John Sinclair and the Blues Scholars

The people who taught me to love jazz and blues and rock’n’roll as the perfect synthesis of the silly and the serious taught me to love poetry. The main ones I’m thinking of are Bob Rudnick, an unsung hero whose tale deserves a lengthy telling I cannot give here, and John Sinclair, formerly of the White Panther Party and the MC5. Over the past 20 years, Sinclair has found his metier as performing poet steeped in Robert Johnson as much as Charles Olson; over the last ten, he’s created a series of albums with various musicians, a group often dubbed the Blues Scholars.

The R&B marvel Andre Williams (“Bacon Fat,” “Jail Bait”) produced Sinclair’s Fattening Frogs for Snakes, Volume One: The Delta Sound (Okra-Tone / Rooster Blues). Frogs is a tour de force of vernacular poetry and as good an anecdotal history of the blues as you could ask for. “This is the Delta Blues,” Sinclair declares at the outset, over snare drum and slide guitar. True, but it’s his own peculiar angle on the music and musicains, in which men wander from the Delta “because anywhere else is better than this place” (a particularly Detroit perspective). These poems offer legends, tall tales, a sense that this music’s “crossroads of Africa and America” defines the whole wide world. In “Cross Road Blues,” Tommy-not Robert-Johnson details the how and why of selling one’s soul to the devil. In “The Wolf Is At Your Door,” Howlin’ Wolf explicates an earthier methodology for creating blues. These men-mystic and farmer–are linked beautifully by a passage in the “Cross Road” where Sinclair wails, Wolf-like, on the word “Howwwwww…” (which of course also invokes Ginsberg). “21 Days in Jail,” the tribute to Robert Jr. Lockwood, marks the spot where legend blurs so completely with fact that it would take an archangel with a tractor and a busload of cottonpickers to weed one from the other.

On My Name’s Not Rodriguez (Dos Manos), Luis Rodriguez & Seven Rabbit create a more collaborative musical poetry. The music–Latin funk-jazz with soul vocals–stems from the interaction of Rodriguez (best known for La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA) and Ernie Perez, best known for his work with the band Boxing Gandhis and Rock A Mole, the L.A.-based cultural activist group. Rodriguez possesses a rare gift for metric storytelling, and Perez adds horn and vocal flourishes. Luis’s tour de force comes on the shaggy dog story, “Meeting the Animal in Washington Square Park,” which not only establishes that Chicanos really are everywhere but that all wounds can be healed: “I told him how I was now a poet, doing a reading at City College and he didn’t wince or look surprised. Seemed natural. Sure. A poet from East L.A. That’s the way it should be. Poet and boxer. Drinking beer. Among the homeless, the tourists and acrobats. Mortal enemies.” The collaboration is most powerful, though, on “To the Police Officer Who Reused to Sit In the Same Room as My Son Because He’s a ‘Gang Banger.'” Here, The relentless groove and swirling organ are the echoes of life outside the bars that imprison everyone in the piece-father, son, and the cop who’s sacrificed humanity to his own sense of “realism.” Perez’s singing starts out as background vocal, but finally steps out front. Redemption is at hand when Perez’s voice breaks free as if from the son, “I’m gonna sing / I’m gonna sing for my father…I said he stood by me / Yeah, he stood by me / When I was crazy / But now I understand, I understand, what it is to be a man.”

Both Sinclair and Perez present a travelogue in which the real destination involves learning one’s own true identity, rescuing it from falsification, nurturing it by ensuring its dignity and exalting its enduring spirit. Words provide the vehicle; the music provides the fuel. Each album crackles with energy, Sinclair’s full blown blues-rock exuberance contrasting with the controlled tension Rodriguez and Perez make from funk. They present kindred visions about how the world has been and what it could be–what it actually is, beneath the bullshit.

All of our culture stands at this crossroads, where Africa and America, starting with Mesoamerica, cross and cross and cross again. Its life is the stories we tell each other, the songs we share with one another. Such things make the maps that show us the way in-and the way out.

DeskScan (what’s playing in my office)

1. Nothing to Fear, A Rough Mix by Steinski (bootleg)

2. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)-Personally, I keep listening for the way it sounds. If Springteen is a man of faith, his greatest trust lies in six strings and a 4/4 beat.

3. Jerusalem,, Steve Earle (E Squared)-Born to annoy.

4. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone)-Red Rodney would be proud

5. When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, Cedell Davis (Fast Horse Recordings)- Maybe the deepest musical statement of the Mississippi hill country blues aesthetic, too.

6. King Anthology of Risque Blues (King)

7. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (2KSounds/EMI)

8. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood-Hart (Memphis International)

9. Sleepless, Peter Wolf (Artemis)

10. The Very Best of Freddy King, Vol. 1-3 (Collectables)-Shitty packages but the best collection of the great R&B/bluesman’s King label sides. For me, Freddy’s the most fun of all the Kings, the most like a rock’n’roller.

11. My Name’s Not Rodriguez, Luis Rodriguez & Seven Rabbit (Dos Manos)

12. Fattening Frogs for Snakes, John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars (Okra-Tone/Rooster Blues)

13. Freedom, The Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White (Bridge Records)-“A Concert in Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution,” at the Library of Congress in 1940, with tremendous harmony by the Gates, and hilariously profound comments on the blues and “social” songs from poet Sterling A. Brown.

14. It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, Pam Tillis (Epic/Lucky Dog)-That means she gets to sing “Detroit City” and “I Ain’t Never,” as well as another 11 songs by her daddy.

15. Time Bomb High School, Reigning Sound (In the Red)

16. Midnight and Lonesome, Buddy Miller (Hightone)

17. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

18. Introducing G.G., Grant Green Jr. (Jazzateria)

19. Tanya, Tanya Tucker (Capitol advance)

20. Squash, Todd Thibaud (Tone Cool)

DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net


More articles by:

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring