By William Wolf

LONESOME BLUES  Send This Review to a Friend

Back in the 1920s, Blind Lemon Jefferson was singing the blues fueled by personal pain and that of his race, and was so effective that he was discovered and recorded by Paramout. His life was short—born in 1893 and died at the age of 35 in 1929. What was he like?

Akin Babatundé brings him dramatically to life in “Lonesome Blues,” a play by Alan Govenar and Babatundé, directed by Katherine Owens and presented by The York Theatre Company in association with Documentary Arts. It is a tour de force performance, with the actor-singer ruminating on Jefferson’s life and singing his repertoire. Developing a distinct, wounded personality, he exhibits the inner longings and passions that Jefferson expressed, in addition to singing a vast number of songs in the style associated with the man who had such an influence on the art of the blues.

That style is not the more polished blues singing of some others, but in an extremely earthy, accented manner, often punctuated by a high piercing, expressive voice. Always there is the reflection of the burden carried by coming from a poor and black background in Texas and being born blind.

The setting is Chicago, 1929, on the day Jefferson died, and he is telling us about his life through his songs and the comments. There was a period when he was close to Lead Belly, referred to in the show. With accompaniment by David Weiss on guitar, Babatundé gives us many numbers that Jefferson wrote, including “Got the Blues,” “Disgusted Blues,” “Broke and Hungry Blues,” “Black Snake Moan,” “Christmas Eve Blues,” “Where Shall I Be,” and a prophetic lament, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” There are also traditional blues numbers that Jefferson didn’t write but are sung in his style.

The show affords an opportunity to become acquainted with this icon in the history of the blues, and to the credit of Babatundé, one comes away with a solid impression of the man and his life, as well as the particular approach be brought to the music scene. One can conjure a vision of him ensconced outdoors on a street and singing to passersby, as well as imagining what it may have been like for him being recorded after his talent had been discovered by a record agent. At the York Theater at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street at Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed June 20, 2018.


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