For some, singing the blues is a more effective soul cleanser than going to confession. Listening to another’s troubles set to song can prove powerful for the listener, too, as pain shared can sometimes be pain released. The problem with complaining at length to someone else, however willing an audience he or she may be, is that it’s only a matter of time until misery becomes mawkish.
Blind Lemon Blues, the trifling tribute to influential country blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson that’s playing at the York Theatre Company through February 25, never quite reaches that point. But with nearly 70 songs constituting its cobbled-together score, well over half of which have the word “blues” in their titles, it comes close. Rather than slicing at your heart with carefully chosen musical weapons drawn from Jefferson’s expansive arsenal, the show tries to overwhelm you with the sheer volume of musical numbers it presents. And at that it succeeds.
Creators Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde have ensured that, by show’s end, you feel a spiritual kinship with both Jefferson and the legions of artists his soulful stylings inspired. Unusual for a song catalog show, Blind Lemon Blues focuses so completely on the catalogs of Jefferson (who died in 1929), his contemporaries, and those his work encouraged, that when it’s all through, you might be surprised at how little you’ve come to truly know (or care about) the actual man who made it all happen.
Babatunde (who also directed and choreographed) gives an efficient performance as Jefferson, who was discovered singing his songs on the streets of Texas and was ushered into a Paramount recording contract that both guaranteed - and helped hurry along - his immortality. Along the way, he faced the typical barriers of discrimination, dishonesty, and other assorted hardships. But his troubles are most importantly viewed through the eyes of Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough), aka Huddie Ledbetter, who spends the 1948 evening of his final recording session reminiscing in song about how Jefferson opened the doors that allowed him to attain the acclaim he has.
It’s so hoary a setup, one can’t help but feel Govenar and Babatunde might have been better served by dispensing with altogether and allowing the music to speak for itself. A combination of compositions from Jefferson, other artists of the period (including Bobbie Cadillac and Lillian Glinn), traditional sources, and even seamless new connective material from Govenar and Babatunde themselves, it’s a beautifully blended song list.
If legitimate thrills are very few and even farther between, the slow rumbling pulsing just beneath the show’s surface does occasionally give way to tremors of excitement, such as when Lillias White rips up the stage with Bessie Tucker’s not-so-slyly suggestive “Butcher Shop Blues,” or other ensemble members Benita Arterberry, Timothy Parham, and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough sing a climactic medley of disparate blues tunes celebrating the full range of Jefferson’s musical life. All the performers, including guitarist Sam Swank, are spot-on, and Russell Parkman’s set and Steve Woods’s lights movingly evoke the long road so many African-American musicians have had to travel.
But if Govenar and Babatunde capture the essence of a sung oral history uniting these people, the progenitors, and their followers, very little possesses the rich emotional pull on which all blues music depends. Perhaps to better understand Jefferson it is crucial that we understand Lead Belly, but the authors have not yet conclusively made that case. They have, however, demonstrated that an evening packed with the blues can leave you feeling every other color. For them - and for us - that might be enough.
Blind Lemon Blues
Photo: Akin Babatunde. Photo by Alan Govenar.