blind lemon jefferson was the voice of Black America at that time - August Wilson (photo courtesy York Theater Company)

Lemon Henry Jefferson (9/24/1893? – 12/19/1929), known to the world as Blind Lemon, is one of the greatest singer/composer/guitarists you’ve never heard of.  He is one of the artistic masters who invented American music while creating a national audience for blues, jazz, and pop.  He died virtually penniless before the age of 40, joining a long list of martyrs to America’s artistic apartheid.  What is it about the music industry, about the arts in general, that cannot or will not acknowledge the foundations of the culture?

One giant step in rehabilitating his celebrity; his rightful status as American musical royalty, will take place thru the end of June. The York Theater Company’s much needed, highly-welcomed presentation of “LONESOME BLUES” is now running at St. Peter’s Church.  As directed by Katherine Owens, the production deserves to be held over and made available to public high school students at the very least.  You are hereby warned – don’t miss it!

This one-man play is set in 1929 as Jefferson is making his transition to the ancestral realm.  Through reminiscence, rapping, and music, Akin Babatunde becomes Jefferson. And in the course of his performance, he offers a college level seminar in “existing while Black,” roaring 20’s-style.

The program opens with an intentionally grungy set, the excellent one man band/orchestra to the far right (David Weiss on guitar.)  Babatunde’s voice, a big voice, is much lower pitched than Jefferson’s almost-falsetto delivery.  And it would be unreasonable to expect a recreation of his guitar picking artistry, which had Tex Mex, spiritual, and pop music components.  But these are details.  The great music and great associated stories make for an entertaining and informative theater experience.

The Jefferson songbook, as augmented by some traditional and gospel tunes, forms the framework for the production.  Co-writers Babatunde and Alan Govenar also contributed a few tunes. Some of his contemporaries’ compositions round out the playlist – folks like Bobby Cadillac and Lillian Miller (please google them).  What we discover is a performance time capsule. Its contents summarize the concerns, feelings, and practices of the average African-American of a century ago.

Jefferson’s talents are still remembered by artists who deeply study (some might say appropriate, but that’s another conversation) the music.  So he will periodically re-emerge from obscurity.  The most popular of the Fillmore West/Summer of Love rock bands, Jefferson Airplane, took its name from the artist.  Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Albert King, and Carl Perkins are just a few of the singers who have covered his compositions.  Even Samuel L. Jackson made a bait-and-switch film that took its title from Jefferson’s song “Black Snake Moan.”

There are obvious parallels between contemporary rappers and the long-ago Bluesmen represented by Jefferson.  Both groups were seen as having a corrupting influence on youth.  Both were targets of harassment/incarceration by authorities. Both were denounced by the wannabe respectable elements of the Black community.  Both were associated with drugs and misogyny.  Nevertheless, both styles leave a recorded legacy that, at its best, will withstand the judgement of history.  They offer unparalleled insights into the psychology and sociology of their respective times.

Of course, one great difference between these genres is in the essential areas of love and life.  Today’s rappers, Ike and Tina’s children, embody the mantra – What’s Love Got to Do With It?  Absolutely Nothing!  Women are stuff, possessions, pleasure providers, and not much more.  The rare expressions of or discussions of love are an admission of weakness it seems.

The old Bluesmen, however are all about the women they love, hope to love, or used to love.  That’s why they’re crying, begging, or jumping a freight train to Chicago.  Is it possible that the Bluesmen of the 20th century were more advanced than the rappers of the 21st century?  Jefferson did most of 80 plus recordings in Chicago, helping to make Paramount records a power in the music business.

One day soon, we will come to the realization that many of America’s greatest writers and poets were confined to the jook joint, the speakeasy, and the houses of prostitution during most of the 20th century.  Ralph Ellison, Gwen Brooks, and Zora Neal Hurston notwithstanding, publishing opportunities were (and still are) hard to come by for the creative or questioning African American. Singing became the “default option” for folks with something on their minds, something they wanted to share with the community.  The wide range of topics, opinions, and perspectives within the jazz/blues tradition clearly demonstrates the discussions taking place.

Go to this production, all you rappers and Hip Hop heads.  In the Sankofa spirit, go back and retrieve what you’ve lost to modernity. Bring your notebooks so you can steal some rhymes.

“LONESOME BLUES “will close on July 1st barring a late run on the box office.  You can get info and tickets here.


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