In a world full of fluff and superficiality, our culture's collective amnesia has reached epidemic proportions. John Sinclair's new book of verse, however, shows some of the many roots of that popular culture -- and how they were hewn from the lives, joys and suffering of the United States' most marginalized citizens.
Sinclair calls the book Fattening Frogs for Snakes: The Delta Sound Suite (Surregionalist Press), and it continues the confluence of research and art that Sinclair has been performing for more than three decades. The poetry in Frogs for Snakes consists of interviews and articles about the musicians of the Mississippi Delta that blues scholar/poet/WWOZ DJ Sinclair has read or conducted and then put to verse. In these pages, the ordinary words of a musician like Muddy Waters or Robert Jr. Lockwood become profound poetry.
All the poems in Frogs for Snakes deal with the daily lives of the musicians they portray. Sinclair writes about the places they would perform, the women whose company they kept, the authorities whose ire they drew, and the land of the Delta they regretfully abandoned. There is a mythology that surrounds many of these greats, such as Muddy Waters or Charlie Patton. The poetry contained here gets beyond that into the facts of their lives, yet the mystique remains.
There is a moment in "Come On In My Kitchen" where Johnny Shines describes Robert Johnson playing the song that is the subject of the poem in a bar in St. Louis. Despite knowing Johnson well, Shines is still mystified and moved by Johnson's effect on an audience. Sinclair writes of Johnson: "... he was playing/ very slow/ & passionately, & when we had quit/ I noticed no one was saying/ anything. ..."
Beautiful images abound in the words here, like Robert Pete Williams getting inspiration in "It's Just Air Music": "or I'm in a field working/ I might begin to hear/ sort of an echo, as an echo/ of singing,/ like. And then/ maybe I start to sing/ with the echo .../ or the sight of Robert Johnson restless late at night/ Women with whom he stayed/ described to Mack McCormick/ how they would wake up/ in the middle of the night/ to discover him/ fingering the guitar strings/ almost soundlessly at the window/ by the light of the moon ... ."
The poems are pared down and economical, like haikus in their sparseness, but they don't lack for power or passion. This is especially evident in poems such as two written for Sonny Boy Williamson (the writer of the song that gives the collection its name), "Decoration Day" and "Fattening Frogs for Snakes." In "Decoration Day," Sinclair talks about the death of Sonny Boy from natural causes and his burial in Tutwiler, Miss., in an unmarked grave until the woman who first recorded him bought a headstone. After describing Sonny Boy's "scoundrel" personality and demise, Sinclair puts himself in the poem calling out Sonny Boy's name and then Sinclair is by the grave, "in the light of the headlamps/ of my car, with John Hall beside me/ geeked-up pilgrims from the north/ on our way to New Orleans/ stopping by to say goodbye/ baby, just one more time."
In the poem "Fattening Frogs for Snakes," Sinclair explains how blues music came to be and the different strands of people and geography that intertwined to make it. Then, as the poem continues, Sinclair rails that the music of these poor descendants of slaves would be exploited and sold without any of them receiving proper credit or compensation for their contributions. In possibly the most vehement statement in the book, Sinclair writes, "This is what they mean/ when they talk about the blues,/ this is what the blues is all about:/ "fattening frogs for snakes"/ & watching the mother f--king snakes/ slither off with the very thing you have made."
Sinclair adds a historical component to the artistry of this work, detailing the lives of these musicians. His research is excellent, not only in referencing which musicians told which stories, but also in terms of bringing the sense of the Delta as a place to life. All the references to the towns and communities of these musicians are vividly and accurately portrayed, from the Dockery Farm where Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson worked and played to the Mississippi general store on Highway 7 outside Itta Bena where Robert Johnson was poisoned. This is also the only poetry book that not only has an index of people and places mentioned, but also has a discography of the major musicians such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters who are the subjects of many of the poems.
Whether for fans of the blues, scholars of American music, or anthropologists combing over the history of the South, or someone who simply likes to hear a good story, John Sinclair's Fattening Frogs for Snakes is required reading.
- The poems of John Sinclair's Fattening Frogs for Snakes are pared down and economical, but they don't lack for power or passion.