Khalil Murrell, Program Associate, Poetry
Poetry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Music History,” unless you’ve been reading Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica, or leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess. Through poems in the voice of Leadbelly and characters in his life (listen to freedom and see martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935) and through letters, quotes, dialogue, song lyrics, and prose pieces (see harris county chain gang and home again), Jess brings the fascinating life of American folk and blues musician, Huddie William Ledbetter (Leadbelly), into verse. Perhaps for him, history is not only a matter of fact, but one of perspective and imagination.
When asked in an interview what drew him to the “King of the 12-String Guitar,” Jess said the history was fascinating: “[Leadbelly’s] personal themes matched certain major themes in African American history: his relationship to The Prison Industrial Complex, The Great Migration, anthropology… The fact that he was grounded in myth, and on the edges of American folklore was also appealing to me.”
But these somewhat academic interests do not say enough about Tyehimba Jess. A two-time member of the Green Mill Slam teams in Chicago, the hometown of slam poetry, he attributes much of his performance and writing techniques to what he learned from slam poets, like Patricia Smith. An avid fan of blues, the Detroit native’s performance style has also been greatly influenced by blues and jazz. (see Jess read below). Still, he acknowledges The Last Poets, Black Arts Movement poets, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and later on Cornelius Eady and Yusef Komunyakaa as literary influences.
Hearing Jess’ most recent work on Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an autistic savant and musical prodigy on piano, suggests his interest in the intersection between (musical) history and poetry show no signs of wavering. A Cave Canem fellow, Tyehimba Jess earned degrees from the University of Chicago and NYU, and is also the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy (non-fiction). He currently teaches at CUNY College of Staten Island. To hear more poems and an interview, visit Fishouse.
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