John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars
The Delta Sound (Fattening Frogs for Snakes, Volume 1)
Big Chief Productions
By David Kunian
John Sinclair has been and done a great many things in his long and checkered career. Right now, however, he is in New Orleans running his own show — dropping knowledge, intoning poetry, and kicking cultural history onstage with his Blues Scholars. But this is not the history you learned in school: This is an alternate history of the 20th century — the history of the people who usually fade away without their stories getting told.
No matter that out of their rough existence they created a music that moves people the world over, illiterate folks playing the blues in Mississippi juke houses or out of the gruesome tenements on the South Side of Chicago don’t have a history as far as the power structure is concerned. Giving voice to the stories behind the blues music that these people loved, lived, and crafted is Sinclair’s raison d’etre here.
Fattening Frogs For Snakes, Sinclair’s elongated work in verse set to the musical sounds of the Mississippi Delta, tells these people’s stories, utterly essential to an understanding of our culture, He draws on the research of essential blues scholars like Amiri Baraka, Robert Palmer and his Deep Blues, Alan Lomax and David Evans to relate how Tommy Johnson sold his soul to the Devil or Robert Lockwood and Rice Miller made more money in jail than out of it during their 21-day sentence or simply how life was for a certain historically ignored sector of the populace.
There are lessons to be learned and laughed over in Sinclair’s poem songs. Without Sinclair and the other poets and roots music workers this country over, these people’s lives would be nothing more than where the power structure that runs this country want them, “Fattening Frogs For Snakes.”
Sinclair knows all about that, and his poetry reflects that, whether in his own life or in the lives of his friends and his heroes. You know, the guitarists and harmonica players and others whose piercing lyrics and bent notes show a world of pain and joy, kicks and blues. Like the music he exclaims, Sinclair’s poetry is simple. And, like the music he exclaims, such simplicity leads to great depths of meaning, whole continuums of human emotion and experience. You always know what Sinclair is talking about, but when you probe it, it can become an entire world of people’s lives with the requisite meaning and interpretation. It may be simple, but it is heavy stuff.
And then there’s the music. It’s not that laid-back beat poetry with the cool jazz. It’s not Bach or Beethoven or Handel. The music is the blues, the music blown on and written by the people who are the subjects of the songs. Sinclair’s killer band is tight and on it with this music. Listen to Bill Lynn’s rhythm guitar as its relentless riffs lay down endless, fascinating variations of the Pea Vine or the Southern or the Yazoo Delta trains, sounds so essential to the lives being described. Mike Voelker’s drums catch accents and syncopations like dance steps with a great sensitivity to the dynamics of each piece. Everette Eglin and Jeff “Baby” Grand’s guitars moan and plead like the wind and whistle of a dark Mississippi night.
It all comes together under the brilliant mind and aesthetic of Mr. Rhythm himself, the Black Godfather, the legendary Andre Williams. Andre has had his own share of classic cuts, from “Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait” to “Humpin’, Bumpin’, and Thumpin’,” “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Agile, Mobile, and Hostile.” The Dre’s long and admirable career has included producing records for Fortune, Motown, Mercury, Duke/Peacock and In The Red Records. He’s worked with Ike Turner, Stevie Wonder, Nolan Strong, The Meditation Singers, and others too numerous to name.
This is the first time Andre’s been responsible for someone else’s recording in many a moon, and he’s still got it. He’s created a sound for Sinclair’s Delta blues suite that no other poetry record has. It sounds like an old Chess record, but with background singers. Who would put background singers on a poetry record? That’s just one example of the genius of Andre Williams.
So listen and welcome to an art that portrays a world that is not that far away, but in some ways is in another galaxy. Get down and shake your thing to a poetry of heroes who aren’t in all the history books and have only recently appeared on a stamp. Let Sinclair’s voice and words take you there and make you want to stay.
FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES
Volume One: The Delta Sound
By John Sinclair
I began writing Fattening Frogs For Snakes in Detroit in 1982, inspired by the words of the great blues men Robert Palmer had interviewed for his masterful book titled Deep Blues. Fattening Frogs For Snakes was conceived as a text that could be set to music which would illuminate my verses, and I first performed some of these poems with the original Motor City Blues Scholars at Paul Lichter’s Maximus & Co. bookstore on January 2, 1983. I’ve been working on the composition of this elongated work in verse ever since, and the text will finally be published by the Surregional Press this year in conjunction with the release of this album.
Recording the complete text of Fattening Frogs For Snakes will be a four-CD project, of which this album, sub-titled The Delta Sound, is Volume One. It represents the culmination of 20 years of composition and performance, and — while one hopes the text pretty much speaks for itself — I’d like to add a few words about the music and the production of this album.
This project starts with Bill Lynn, my guitarist and musical director, who joined the Blues Scholars in New Orleans in the Winter of 1994-95 and has worked with me since then to realize this album. The music Bill has composed to fit my verses has evolved through dozens of rehearsals and hundreds of performances over the past seven years and has in every case succeeded in making my poems sound even better than I’d ever thought possible. Bill also had the brilliant idea of inviting Andre Williams to produce the album, made the initial arrangements to bring him to New Orleans to do the work, then housed and fed him and worked countless hours with him to prepare for these recording sessions.
My drummer, Michael Voelker, is a founding member of the New Orleans Blues Scholars and has been a constant joy and inspiration, both musically and personally, since 1994. Mike’s enormous ears and unfailing rhythmic intelligence have helped bring my concept to life and made it really swing, again, far beyond anything I could ever have imagined. Working with him is such a blessing, and I hope our collaboration may continue to prosper and grow “until the end of time.”
It was a real joy recording this album with Andre Williams and my band at Mike West’s house in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans just before Mardi Gras 2001. I was really happy that I could get both Everette Eglin, musical director for Brother Tyrone & The Mindbenders, and Jeff “Baby” Grand, my bandleader in Detroit, to play guitar for us, and special thanks to Everette for bringing the great Richard “Tricky Dick” Dixon to play bass on the sessions. My homeboy, Marc Adams — the only fellow native of Davison, Michigan I’ve ever encountered since I left there in 1961 — brought his customized Hammond B-3 and also added piano to our salute to Sunnyland Slim. Rockin’ Jake, who was on the first Blues Scholars album in 1994, came in to add his harmonica to “Chicago Bound.” And I’d like to thank James Andrews for his friendship and support for this project.
Our producer, Andre Williams, “Mr. Rhythm,” “The Black Godfather,” was one of my earliest idols from the day when, at 14, I saw him on WXYZ-TV in Detroit while I was visiting my grandmother. She had a little 9” TV that brought in all the Motor City channels, and I was tuned in to Ed McKenzie’s Dance Party when suddenly I was confronted with the brain-sizzling pyrotechics of Andre’s incredible performance of his Fortune Records single, “Going Down to Tiajuana.”
Perfectly attired in a zebra-striped zoot suit, high-drape trousers and the most exotic of turbans wrapped around his head, Andre delivered the slightly salacious lyrics with dramatic glee, and when the chorus came around with its “goin’ down, down, down, down, down, down, down” refrain chanted by the dapper members of the Don Juans, Andre began to bend over backwards and jacked himself down until his turban touched the ground! This thrilling vision fried my tiny adolescent brain to a crisp and led me down the path in life I have followed ever since.
As a teenaged rhythm & blues fanatic and deranged collector of 45 rpm singles, I followed Andre’s career with great diligence, picking up copies of “Bacon Fat,” “Jail Bait” and his other early masterpieces as soon as they were released. When I was in college, I copped a Bobby “Blue” Bland album and noted with pleasant surprise that Andre had produced “Rockin’ in the Same Old Boat” and the rest of the LP for Duke Records. I found out later that he’d been a producer at Motown, Stax and Merccury Records, wrote and produced “Shake a Tail Feather” for the 5 Du-Tones and “Twine Time” for Alvin Cash & the Registers, was a staff producer at Duke Records and worked with Ike Turner at his Bolic Studios in Los Angeles.
But the associations that led to this project began in Ann Arbor in the mid-’70s when Bill Lynn was working with the Mojo Boogie Band and Andre heard through the Detroit grapevine that this hippie blues band was playing “Jail Bait,” “Cadillac Jack” and some other of his tunes. He turned up at a Mojo Boogie show in some little bar in Ann Arbor one night to check out the rumors and fell in love with the band. Andre and Bill became fast friends and running partners for a couple of years until the band broke up and Bill moved to Ft. Lauderdale.
