The poetry of the blues

Reading the title of John Sinclair’s new CD, it’s easy to tell he believes lyrics are more than just filler for the dead space between solos.

Fattening Frogs for Snakes (Okra-Tone Records) is not your standard blues album title, especially not for blues albums of today. This title, borrowed from the esteemed Sonny Boy Williamson II, is evidence that Sinclair has a close working relationship with the poetry of the blues.

Besides the feel for the poetry, there is another difference between this and most other blues releases these days — the ambition. This is the first of four CDs planned to accompany a book, also called Fattening Frogs for Snakes. Published by Surregional Press of New Orleans, the book includes the lyrics to the pieces on the record, additional poems and essays (all by Sinclair), plus an introduction by Amiri Baraka.

It’s not often that you see a blues musician — or any musician — planning a project three CDs into the future, let alone with a book to go along with it. But what also places Fattening Frogs for Snakes in a category all its own is the sheer musicality and lyricism combined with the depth of historical blues knowledge and feeling. That’s evident in every single one of its eight songs.

“It’s the mission part of what I’m doing,” Sinclair says, by way of explaining his educational approach. This approach is especially evident in the CD’s first song, “The Delta Sound,” which is basically a spoken-word history of the blues put to music.

“This whole thing started 20 years ago in Detroit when I got my copy of Deep Blues by Robert Palmer,” said Sinclair of a 1981 history of the blues that’s steeped in the words of bluesmen such as Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. “I said, ‘Wow, the way these guys talk is like poetry!’”

From that point forward, Sinclair began to conceptualize an extended work that would begin with an overview of the Delta blues tradition (Fattening Frogs for Snakes), then proceed from there to the musical period framed by the ’20s and ’30s (album No. 2), the ’30s and ’40s (album No. 3), and finally the saga of Muddy Waters (album No. 4). Of course, all this depends on sales. If nobody buys this first CD or the book, then it might just become yet another great idea that ran out of steam before the steam even had a chance to build.

There’s no mistaking that this is a project tied to the roots of the blues and isn’t your typical commercial effort. As somewhat of a purist committed to the heart and intent of the blues tradition, Sinclair has no problem admitting his contempt for much of the commercialized blues being played today. When asked about such heavily promoted artists as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, for example, Sinclair says, “I don’t pay attention to them. That’s not blues, that’s pop music. They illustrate what is meant by the phrase ‘fattening frogs for snakes’. They’re the snakes.”

Never let it be said that Sinclair doesn’t speak his mind. After all, this is the man who has been honored as one of the founders of the marijuana liberation movement dating back more than three decades. The Flint native and Wayne State University graduate, now based in New Orleans, has also been recognized as one of the nation’s most knowledgeable jazz and blues critics, and his poetry and other writings have gained similar acclaim.

When Sinclair appears in Michigan this time around, he will be making his very first tour with a traveling band, courtesy of Amtrak (which is sponsoring the tour as well as transporting the musicians to all their tour gigs). Michael Voelker will be on drums, accompanied by guitarists Jeff Grand and Everette Eglin. These promise to be don’t-you-miss-’em shows.  

John Sinclair and his Blues Scholars play Monday, Sept. 9 at Book Beat in Oak Park at 7 p.m.; at the Scarab Club on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 10; at the Detroit Festival of the Arts on the lawn of the Detroit Public Library Saturday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., and that same evening at Music Menu in Greektown at 10 p.m.

E-mail Keith A. Owens at [email protected]
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