Lonesome Blues, a new musical at the York, is a historical dramatization of the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson through music. Jefferson was an itinerant Texas bluesman who was one of the first to be recorded by Paramount Records in the 1920s. He is said to have influenced everyone from Leadbelly to Bob Dylan to the Beatles. Jefferson went on to record 80 songs until his untimely death in his early 30s. He was found frozen near the river in Chicago. The blues, as does the play, tells the story of this rough life for African-Americans in America in the early 20th century. “Blues hits a nerve and that hurts” Jefferson declares.
Jefferson was born in Deep Ellum, Texas, in the late 19th century. He moved to Dallas to play music and was discovered on a street corner. The play centers on Jefferson’s life but uses his songs, as well as spirituals, and original music written by Alan Govenar and Akiń Babatundé, to unearth the context of the times in which Jefferson lived. Many of the songs are about making do when things are tough, and some, such as “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” becomes foreboding when one learns that Jefferson was buried in an unmarked grave until the mid-1960s.
How much can a blind man witness? The play artfully tackles some assumptions about blindness: that people without sight are somehow naïve and unaware of their context. But Jefferson witnessed history as he traveled on the train from Dallas to Chicago. He knew about segregation and the chain gangs working on the railroads. His parents were sharecroppers. “What’s it like to be blind?” people ask him. He explains “Blind folks say imagine seeing behind you with your eyes open, just open. That’s the feeling of being blind.”
As an itinerant musician, Jefferson played his street corner in Dallas daily until he was approached by Paramount Records. Paramount was one of the first labels to record black musicians and became known for its “race records.” They took important chances and recorded many early black musicians who did well. In one scene, Jefferson gleefully says: “They say I sold more records than any other bluesman in my day … Don’t know what that means … other than I got $1,500 in the bank … and a pocket watch with a gold chain … and $1,500 is a lot of money these days.” There is only one known photo of Jefferson, and, without the Paramount recordings, his music would have been lost to history.
Akiń Babatundé is a charismatic performer. His training as an actor, which is clearly extensive, can make the singing too polished at times, but it also allows him to physically embody the character and move through the history of the story gracefully. In Katherine Owens’s production, Babatundé, who is accompanied by the talented David Weiss on guitar, handles the story, songs and plot changes beautifully. He is helped along by James Morgan’s simple set and moody lighting by Steve Woods.
Despite Jefferson’s success at Paramount Records in Chicago, he returned to Dallas repeatedly to sing on his corner. When he finds Blind Willie Johnson on his corner one day, he says: “I guess all God’s children got a guitar, huh, man? Well, let me tell you something, I’ve been making my way playing up and down central track for as long as I can remember, playing in and out of these chock houses, from house parties with bootleg liquor to Saturday night suppers serving iced tea, to church picnics, just to stay out of them cotton fields and make it back again to this corner.”
Texas blues was swingier and more upbeat than Delta blues. One of Jefferson’s songs, “Black Snake Moan,” has been covered by many musicians and was the inspiration for a strange indie film of the same name featuring Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a version on electric guitar. Although the music captures the difficulties of being an itinerant and blind black musician, Jefferson’s songs, like “Choo Choo” and “Rabbit Foot Blues” will have you tapping your toes and clapping along to the music in this simple yet powerful one-man show.
Lonesome Blues is playing through July 1 at the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's Church (619 Lexington Ave., entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Thursday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $67.50 for weekday evenings and Wednesday matinees; weekend matinees are $72.50. Visit https://yorktheatre.org for tickets and more information.