COLUMN 109, SEPTEMBER 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
ON THE ROAD
DETROIT, August 7, 2004"I
waited a long time to hit the road as a poet. Although this writer has
faithfully followed the bardic path for more than 40 years, there were so many
other things to do along the way, and I did them.
As a cultural activist I directed the Detroit Artists
Workshop, the Allied Artists Association, Jazz Research Institute and Detroit
Jazz Center. I managed the MC-5, Mitch Ryder & Detroit and other bands. I
produced dance concerts at the Grande Ballroom, free concerts in the parks, the
Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals, and countless left-wing benefits,
community cultural events, jazz concerts and poetry readings.
I've booked bands, bought talent and done publicity for
nightclubs, bars and concert halls, developed programs, written grants and
raised funds for jazz artists and community arts organizations, and produced
records by artists from the MC-5, Little Sonny and Deacon John to Sun Ra,
Victoria Spivey and Roosevelt Sykes. I've been a panelist for the National
Endowment for the Arts, a professor of Blues History at Wayne State University,
director of the City Arts Gallery for the City of Detroit, a community radio
programmer and producer of WWOZ's live broadcast from the New Orleans Jazz
& Heritage Festival.
As a professional journalist I've written columns, features
and reviews about jazz and blues, rock & roll and poetry for publications of
all sorts, from obscure local papers to Downbeat
and Playboy magazine. I've published
poetry books and journals, edited underground newspapers, arts quarterlies and
blues magazines, and written liner notes for albums by artists from Louis
Armstrong, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes to
Johnny Adams, the Wild Magnolias and the Re-Birth Brass Band.
As a political activist I fought the marijuana laws through
Detroit LEMAR, the Amorphia organization and a five-year struggle in the courts
of Michigan that cost me 2-1/2 years in prison before I won my case and got the
old laws thrown out. I was the chairman of the White Panther Party and its
successor, the Rainbow Peoples Party, battling Richard M. Nixon and his goons
from the beginning of his administration to the bitter end. It was my court case
challenging Nixon's "national security? wiretap program that produced the
historic Supreme Court decision in U.S.
vs. U.S. District Court that warrantless wiretaps would no longer be
There's much too much more to mention, but let it suffice
to say that I've enjoyed a full and productive life in the arts and community
affairs for more than four decades " and helped raise four terrific daughters
in the process. But I started my adult life as a poet, setting my verses to
music and performing them with jazz musicians and blues guitarists, and it was
always my intention one day to take my own show on the road and pursue my
performing arts career in earnest.
In truth what performing I did was done mostly for fun until
30 years had passed, and I was well beyond my 50th year when my first
album, Full Moon Night, was released
in 1995. I had finally realized my lifelong dream of hearing my verses and
musical arrangements realized to perfection by a wildly sympathetic team of
serious players, cleanly recorded in the heat and clarity of public performance,
and my years of work in the music business told me it was time now to follow the
bardic call and hit the road for real.
So for almost ten years now I've criss-crossed the United
States and western Europe, working through a vast network of old friends and new
comrades to assemble bands of Blues Scholars and book myself into funky
nightclubs, blues bars, art galleries, coffeehouses, churches, cultural centers,
college auditoriums and music and poetry festivals from coast to coast to coast.
Living in New Orleans in the 1990s, I had my own band of
Blues Scholars anchored by guitarist Bill Lynn and drummer Mike Voelker, and we
played all over town from Margaritaville and the Mermaid Lounge to JazzFest and
the House of Blues. But when I started travelling, it was a rare occasion when I
could take my band from New Orleans on the road with me. There's not much
money in the poetry racket under the best of circumstances, and it's all I can
manage to sustain myself while I'm on the road.
Thus I generally travel by myself, hooking up with musician friends and friends of friends wherever I go. The cast of characters is always changing and the music behind me changes with them, so
The burdens of traveling the bardic path is lightened by friends along the way
my texts sound different every night. Plus I get to play with
a thrilling array of great musical friends and make new connections with
outstanding players in their home locations, and that adds a level of excitement
that's hard to match.
On top of the music, the audiences and the performances
themselves, the other great thing about travelling the bardic path is the
incredible community of people who light up the way and see to the poet's
modest needs while I'm in their town. These are the people who pick me up at
the train station and take me to the airport, bring me into their homes, put me
up in their spare bedroom or let me sleep on their couch, feed me and get me
high. They help me set up my gigs, drive me there, introduce me to all the
people they know, take me out to dinner afterwards and help see to my
They're the amazingly sweetest of friends, but they're
also fellow artists and journalists and educators and broadcasters and producers
and creative people of every stripe, and their lives pulsate within the nexus of
artistic activity and social consciousness that obtains in the places where they
live. They're always doing things themselves, making things happen, and they
know what's going on around them as well. I bring them news from our mutual
friends and other scenes around the country and take their stories and concerns
along with me to the next stop on the trail.
All this activity takes place well beneath the radar of
popular culture and the entertainment industry, in locations only people like
ourselves know about, involving music the likes of which is only rarely heard on
the radio today, never played or seen on TV or even given notice by the daily
press. It's produced in profusion and joyously shared by people who live and
work in obscure neighborhoods and deconstructed urban communities that are
largely shunned by mainstream America and its mass media?important outposts of
the vast teeming cultural underworld that throbs with heat and turmoil beneath
the visible surface of American society and remains unseen and unrecognized by
the world of the squares.
The downside to underground life in America is the relentless
economic terrorism that grips our existence and very rarely lets up, even for a
week or a month at a time. Nothing ever pays enough to cover the costs of
everyday life in an appropriate time frame: we're behind on the rent, out of
groceries, always trying to keep them from turning off the electricity or the
phone. Our cars break down, we don't have any insurance and god help us if we
get sick. Or we take much precious time away from our intellectual and creative
endeavors to exchange for a miserable paycheck and some minimal benefits,
postponing artistic production in order to bring up our children or tend to our
If we get high we've got to worry about the police, and pay
too much for our supplies, and go through a maze of incredible changes just to
secure the substances we require. If we make music we've got to find people
who will let us play and give us enough money to pay for what it cost us to get
there. If we're poets or writers or painters or dancers or fine artists of any
sort, we are never allowed to forget that our work is not valued and will not be
properly compensated no matter how good it may become. If we publish our
magazines or produce our recordings and books, we can never solve the incessant
problem of effective distribution and thus will always fail to reach our
But as an artist in America, once you take the vow of
poverty, you're free to be as creative and productive as you are capable, and
it remains possible to do many great things despite the ever-present shortage of
sufficient funds to provide for the necessities of daily life. We find a way
somehow to make a life for ourselves within the economic exigencies to which our
work has consigned us, keeping firmly in mind the promise once delivered by the
Rev. Robert Grant in his nightly intro to the 'spiritual Sunbeams? program
on WGPR Radio in Detroit: If you can take
it?you can make it.
All that said, then, let me welcome you to the first
installment of what will be a periodic report from the bardic path by means of
which the poet pledges to bring his readers pertinent news and information from
the far-flung outposts of the underground. I'll hope to see you on the road,
and I'll tell you more the next time I write. Happy trails!
2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
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