for Snakes: A Delta Sound Suite
206 pages, $15.
"John Sinclair is a huge lover with masses of curly black
hair flowing all over his head and shoulders. . . He and his White Panther
brothers and sisters from Ann Arbor, Michigan are the most alive force in
the whole Midwest. They turn on thousands of kids each week to their own
beauty and build them into warriors and artists of the new Nation. . . For
this some bald-headed judge named Columbo sentenced John Sinclair to
nine-and-a-half to ten years in the penitentiary at Jackson, Michigan."
— Abbie Hoffman
Woodstock Nation (1969)
That’s where guys my age remember the name John Sinclair.
Abbie Hoffman was on the stage at Woodstock ranting about freeing John
Sinclair when Pete Townshend bashed him over the head with a guitar.
It’s the twenty-first century now. In the photo on the
back cover of this book, John Sinclair’s hair is white and his face looks
almost professorial. I don’t know what all he’s been up to during the
intervening years, but obviously he has invested some time learning a whole
lot about the blues.
Fattening Frogs For Snakes is thirty-six poems about
the early history of blues in America. Which, forgive me for restating what
everyone must know, is not only the source of most popular music, but also
the backbone of our culture. This book would make an excellent gift for that
friend with a serious interest in American music or American history, but it
would also serve just fine as an introduction for one who has never read or
thought very much about those subjects.
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
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
white & black
people both. The train
maybe once that
& when it was
just to see
that train pull up.
before & after
the train came.
— "Some of
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
& you go
to where a road
crossroads is . . .
You have to go
& be sitting
A big black man
will walk up there
& take your
& he’ll tune
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:
who ‘opens the
— "Cross Road
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.