Leadbelly, grim with your Cajun accordian,
with your harmonica blues, with your knife
flicking down the twelve strings of your guitar
--the Rock Island Line was a mighty good road--
bowing, scraping, white-suited trainman. . .
made your pride sick, but you sang,
fast, strong, quiet, like a driven
demon, like you had to get it out
before a razor dumped your guts
on a blood-mud taphouse floor,
or some drunk crazy rednecks
nailed you up like Christ, in a dangerous world
for anybody but most America for a black
poet of low-down places and sky-high loves.
Leadbelly, thirty years hard time murder,
six and a half, sang your way out, ten more, intent,
then Alan Lomax and his bro, John, folklorists--
makes you laugh inside at night--white boys,
playing--but they get you out again and in
the Library of Congress, that grinding
voice part now of something big, like
storm darkness, like that lifething,
love, always beyond somewhere or
crying deep inside, in a dark place,
yeah, big like music, big like that gal you
call Irene! How many Irenes, you think?
Even the Lomax bros, even them white boys,
they know Irene--you driving them through
New York traffic, them folkloring in back and you
being their folkloring black chauffeur.
You drink sharp liquor in Harlem, play
with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie
McGhee, the Headline Singers--radio too,
Hollywood and Three Songs by Leadbelly,
a French tour. . . . You show 'em your razor
stretch marks, your shotpitted pot.
Good night Irene I'll see you in my dreams. . .
all that good hot mean hard American life
and Lou Gehrig's amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
It's The Midnight Special! Fade me, Death!