Sixteen years later, in 1994, Bill ran into me at the WWOZ broadcast booth at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and within six months had moved to the Crescent City. I had just formed the New Orleans edition of the Blues Scholars and soon drafted Bill into the band’s ranks. He and Mike Voelker and I and a succession of collaborators began the process of crafting music to accompany my verses, concentrating for the past several years on developing my work in blues, Fattening Frogs For Snakes.
We recorded the material in this album in 1997 and again in 1999 but scrapped both sessions. Then Andre Williams made his first appearance in New Orleans, and Bill and Andre and I hooked up again. In the Fall of 2000 my manager, Peter Gold, and his colleague Ricky Kosow agreed to underwrite the project, and Bill proposed that we bring Andre down to produce the album. Andre came in two weeks before Mardi Gras and worked ceaselessly for the next ten days: arranging the music with Bill, conducting rehearsals with the band and the backing singers, writing vocal parts and studying the text of the poems, directing the sessions and getting everything the way he wanted it to sound.
Our engineer of choice, Mark Bingham, who also helped produce the album, was between studios and suggested that we take his gear into Mike West’s home recording set-up in the Lower 9th Ward, and we cut everything “live” in the front room, with Elaine, Lois & Smiley of ELS lined up next to me and the four of us facing the band. Andre thought of the singers as indispensable to the project, and he gave them their parts and conducted them as the music unfolded in front of us. They did an incredible job of interpreting his vision and enhancing my verses like they’ve never been heard before.
A year later, at Mark Bingham’s new studio at Piety and Dauphine in the Upper 9th, Bingham edited and mixed the music into the fully-realized work you now hold in your hand. I couldn’t be happier with the results, because after 20 years Fattening Frogs For Snakes finally sounds just the way I want it to, and it’s my extreme pleasure to pass it on to you now. Thanks for listening!
April 12, 2002
© 2002, 2012 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
JOHN SINCLAIR: FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES
By Amiri Baraka
If you been in America and ain't sleep then I don't have to begin where I wdda begun if you was just another dumbass American, souped up on not and aint. But suppose you had some feeling for what Dis is we in and how it's the opposite of Art, and how as an Ain't one of it's chief physical/psychologica/philosophical, soc-ec-pol, functions is to kill or make impossible the existence of Art. Then you would dig from the top, how rare and necessary is the John Sinclair work. Especially, if you know that many people think JS is, no shit, WHYTE!!!
(A dude told me this getting on the Mother Ship. I told the motherfucker that if the MS was segregated they was gonna shoot that johnson down! But you know, a hard head make a soft philosophy.)
The last ir␣␣relevance is not irrelevant here in Jungle Land because Animals are running shit and most of the place not yet fit for human habitation. They got the music lovers separated. You dig? Why, cause if they start digging the music from the same point of incorruptible ecstasy, even as different HUMANS (that's the word, but that's like a post-animal phenomenon, and ain't in the house yet, too tough) then the Caucasian Crib, and the Absolutely Real Devils who run it and the world, like that old playhouse the old folks useta sing about, is gonna, like they said, get pulled right down to the ground. And the proprietors and they henchpersons gonna die, go to jail or be put back in the 4th grade (for a long time).
What it is, is that JS, from way back, has been in the real world. And for bunches of white guys, certainly those who qualify as Straight Up Americans, that's a trip not usually bothered with. Cause they doesn't have to take it. What with the wall of bullshit and white supremacy, the straight out class removal from MOST of the world, including them poverty struck "white people" (technically speaking) in Appalachia, you know, them HILLBILLIES, and of course, any remaining hard ass unopportunist workers and the fucking Commies.
I say this, because I cant lie and the deep fuckup in Dis is that the majority have been bought by naught. With some shit thin as skin and "for a few dollars More" to help Toiletpop Bill and the demons rule and ravage the rest of the world, including the USA.
JS has been a WHITE PANTHER (NOSHIT) doing time for the crime of thought. And resistance to the continuing slavery of US imperialism and its prophylactic, racism. J has always been on the firing line, on the front line of saying and doing. He is a brother, in the real sense, of the flesh and the spirit, and his words, his stance, his loves, his perception and rationalization of the world, will bring him close to anyone not in the straitjacket of random imbecility and opportunism (the "most finished form" of which, sd Lenin, is National Chauvinism).
