By Tyehimba Jess
Publication Date: October 1, 2005
ISBN# 9780974635330 (7x9 120pp, paperback)
“This is one of the most powerful exchanges between poetry and history that I have read.”—Toi Derricotte
A biography in poems, leadbelly examines the life and times of the legendary blues musician from a variety of intimate and historical perspectives, using a range of innovative poetic forms. A collage of song, culture and circumstance, alive and speaking.
National Poetry Series winner selected by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
History unfolds revealing the overlooked blues-original Huddie Ledbetter in rising poet Tyehimba Jess’s first book, leadbelly. Jess chronologically tells the story of this Louisiana native, son of a cotton picker, through a series of persona poems. Fueled by everything hateful and destructive in southern bigotry, the first poem, “leadbelly’s lessons” sets the tone when twelve-year old Huddie, gifted with an artist’s voice through six strings, reveals: “it was there, alone./in the dark, darkness for me/that i first learned the ways/of pure white envy.” Divided by titles of Leadbelly’s recorded songs, the reader gets to “hear” the prophetic love of his mother; the long days of southern plantations and strength of his father; and the traversed controversial life of this innocent, turned artist, confessed prisoner, recording artist, blues man ’till death. There is an orality in Jess’s prose poems that lends itself directly to this project. A powerful intertwining of history and blues told through poetry. Jess has created a unique book with a distinct voice that any lover of blues or student of American history needs.
In its scope, this is an astonishing book, an unflinching chronicle of the life of a great musician and the times in which he lived. Highly recommended.
Jess’ debut, an addictive amalgamation of approaches reminiscent, in its way, of Dos Passos’ 1919, tells the story of Huddie William Ledbetter and his passage to becoming the blues legend, Leadbelly. Told through many voices, from his devoted wife Martha to folklorist John Lomax and his quest to “stake his claim on the breath of each Black / willing to open his mouth and spit out / southern legend’s soiled roots,” the collection proceeds by call and response, each negation an affirmation of something else, like trading “dry psalms...for cool cigar smoke.” In the telling of one life, a society is exposed—racist, well-meaning, violent, forgiving. And yet while the classic binaries—black and white, man and woman, powerful and powerless—play their part, the collection’s strength lies in its contradictory forms; from biography to lyric to hard-driving prose poem, boast to song, all are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern blues and the demands of honoring one’s talent. Readers will notice these poems teach us how to read them, but more so, these poems demand performance, recalling that space beyond the page: the stage. Jess has crafted this collection in the logic of its subject, that is, rhythm and performance, proving that a good poem—slam or not—neither needs nor abandons its poet once on the page.
Tyehimba Jess, like the subject of his National Poetry Series-winning debut, coaxes an astonishingly rich world from the wood and steel scraps of the life he finds before him. Employing an impressive variety of voices and forms, he plays all twelve strings strapped to the box, all the bars of the jails Huddie Ledbetter lived within: “sit down and let me tell you mama, / ’bout the worry iron wrought on a man.”
David Daniel, Ploughshares
Jess’s leadbelly stands at the crossroads of black literary art and musicality. Better yet, Jess’s work is a crossroad of black literary art and musicality. He remixes legend and history. His mission of transmitting the saga of Leadbelly to the tunes of distinct African American styles and communicative forms inspires my belief that Jess’s work displays a deep sense of cool black consciousness, especially in regard to musicality. He works with an expressive tradition that blends sensibilities of field holler, spiritual encodings, gospel moan and groan, work song cadence, blue notes, and jook joint jazz. Simply put, for Tyehimba Jess, music is serious possibility.
Howard Rambsy II, Sou’wester, Vol. 34, No. 1
This conceptual experience, the book as a world and less of a private place of the mind, is what I think makes this book ground-breaking. I believe it sheds new light onto the often shady, rigid, and elitist discourse of the current literary machine.
Calista Tarnauskas, Basement Medicine
Detroit native Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. His second collection, Olio, was published by Wave Books in April 2016. Jess is Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.
Jess' fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies such as Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry. His poetry has appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, Brilliant Corners, Ploughshares, Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora, Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Mosaic, American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Nashville Review and 580 Split.
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