by Alix Cohen
Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson (1893 –1929), thought to be the first commercially successful blues artist and father of Texas blues, was the 7th son born to sharecroppers in Coachman, Texas. Almost blind, he began to play guitar and sing as a teenager, first at community events and then in the street. In Dallas, Jefferson met and played with two other artists who were destined to become famous in the genre, Huddie William Ledbetter aka Leadbelly and Aaron Thibeaux Walker aka T-Bone Walker.
Jefferson was one of the first to record solo voice and blues guitar quickly becoming successful. He toured extensively all over the south. Because of iconoclastic vocal range, unexpected emphasis, naturalistic style, and terrific musicianship he was rarely imitated until rock n’roll performers came along. Reason for the musician’s death remains disputed. He was at first buried in an unmarked grave and moved in 1980.
Alan Govenar and Akin Akin Babatundé’s Lonesome Blues is the successor to 1998’s Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues. “Based on new research, we recognized the opportunity to focus in more depth on the internal and external struggles…of a man…disabled at birth, who learns to express his deepest emotions through the blues music he creates and performs.” (The authors)
Its writers call this piece “a poetic rendering of Blind Lemon’s memories” rather than “a bio-musical.” This is accurate. Originally performed with six actors and a guitarist, the now solo presentation has become a concert featuring excerpts from a huge number of songs. People out of Jefferson’s past injected into bridging dialogue are, alas, indistinguishable from one another making inclusion impressionistic rather than informative/ illuminating. It’s impossible to glean much about the subject’s life.
Though Babatundé’s Texas accent, likely close to authentic, makes it difficult to understand some of what’s being said, (a theatrical compromise might be made in favor of intelligibility), the performer delivers forceful personification. Confident vocals slip/slide with terrific range and evocative accentuation. Lyrics that insinuate do so with flair. The actor somehow communicates Jefferson’s blindness. Overall feel of Jefferson’s oeuvre is spot on. That material runs one into the next a bit too similarly seems the fault of eliminating other voices.
Note: Blind Lemon Jefferson played his own instrument. Here we see top notch guitarist David Weiss. Instinct and articulation of Texas blues adds immeasurably to the piece.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
York Theatre Company in Association with Documentary Arts presents
Lonesome Blues by Alan Govenar and Akin Akin Babatundé
Akin Babatundé as Blind Lemon Jefferson et al
David Weiss- Guitar
Directed by Katherine Owens
York Theatre 619 Lexington Avenue enter at 54th St.
Through July 1, 2018