John has always, since I been knowin him, dug the music. From the way back to the way out. Not in the "Gee Whiz" fashion of well paid critics, who are all much whiter than John. Hell, there's a buncha wooden negroes much whiter than John, if it gots to be about something as flimsy as color. (Damn, Stan, you look mighty pale around the lips! But thass what money dooos.)
Because finally, it has always been about feeling and understanding. About Perception, Rationale and the Use, we make of the world. As my wife, Amina, says, "Whose side you're on." John, for instance, is one of the only dudes who cd pass for American, who really understands and can actually poet wit them word music Gleemen. Who begins from ON and can get to DIGNITARIA and even check SERIOUS. (As the Fon say.)
This book is about the Blues. The Blues is everywhere in America (Negro say, "I even give myself the Blues") IT has to be killed, locked up, lied about, impoverished, character assassinated and oppressed, but it still don't go away, it even stand out in the street where any silly motherfucker cd see it if they looked or even if they cd just hear.
John do hear and see the Blues. The old blues, the recent blues, the new blues, the blues, Europe (a black dude said), get in him when he "got to buy the baby new shoes". All kinda blues be in John, and that's dif␣ferent. Tell me white cats aint got the blues. It's a lie. They might say they depressed. Or a nigger took they job. Or the iceman they real father. Or they psychiatrist feeling on they leg. But it still be the U.S. no shit blues.
"Fattening Frogs For Snakes", yeh, that's what Americans do, except the ones that really is Snakes. This is the United SNAKES ain't it? So from jump, John know, what the definition of hope to die (say when) American is. And he rejects it like the music do. The music reject it because American is a definition of what ain't got no use for the blues or for those who make the blues. Even tho, right up in its fucking flag, is a blues, some stripes, like real niggers (every body who gonna live) got on they backs.
The book is not a Homage to the Blues, it is a long long long blues full of other blues and blues inside of them. John all the way inside, and he got the blues. And he live in New Orleans, and all them motherfuckers got the blues, even the police.
John is drawn to the blues because it is real life, and ain't much of that you supposed to have and understand that's what it is. You can pay 9 dollars and get real life, after standing in line, in technical color. But if you stand up in the flick and say this ain't real life gimme my money back, you trying to make a blues and chances are you will get the flag treatment before you split, that is there will be some white and some red in your life and on your head, before the owners through with you.
John has taken the Blues, many Blues, many Blues singers, their words, their feeling, their lives, their conditions, the places and traces of where they was and is, the Delta, Chicago under the El, in the streets of any anonymous Black and Blue America, and transformed them into a poetry a narrative epic of PLACE and REPOSSESSION. He has given us the humanity of person, speech, description, song, dance, style, stance. What is political in the work is that it is about reality which is political like a motherfucker.
But everything got to do with people is political. "Whose side yr on", again the definition. Like, "Cross Road Blues", for Harry Duncan...about "Tommy Johnson,
Born in Crystal Springs,
Mississippi, in 1896
left home around 1912
with an older woman".
Like that, the precision of research, but in the context of song. You get the facts and throughout, the same music that he talking about.
"& then returned south
to Crystal Springs
& his family
& the peoples
who used to know him".
In the language and gentle rumble of the guitar itself, from the sound in John, laid there, by them, but brought back, the music and the facts, for further beginnings, somewhere in our mind. So it is mise en scene, like French dramatists say, the living drama of place and person, engaged in being them, then and back to now.
"His brother LeDell
asked him how
he had learned to play
in such a short time....
"He said the reason
he knowed so much,
said he sold himself
to the Devil...
I asked him how?"
*** "You have your guitar
& be playing a piece,
sitting there by yourself.
You have to go by yourself
& be sitting there
playing a piece.
A big black man
will walk up there
& take your guitar,
& he'll tune it...."
The book is a marvel, in that it is not only poem, but research, bibliography, discography, history, of the most copious yet careful and earnest kind. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Robert Lockwood, Booker White, Jimmy Rogers, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and many peeps you don't even know, all be in here. Where to find their music. What their lives were like. And what is, after all, the Blues, when it move inside you forever.
This is a rare and very flne book. An incredible work of passion, perception and song. John Sinclair, has been on the circuit more than a minute, and he has created a great many things, powerful incisive poetry and stinging analysis as well, but this book is something, entirely, else,
and for this, even if he were not a long time roadie & comrade of mine, he should be celebrated with the respect one reserves for the wise and the courageously sensitive.