glasses and curiously never makes eye
contact with the audience. He seems, in fact, to be a latter-day Homer,
staring inwardly into his soul and spinning out poetry for posterity.
a program note, artistic director James Morgan describes how he designed the
“Chicago” set for Lonesome Blues by having a 1995 photo from Florida
blown up and printed, along with a tromp 'loeil sidewalk" by Morgan's
associate, Michael Harbeck (and his brother Jacob). The geographic and period
incongruities didn’t bother Morgan at all since he was attempting to evoke the
mood and atmosphere of Blind Lemon’s Chicago. In any case, it works.
B. King, Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles have all claimed to be heirs of
Blind Lemon. And the playwright August Wilson would listen to his soulful
songs daily for inspiration.
the musical arguably runs a whiff too long, and could benefit if a couple of
songs were cut from the piece. But don’t ask me what songs should be
jettisoned or how Babatunde’s between-song patter could be trimmed.
directed by Katherine Owens, is an ideal way to acquaint oneself with the
legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. Babintunde has the pipes and acting talent to
give flesh-and-blood to the legend. Okay, this show doesn’t have the glitter
and dash of a Broadway musical. But it does have soul.
the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan.
more information, phone (212) 935-5820 or visit yorktheatre.org
Times: 80 minutes with no intermission.