Saturday, January 14, 2006

Leadbelly, Finkel and Calvino

I didn’t realize just how true this was until a few years ago, when I started teaching my course in the blues, although I guess I always knew it. My first important poetic influence, and to this day still the most important, was Leadbelly.

Second would be my great mentor, Donald Finkel, but I don’t think Don would mind playing that particular solo on second fiddle.

I discovered Leadbelly when I was around 16, and my idea of poetry was still hear-on-sleeve sophomoric, which it was to remain for many years, while his lessons lay dormant somewhere. But they were there, nonetheless. I was haunted, amazed, drawn in irrevocably by the stories he wasn’t telling, the stories that hovered just behind the words.

Black girl, black girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
I shivered the whole night through

Black girl, black girl, where will you go
I'm going where the cold wind blows

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
I shivered the whole night through

My husband was a railroad man
Just about a mile from here
His head was found in a driver’s shaft
And his body has never been found

Black girl, black girl, where’d you sleep last night
Not even your momma knows
You caused me to weep, you caused me to moan
You caused me to leave my home

So much left unsaid, so much suggested. Stuff I didn’t understand till years later – the railroad man living in a company town, the house repossessed after his death. Stuff that was suggested, then reversed – the girl sleeping where she shouldn’t be, not because of sexual wanderlust, but because of tragedy. The first interpretation doesn’t feel right, even in the beginning – shivering the whole night through could be sexual ecstasy, but you know it isn’t. “The cold wind” is not a wind of passion. And then the horrendous story, sketched so starkly in so few words, of the husband’s death. A power that comes from a glimpse that gives us a world.

Italo Calvino described that glimpse, in his Under The Jaguar Sun. This is the best definition of art I have ever read:

Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls--and somehow stands for--everything that remains out of the picture. I might venture a definition: we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.

1 comment:

pete said...

Tad -

Nirvana actually covered that Leadbelly song on their Unplugged performance... jeez... thirteen years ago. I've never been able to find a decent copy of the original. Happen to have one to play next time I'm in your neck of the woods?