The great blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded some 100 sides for Paramount Records between 1926 and his death in1929, and Blind Lemon Blues seems determined to drop the needle on every last track. The musical tribute -- "biography" would be a stretch -- at York Theatre Company samples some 65 titles, nearly all of the 12-bar-blues variety, allowing listeners to parse the differences among "Lock Step Blues," "Bed Spring Blues," "Carbolic Acid Blues," and dozens of others. Laid end to end, how varied are 12-bar blues? Not very, it turns out.
Creators Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde have jerrybuilt a framework for this revue, setting it at a 1948 recording session by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, who jammed with Jefferson on the streets of Dallas decades before. Lead Belly, eloquently sung by Cavin Yarbrough, reminisces about his late friend while an ensemble (ghosts? memories? the collective unconscious of black blues musicians?) echoes Jefferson's thoughts and music. The show touches on the exploitation of black artists, the "race ads" of the 1920s, and a few recording contemporaries. But factoids are dropped into the concert like raisins -- there's so little context that we can't even figure out whether Jefferson was a nice guy or not.
No quarrel with the vibrant Blind Lemon of co-creator Babatunde, who has a powerful, versatile tenor, or with Sam Swank's expert guitar picking or the gorgeous unmiked singing of the cast of six (the other four are Benita Arterberry, Timothy Parham, Lillias White, and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough). The choral work is particularly beautiful; not being a major component of this corner of the blues, however, it's kept to a minimum. August Wilson called Jefferson "the voice of black America at that moment," and a more incisive examination of the man, his milieu, and his influence may well be a journey worth taking. But it will need a much more detailed, less monochromatic map than this.
Presented by York Theatre Company
at Saint Peter's Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave., NYC.
Feb. 15-26, Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
212-935 5820 or www.yorktheatre.org.
Casting by Norman Meranus.