Fattening Frogs for Snakes



John Sinclair

Fattening Frogs for Snakes: A Delta Sound Suite

Surregional Press

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

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 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.



Copyright © 2003 Square Lake, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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