Remembering a blues musician

<i>Leadbelly</i> uses poetry to describe the life of the blues musician Leadbetter. (credit: Kristen Severson | Photo Editor) <i>Leadbelly</i> uses poetry to describe the life of the blues musician Leadbetter. (credit: Kristen Severson | Photo Editor)

Leadbelly is an amalgamation of different approaches to explain an overlooked and complicated man. With so many juxtapositions throughout the work — between black and white, man and woman, powerful and powerless — the author, Tyehimba Jess, explores these dynamics using multiple forms like biography, persona, lyric, and hard-driving prose poems to highlight Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a legendary blues musician.

The author’s style and gift for creating metaphors and visuals that place the reader into the context he is describing make reading Leadbelly particularly enjoyable.

The first poem, “leadbelly’s lessons,” acts as a title poem and an introduction to the book as well as to Jess’s style of writing. The book is very poignant, a touching tribute to a man the author probably never met but felt inspired to write about. The work details Ledbetter’s life, including significant events and people from his childhood to old age.

The first section –– “what kind of soul has man?” –– consists of six poems that represent the earlier part of Ledbetter’s life. The first is a list poem of 11 questions the author must have imagined Ledbetter’s mother Sallie asking. It is truly a mother’s hymn, ending with the nursing of her son, and wondering about which of her breasts nursed into him such talent and such torture. The next one describes Ledbetter’s father and his work, his son’s conception, and the potential he sees in this tiny little boy. The next three poems personify the pistol Ledbetter’s father gave him, the street he lived on as a child, and his guitar, Stella, speaking from the perspective of each, respectively, and how they directly affect and influence Ledbetter as a young man. My favorite poem of the book, “1912: blind lemon Jefferson explaining to leadbelly,” is similar to the first poem; however, it tells a story of desperation from an older person’s perspective.

Sections that take a different tone and structure are “man plowing with mules” and “you don’t know my mind....” The former introduces John Lomax, who recorded songs with Ledbetter and went on tour with him throughout Texas. “Prisoner #489235, parchman farm, Mississippi September 3, 1934” is a not even a poem, but a reproduced letter in the perspective of Jack, an inmate who describes seeing and hearing Leadbelly perform.

I appreciate that Tyehimba chooses to include poignant details like this; they provide the audience with perspective: an interior and exterior view of Leadbelly and whom his life affects. The poem “leadbelly: mythology” makes interesting use of strikethroughs that prompt the reader to read the text in two ways. This format is especially good because it forces the audience to re-evaluate the written words and their meanings.

He uses this technique in the latter section, “you don’t know my mind...,” where a split space down the middle of six of the eight poems gives each poem three different reads. Manipulating space allows Jess to create new meanings and interpretations of his poems; his words almost speak to the readers and reflect his spoken words. They almost demand performance, with such an oral quality that longs for them to be performed on stage. The themes of society, bigotry, family, childhood, and hard work are woven through this chronicle of Leadbelly’s life, from his Southern roots through a rich history of music and dialect, to the end, which closes with a devotion from his wife, Martha, after his death.

The last section –– “good morning baby, how do you do?” –– is the section that is the most obviously interconnected: Each poem follows using a line or phrase from the previous one. The repetition of the line “I’ll unload the trunk, air out the best suit” begins the first poem, “leadbelly & martha: return to New York, 1936,” and ends the last poem, “martha: vigil.” This technique provides cohesion and flow, almost suggesting to the reader that these poems are all one idea. They might also suggest that all the people in Leadbelly’s life are on one page, each with a common understanding of their current reality in relation to this man. The last section is also the last to pose a question. I can appreciate the inclusion of the timeline in the back matter of the book, which clarified some questions I had about this musician’s life. As a legend, he tried to “stake his claim on the breath of each Black/willing to open his mouth and spit out/southern legend’s soiled root.”