Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most influential blues performers of the early 20th century, except in Lonesome Blue, at The York Theatre Company, you would never know this. His sound, cohesiveness of his story and what is happening on stage blur into oblivion. It wan’t until I got home and youtube and googled him that I understood his influence.
Born blind in 1893, to sharecroppers in Texas, Jefferson was considered one of the founders of Texas blues and a leading figure in country blues. Jefferson began performing in Dallas where he met blues legend, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. The pair worked together for a short time. In the 1920s, Jefferson married Roberta Ransom, and was discovered by a talent scout in 1925, Jefferson soon went to Chicago to launch his recording career. He put down more than 90 tracks, mostly for the Paramount label. Jefferson helped popularized blues across the country with such songs as “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues.” In addition to the blues, Jefferson also recorded several gospel tunes, such as “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart,” under the name Deacon L. J. Bates. He toured extensively as well, playing gigs in his native Texas and other parts of the South.
How Jefferson died on December 19, 1929, in Chicago, has never been agreed upon, yet in Lonesome Blues we are to believe he was waiting for a car in a snow storm. Though his his death certificate says “probably acute myocarditis, rumors circulated that a jealous lover had poisoned his coffee, he died of a heart attack after becoming disoriented during a snowstorm and he died of a heart attack after being attacked by a dog in the middle of the night. The book Tolbert’s Texas claimed that he was killed while being robbed of a large royalty payment by a guide escorting him to Union Station to catch a train home to Texas. Paramount Records paid for the return of his body to Texas by train, accompanied by the pianist William Ezell.
The one man show, written by Alan Govenor and Akin Babatundé, misses the cadence of the music and the life of this man. It is confusing and sadly uninteresting, though it turns out Blind Lemon Jefferson was highly interesting. I had not know of him before, so it was wonderful to do the research and hear how wonderful his music really is, because in the show I thought the music was not well written.
Though Jefferson played guitar, in this production Jefferson and all the people in his life are played by Akin Babatundé. The guitar playing is left to David Weiss, who plays a mean slide. Weiss’s guitar playing is the best part of the show.
Katherine Owens direction doesn’t help this piece stay focused.
James Morgan’s set, Gelacio Eric Gibson costumes, lighting by Steve Woods and sound design by Jason Johnson-Spinos all do a good job with the technical aspects.
What Lonesome Blues does do is make you learn about this fascinating man.
Lonesome Blues: The York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave, until July 1st.