Do The Blues Make You Happy? “Blind Lemon Blues” Review

Do The Blues Make You Happy? “Blind Lemon Blues” Review
September 13, 2009
Johnathan Mandell
The Faster Times

A long walk from the grassy knoll where President Kennedy was killed brings you to a neighborhood with the evocative name of Deep Ellum, the official arts district of Dallas, a community so steeped in music that there is a traditional song called the Deep Ellum Blues. It was on a street corner in Deep Ellum one day probably in 1912 that Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who later became famous as a folk singer, met a blind, black blues musician named Lemon Jefferson, who was armed with a guitar and a tin cup.

That encounter is dramatized near the beginning of “Blind Lemon Blues,” a new musical at the York Theater Company that will entertain theatergoers and thrill blues enthusiasts. The meeting of the two musicians is only one of the legendary encounters in the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Another occurred on that same street corner, Elm Street and Central Avenue, more than a decade later. A scout for a company called Paramount Records “discovered” him and brought him to Chicago, where he recorded dozens of songs that became national hits.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was, as Congressman Charles Rangel recently said in remarks entered into the Congressional Record, “the first commercially successful male black artist” in the United States, his songs influencing generations of musicians and covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, B.B. King and the Beatles.

The Beatles credited “Matchbook Blues” to Carl Perkins, who had himself covered Jefferson’s song without giving him credit — far from the only bitter irony in the life and legacy of Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of his greatest hits was ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” but Jefferson died young, just three years into his unprecedented success, under circumstances that have never been conclusively established, and his grave remained unmarked for almost four decades.

Alan Govenar, who with Akin Babatunde conceived and wrote the book and about ten new songs for “Blind Lemon Blues,” knows this history well. He is a scholar of folk and blues music, the author of 20 books, including “Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound” and “Deep Ellum and Central Track,” the person most often called upon to write up the entry on Jefferson in whatever anthologies.

There is, however, little about Jefferson’s life in Govenar and Babatunde’s show. There are two good reasons for this. First, little is known for sure about his life; most is rumor and speculation (which is offered up sketchily in such new songs in the show as “Gossip Talking Blues.”)

Second, “Blind Lemon Blues” presents some 60 songs, about half of them written by Blind Lemon Jefferson, all ably performed by a cast of six, including Akin Babatunde as Blind Lemon and Cavin Yarbrough as Lead Belly, and off-stage guitarist Skip Krevens. There is not much room for dramatic scenes. The show begins with Lead Belly’s last recording session in 1948 and is presumably framed as his reminisicing about his friend who died 19 years earlier, but nothing much comes of this, and most of the other short non-musical scenes are stylized, the performers acting like a Greek chorus, repeating or amplifying lines from the main characters. Nobody would mistake this show for George C. Wolfe’s “Jelly’s Last Jam,” about Jelly Roll Morton, nor August Wilson’s first Broadway hit, the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Ma Rainey was another Paramount Records star, by the way, and while none of her songs are in “Blind Lemon Blues,” there are songs by about a half dozen other blues divas of the day, and they come the closest to show-stopping numbers. Watch, for example, Inga Ballard work it in Bessie Tucker’s “Butcher Shop Blues” with its naughty double-entendres.

These and the other songs of “Blind Lemon Blues” go down easily and seamlessly, updated for the modern ear — the traditional blues are tinged and supplemented by gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, doo-wop, and rap — expressing humor, hard times, sadness, sexiness, outrage, joy, pride, disgust and delight, reflecting the spirit and the times of Deep Ellum’s long-ago street-corner musician.

Deep Ellum Blues
Once I knew a preacher
Preached the Bible through and through
But he went down in Deep Ellum
Now his preachin’ days are through
Oh, sweet Mama,
Daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh, sweet Mama,
Daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

Above is a scene from the 2007 production of “Blind Lemon Blues,” with a slightly different cast.

“Blind Lemon Blues: A New Musical”, a production of the York Theatre Company, is running through October 4, 2009 at The Theater at Saint Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street. Created by Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde; directed, choreographed and starring Akin Babatunde. Cast: Akin Babatunde, Inga Ballard, Carmen Ruby Floyd, TImothy Parham, Cavin Yarbrough, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough. The normal price is $67.50, but the show is participating in the 20@20 promotion, which means that tickets if available will be sold 20 minutes before the show for $20.
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