Akin Babatunde in Blind Lemon Blues
(© Carol Rosegg)
Akin Babatunde in Blind Lemon Blues
(© Carol Rosegg)
August Wilson wrote that he listened to the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the subject of the York Theatre's musical Blind Lemon Blues, every day for five years. At the time of Blind Lemon's brief but hugely influential success in the late 1920s, he was, as Wilson wrote, "the voice of Black America." How strange and sad that Blind Lemon's work is so little known today.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (played with fierce intensity by Akin Babatunde, who is also the show's director and choreographer) was a street singer for most of his life, sitting on the corner of Elm Street and Central Avenue in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas, Texas, singing his songs for the coins people would toss in his cup. He was discovered there by a recording scout in 1926 and periodically brought to Chicago to make records. He made a total of 80 recordings that briefly turned him into the King of Country Blues before he froze to death one night in Chicago when he got lost in a snowstorm.

The show, which is being given a fuller production than the one that the York did two years ago, gives us a long overdue sense of the man's music and his milieu, but offers perhaps a bit less about his life than one might like. The book is a cross between a tone poem and a straight-on narrative, told through the memory of jazz great Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough). His tale includes other seminal jazz and blues artists who were working at that time, including Blind Willie Johnson (also played by Yarbrough), who tried to take over Blind Lemon's street corner while the master was in Chicago recording. Their musical duel for the corner is one of the most thrilling moments in the show. The reason it stands out, however, is because it's also one of the few moments of drama in this musical that is otherwise more interested in the man's music rather than the man, himself.

Babatunde has presence by the pound, dominating the stage like the anchor of a battleship. His singing, guitar picking, and acting make you feel as if you must be seeing something very much like the real thing. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast, who also include Timothy Parham, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough, and Carmen Ruby Floyd, pose, prance, dance, and sing in a surprisingly wide variety of styles.

The variety of the music is, in fact, the most surprising part of Blind Lemon's musical story. He didn't just write and sing the blues, he also wrote religious songs ("Lord, I Want to be Like Jesus in My Heart"), comedy numbers ("Fence Breakin' Yellin" Blues"), and protest songs ("'Lectric Chair Blues"). And some of his songs were personal and deeply moving, like "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." And while they were written more than eight decades ago, most of these songs remain very compelling, as is Blind Lemon's mostly forgotten story.