Monday, February 11, 2008

Leadbelly's Blues

If you’d like to give some contemporary poetry a try, look no further than Tyehimba Jess, a nationally acclaimed poet who is currently on the faculty of the UI Creative Writing Department. There’s nothing obscure or pretentious about Jess’ poetry – he’s a great storyteller, and he picked a great subject for his latest book, leadbelly: the life of Huddie Ledbetter, the hard-living Blues guitarist.

The poems in leadbelly include actual excerpts of news articles, letters, interviews, and songs from Leadbelly’s time. There’s a rawness and intensity to his story – stripped down poverty, murder, prison, and shocking racism. The enormously talented and charismatic Leadbelly could not and would not be controlled. Here’s a line from a poem early in the book that foreshadows all that is to come, a poem written in the voice of Leadbelly’s mother:

when the black boy climbs out of my womb:
how to peel dynamite from his bones?
how to strip tornado’s hum from his ears?
how to weed graveyard from the garden of his tongue?

As Toi Derricotte says in a quote on the book’s cover, “Changing history into poetry takes mysterious skill.” Tyehimba Jess certainly has it.


Hannah said...

Professor Jess came to our class last semester, and we had the opportunity to hear him perform some of his poetry from this book. It really is a great work! interesting, moving, thought provoking. seeing him perform it was even more awesome.

Smithsonian Folkways said...

We are so thrilled your referenced the wonderful Lead Belly! We have an upcoming release which features many artists who follow his legacy and are influenced by his talent. Please consider reviewing Classic Harmonica Blues from Smithsonian Folkways.