Leadbelly ( Poetry book)

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WINNER – 2004 National Poetry Series

Tyehimba Jess revisits the overlooked life of the blues-original Huddie Ledbetter by telling the story of this Louisiana native and son of a cotton picker in a series of persona poems. Fueled by everything hateful and destructive in southern bigotry, the first poem, “leadbelly’s lessons,” sets the tone when 12-year-old Huddie, gifted with an artist’s voice channeled 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” about the prophetic love of his mother and the strength of his father, the long days on southern plantations, and the controversial life of this innocent-turned-musician, confessed prisoner, recording artist, and blues man ’til death. There is an orality in Jess’ prose poems that lends itself directly to Leadbelly’s life, creating a powerful intertwining of history and blues. Jess has created a unique book that will speak to any lover of blues or close reader of American history. Mark Eleveld
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