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leadbelly: poems (National Poetry Series) Paperback – October 1, 2005

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Product Details

  • Series: National Poetry Series
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Wave Books (October 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0974635332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0974635330
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #543,679 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Jess' debut, an addictive amalgamation of approaches reminiscent, in its way, of Dos Passos' 1919, tells the story of Huddie William Ledbetter and his passage to becoming the blues legend, Leadbelly. Told through many voices, from his devoted wife Martha to folklorist John Lomax and his quest to "stake his claim on the breath of each Black / willing to open his mouth and spit out / southern legend's soiled roots," the collection proceeds by call and response, each negation an affirmation of something else, like trading "dry psalms...for cool cigar smoke." In the telling of one life, a society is exposed-racist, well-meaning, violent, forgiving. And yet while the classic binaries-black and white, man and woman, powerful and powerless-play their part, the collection's strength lies in its contradictory forms; from biography to lyric to hard-driving prose poem, boast to song, all are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern blues and the demands of honoring one's talent. Readers will notice these poems teach us how to read them, but more so, these poems demand performance, recalling that space beyond the page: the stage. Jess has crafted this collection in the logic of its subject, that is, rhythm and performance, proving that a good poem-slam or not-neither needs nor abandons its poet once on the page.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Rising poet 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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

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It's one I keep on my desk and reread!
M. Tuite
Jess' "i" carries the bass of the music, the back and African American rhythm of this folk tale, woven throughout the poetic narrative in multiple character views.
They're pleasurable to read, tough and gritty, full of history, and impressive in their range, as the author moves from prose form to pretty strict sonnets.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By nelsonhousepoet on May 31, 2012
Format: Paperback
Author and poet Tyehimba Jess has written a book of poetry so tightly bound to history, you can feel the twine cut into your hand. leadbelly is a diversely formed poetic masterpiece that recounts the gritty life of folk musician Huddie Ledbetter. The raw language of Jess' poetry spiritually sings from southern African American oral tradition. leadbelly is earnest and complicated, similar to the personality of Ledbetter himself, and it's fitting that the life of Ledbetter, an innovative folk musician, is poetically written by passionate and innovative slam poet, Tyehimba Jess.

If you initially believe Jess' un-capitalized verse and prose look visually humbled, you would be mistaken. Jess' "i" carries the bass of the music, the back and African American rhythm of this folk tale, woven throughout the poetic narrative in multiple character views. When the capital "I" appears, it is a Caucasian person's poem and it noticeably loses some hum in the back rhythm. The low bass note of a southern spiritual is gone. An example is taken from "John Lomax: On Seeking Song", "I drive through those iron gates seeking truth/and step in to a living museum,/a whetstone where the slave song just won't stop/sharpening its teeth, carving each chorus from cell after cell of toiling human ruin.(68) The musicality of the language in poems of Ledbetter's voice resemble Ledbetter's life, picking at the twelve string guitar with southern lilt. They are an expression of the pain of crime and punishment, but also strum the heavy chords of the post Civil War African American man's experience.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Wanda on June 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
Book Review
The poetic works in the book `Leadbelly' chronicles the work of poignant poet and author Tyehimba Jess who masterfully absorbs the spirit of the book's main character, Huddie William Ledbetter, an iconic American folk and blues musician to create a socially conscious piece of poetic narrative wrapped in a powerful autobiographical storyline.
I first came across Tyehimba Jess' work while completing an MFA in creative writing. I was immediately impressed with Jess' ability to weave the musicality of language and diction to create a volume that contains an organized chronology with a cultural, poetical climate.
Jess' work in `Leadbelly' can be compared to the socially conscious author and brilliant wordsmith Maya Angelou, her literary works also address the theme of the African American in society. In her book `The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou' (395) she writes; "When I first opened the shop, all the neighborhood kids came in. They either demanded that I `gi' them a penny' "- I hated white's imitation of the black accent-..." The veteran author's poetry and writings exude with masterful alliteration amd fluid lyricism.
Tyehimba Jess, a new author has certainly found his voice in the persona of `Leadbelly', he takes the common ordinary language of ordinary people and transforms it into a distinguished literary dialect that personifies the life and person of William Huddie Ledbetter. Steve Kowit, author of one of the best known poetry guidebooks, `In the Palm of Your Hand', remarks, "A poem is often an act of discovery". Jess has discovered a connection to his poetic voice, along with a compelling storyline in his first book of poetry `Leadbelly', which has won numerous awards including the 2004 National Poetry Series.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By John J. Santoemma Jr. on November 19, 2009
Format: Paperback
"Leadbelly" is a sequentially organized collection of short poems that celebrates the life of Blues guitarist Huddie Ledbetter (1888 - 1949). The poems begin with the man's birth and end with the real event of a christening at the artist's grave site in Longwood, Louisiana some fifty-four years after his death. A remarkable read, "Leadbelly" triumphs even where the musician himself had failed. Poems depicting the troubled life of this twice convicted felon/musician and his eventual early releases from state penitentiaries offer us the "real deal." Written from various personae from the biography of this struggling musician's life we get a genuine sense of living during times of high racial tension and strong prejudices that greatly hindered minority success. A time line highlighting the main events of this musician's life is provided near the end of the collection. I recommend reading that first in order to more readily identify with the various characters presented in the poems and more easily comprehend their significance to the artist's success and failures.

Some poems of exceptional quality are: "1912: blind lemon jefferson explaining to leadbelly" - a fellow Blues guitarist reveals his own hardships to Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter's nickname) and lets him know that life for a musician, especially a black one, will not be easy, but the rewards can be had if you're willing to fight for it.

In poems such as "leadbelly v. lomax: song hunting, 1934" and "brownie v.
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