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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

John Sinclair Books
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fattening-frogs-for-snakesSurregional Press, 2002

[...] Much of Fattening Frogs is told in the words of the bluesmen themselves: Robert Lockwood Junior, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Shines, Mississippi Fred McDowell. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking, "gee, there’s not really any poetry here at all, just a bunch of quotes strung together." Then you think about trying to do what Sinclair has done, making it seem as though McDowell were standing right in front of you explaining how it was, and you realize the extent of the accomplishment. It’s a strong writer who can get himself that far out of the material’s way.

Like a documentary put together of footage that dos not exist, Sinclair’s book makes the early twentieth century Mississippi Delta visible, almost palpable: the little towns, the roads, the railroads, the fields, the cabins out in the woods, the people in those cabins.

Here’s Roebuck Staples talking about Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf:

standin’ by the railroad tracks,

people pitchin’ em

nickles & dimes,

white & black people both. The train

come through town

maybe once that afternoon,

& when it was time,

everybody would gather around

just to see that train pull up.

They’d play around there,

before & after the train came.

— "Some of These Days"

Who hasn’t heard about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for superhuman skill as a guitarist? Well, it turns out Johnson was just the inheritor of a tradition, passing along a story told by musicians before he was born:

you take your guitar

& you go

to where a road

crosses that way,

where a crossroads is . . .

You have to go by yourself

& be sitting there

playing a piece.

A big black man will walk up there

& take your guitar

& he’ll tune it.

And then he’ll play a piece

& hand it back to you.

Now, stop. Where did that story come from? What is that story about? Think, now. Of course! Like the best parts of American culture, obtained though that global act of genocidal piracy it’s too kind to call "slavery," that story came from West Africa, from the amazing storehouse of the Yoruba people. That wasn’t the devil at the crossroads. It was Legba:

a Yoruba trickster god,

who ‘opens the path’

for other supernatural powers

& is


associated with the crossroads.

— "Cross Road Blues"

The book, which is handsomely produced, finishes with a good bibliography and an even better discography. A sound recording of Sinclair performing the poems is also available.

— Read L.A.H.'s full review