Lomax and Leadbelly


leadbelly v. lomax at the modern language association conference, 1934

Tyehimba Jess, AB’91

a costume.
dark overalls,
and ugly-ass shitkickers,
clutched like gifts in his outstretched hands
chase the stink of mule dirt back
into my head. now he wants me
to wrap my music in a brown bag of coon
to give them what folks ’spect to see
says i need the genuine look of farm boy
to sow blues’ dirty fingers between their ears

i remember
fame’s promises:
$100 suits is what made me believe.
$50 wing tips made me a convert.
$5 cigars helped seal the deal.

like always,
dog-tongued anger
laps at my palms,
shrinks my bowels
like a clenched fist


an outfit.
new blue jeans,
clean head wrap,
some simple, old, sturdy shoes
are a proper field hand’s uniform,
dressing down—it raises gods
dark enough to capture the authentic blues,
bringing southland to a crowd that
says they want to hear how it sounds for a black
to scrape heaven’s dusty starlight out of hell.

to tally up
and close accounts—
$3 for the coveralls, and they were on sale.
$1 for the work boots, sold at half-price,
and here, a handshake serves as contract.

it’s strange, but,
sometimes loathing
bursts from his eyes,
pummeling me—
striking ’cross my face

let’s face it

i’m parole on parade,
wanted poster on a short leash,
biding time beneath the law
of a master i chose myself.
that faded rucksack of yassuh
growing one load heavier
with each slow grin
stitched across my lips


i’m an ex-con’s keeper,
something i can’t much forget
in this prison choked country—
i cannot absolve this man of
his greatest crime—the crime of race—
binding us all to blood,
cutting through skin,
burning through history.


From leadbelly (Verse Press, 2005), winner of the National Poetry Series. Tyehimba Jess, a two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, teaches poetry and fiction at CUNY College of Staten Island.


Lead Belly and Alan Lomax on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. (Photography by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)