Book review: Songs For Floyd

Book Review:

Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things

by Joel Poluck

Text: Vincent Abbate / Photos courtesy of Amogla Records (except where otherwise noted)

Within the musical realm we call the blues, the formulaic offerings at the top of the sales charts often disappoint us. Frequently it’s the outside-the-box artists and releases hovering on the fringes of the genre that capture our imagination.

This was most certainly true of Floyd Lee, a well-travelled singer and guitar player from Lamar, Mississippi who gained a modicum of international notoriety during the first two decades of this century, at an age when most folks retire. Lee was already 68 years old when his debut record Mean Blues made some waves upon its release in 2001. He had been bringing his blues to the subways of New York City and working as a doorman on the Upper West Side in the decades prior. Only after Lee hooked up with young Canadian musician and New York transplant Joel Poluck did the eponymous Floyd Lee & His Mean Blues Band take shape; the quartet’s classic lineup often featured veteran bass player Brad Vickers and Mississippi drum legend Sam Carr. According to Poluck, he and Lee performed close to 1000 shows during their roughly fifteen years together.

Still, the music Floyd Lee recorded in the period prior to his passing in 2020 – most of it chilling, honest and imbibed with the spirit of the masters – surely remained hidden from the vast majority of blues audiences.

Joel Poluck’s self-published Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things is valuable for precisely that reason. The guitarist, producer and songwriter’s fond remembrance of his long-time musical partner is the perfect introduction to Floyd Lee for those who may have missed him. And for those already familiar with Lee’s music, the 100-page book and ten-song companion CD form a lovingly created gateway to a deeper understanding.

Don’t expect a lot of frills here. Like the paperback’s plain two-tone cover and the sound of the Floyd Lee Band itself, the book’s content is pleasingly bare bones. Poluck keeps his preface brief and to the point: Where he might have expounded on how he and Floyd Lee met or shared stories from the road, the author limits himself to just a handful of essential facts. Nonetheless, his gratitude toward Lee and the sense of loss he feels now that his friend is no longer around come through loud and clear.

What follows is not a book of poetry per se, but by and large a collection of the song lyrics Poluck wrote for his Mississippi-born mentor. At the beginning of their partnership, he had heard comments claiming he was too young (or too white) to write songs for an older black man. Poluck was undeterred; despite his age, he had his own share of bad luck and trouble to digest and transform into songs.

Often his words express feelings of desolation and yearning or ponder upon his susceptibility to temptation. They are classic blues themes, done well. In singing them, Lee did more than make those lyrics his own; he added the full weight of his own experience.

Tucked in between the lyrics there are a handful of personal photos as well as beautiful reproductions of the artwork used to advertise Floyd Lee’s appearances in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, New York and at the 2004 Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, where his was – perhaps surprisingly – the biggest name on the bill.

The ten-song CD included with the book presents a cross-section of recorded work from between 2001 and 2013, the year Lee quit performing due to health issues. So investing a sawbuck (Songs For Floyd sells for around ten dollars online) gets you what you might otherwise find inside a pricey boxset: a CD, high-quality artwork and a comprehensive collection of song lyrics. Well worth the price.

In the book’s longest piece of poetry, and one of its more poignant, Poluck pointedly wonders “Who Cares About An Old Bluesman?” Many may not, but some of us certainly do. With Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things, the author has found a noble way of preserving one bluesman’s legacy and of making sure he isn’t soon forgotten.

(c) JoJo Voigt

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