Blind Lemon Blues
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
September 11, 2009
Long before the bending, crying sounds of the electric guitar became the centerpiece of American blues music, the star of the show was the performer, their voice, and the mythical stories they sung over those legendary twelve bars. Modern technology now permits guitar-gods like Buddy Guy to not only play to crowds numbering in the thousands, but to walk through the audience at the same time (trust me—I've seen it...and it's awesome!). Go back far enough though, and you see that blues music was really built upon the backs of rural-born journeymen (and women) like Robert Johnson, Bessie Tucker, and my personal favorite, Mississippi John Hurt. Before the downtown blues clubs and outdoor festivals, there were West Texas juke joints and old Mississippi porches. In the middle of this important legacy stands Blind Lemon Jefferson. Armed with a small guitar and a gigantic voice, Jefferson went from performing on a small-town corner in Deep Ellum to the studios of Chicago, where his recordings helped make him "the biggest-selling country blues singer in America."
Blind Lemon Blues is told primarily from the vantage point of friend and fellow great Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. It is the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a big man filled with a restless, adventurous spirit, and a vocal self-assurance in his skills as a blues man. Speaking in the beginning from his final recording session, Lead Belly guides the audience through the adventures he shared with Lemon. Along the way, the two men connect with other legendary blues musicians (Bessie Tucker, Hattie Hudson, Lillian Miller, and T-Bone Walker) played by the remaining four members of the cast, who in addition, make up the show's chorus. In this two act musical, Act I is structured primarily like a revue, with the story of Lemon never moving far from his carefree days as a small-time blues man. Through the songs, we hear tall tales of Lemon and Lead's many close brushes with the law, angry husbands, and fast moving trains. And while it's an important story, pulled together by some incredible performances (Alisa Yarbrough's piano tunes are a highlight), the act as a whole is lacking. All the talent is there. Unfortunately however, the first half of Blind Lemon Blues is poorly supported by a thin script and repetitive blocking that early on ceases to surprise.
The same cannot be said of Act II. Covering the final years of Lemon, in which he recorded his way to national stardom, the second half of Blind Lemon Blues is a richly textured and emotional portrayal of the singer's most successful years. Incredibly moving in both its music and its staging, it is a beautiful second act, finally providing the dramatic canvas so well-deserved by this deeply talented cast. Led by Akin Babatunde (Lemon), whose theatre credits show a man deeply committed to preserving the traditions and history of Black America, it will be hard to find more enjoyable singing in New York this season. Moving effortlessly between raucous, Southern-fried blues numbers and old, angelic spirituals, this cast of six more than makes up for the few moments when the script and staging fall short. Special mention is required of Cavin Yarbrough, who, as Lead Belly and Blind Willy Johnson, serves as a proud reminder that America's greatest talents are never found on televised contests.
While the story shown here of Blind Lemon Jefferson is an important one, perhaps Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde's greatest addition to America's cultural archive is the way they explore, and present, the blues as more than just great music. Here, in Blind Lemon Blues, the music serves as a chronicle of a people, their life, and their culture. At the top of Act II, Lemon sings about being "broke and hungry." The year is 1925, and with one song, we understand that in the years of excess leading up to the Crash of 1929, not everybody was living the Gatsby life. With the many beautifully sung spirituals, the role of the church, as both an anchor of hope and initiator of social change, is expressed in ways a textbook could never match. And underlying the many references to sex so brilliantly disguised by blues songwriters, one sees a group of people, who in spite of a myriad of challenges, still knew the importance of a good time.
Blind Lemon Blues is a good play, held up by a terrific cast, whose devotion and appreciation for the subject more than makes up for the production's missteps early on.
Looking for more? For a close look at the contemporary Delta bluesman, watch the terrific documentary You See Me Laughing? Another great resource is www.archive.org, where you can listen to original recordings of Blind Lemon, Lead Belly, and more.