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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