The Word/The Blues. A Meditation.
Investigating blues poetry, an old tradition
By Tyehimba Jess
The blues haunts us, haints us, holds us tight to memory. Ancestor bound and rhythm rocked, it recalls our hurts, healing them through a bent-note gospel of moan. Hard-hearted blues. Hard-workin' blues. Lost woman blues. Baby, come back blues. Blues birthed between the thighs of hallelujah shouts and work-song rhythm, filled with cotton-field sweat and the salve of a churchified moan. We created songs of redemption that conquered pain by claiming and naming our hurt, whether it's good lovin' gone bad or bad luck gone worse.
The Blues/The Blues/The Blues Is Alright
There are those who would like to forget the blues, to sink them in Mississippi mud or leave them hanging on Tennessee trees like a bad memory. They may associate blues with an attitude of defeat, a funeral dirge, not a resurrection; a way out of no way. But it is nearly impossible to bypass the blues, to skip that shotgun shack filled with chittlin', hamhock and cornbread culture, a genius that turned the master's dinner table leavings into new beginnings.
Honoree Jeffers, author of The Gospel of Barbecue (Kent State University Press, November 2000) and Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, April 2003), equates exploration of the blues with a willingness to fully uncover the beauty and horror of the past. "Many black folks are scared to mine black history. That is the issue with the blues. Blues is a way to mine that history." Her father, blues and classical pianist Lance Jeffers, was a poet of note. As a youngster, Jeffers was embarrassed by her father's blues piano parties. But later its grip took hold of her: "The blues choose you, you don't choose the blues. There is no way to write black history without writing blues." A fuller exploration of the blues aesthetic can lead disbelievers into an understanding of what it is to bend and not break, to bear up under pressure and keep on keepin' on.
Larry Neal wrote in his essay "The Ethos of the Blues" that "...the blues are basically defiant in their attitude toward life. They are about survival on the meanest, most gut level of human existence. The essential motive behind the best blues song is the acquisition of insight, wisdom."
Neal also recalls that the role of the blues singer is not unlike that of the griot in traditional African societies. The griot was willing to carry the history of his people, good and bad memories together, and transform them into song. But carrying around the truth doesn't always make a body welcome all the time. "The country blues singers were already stamped as men of sin," wrote Neal. "Many Negro ministers warned their congregations against associating with blues singers. A black man with a guitar ('devil box') was not allowed even to pass into the front yard of the church unless he left his guitar outside." While he was welcome to share his traveling news at the juke joint, he was obliged to keep such ramblings to himself around formal gatherings.
This is the same outsider/insider duality of the poet who has to carry bad news, along with the good. The reception isn't always pretty. Such was the job of Harlem Renaissance poets who sang their blues to America's hegemony and Black Arts Movement writers in the '60s who challenged class values and the status quo. Such was the task of black women writers of the '70s and '80s who were willing to break silence on sexism, and such has been the task of gay and lesbian poets who have named the truth of black homophobia. Such is the job of the griot, to "tell the truth to the people" as Mari Evans wrote. To carry forth his/her collective message: I have suffered. I will survive.
Blackening and Bluing the King's English
In Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1964; William Morrow paperback, 1999) Amiri Baraka cited "the beginning of the blues as one beginning of American Negroes. Or, let me say, the reaction and subsequent relation of the Negro's experience in this country in his English is one beginning of the Negro's conscious appearance on the American scene."
If the blues is a single note that is slurred into a different tone, then we have taken the King's English and blued it into our own dialect. We have bruised nouns and verbs into new meanings, blackening and bluing the language to suit our purpose, subverting the traditional so it will serve our humanity.
In 1949, Lorenzo Dow Turner's seminal research in Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (reissued by University of South Carolina Press, June 2002) detailed the ways African languages impacted American English. Africans added our own words, such as banjo, okay, boogie and yakety-yak.
Zora Neale Hurston's "Glossary of Harlem Slang" detailed the poetry of African American speech from boogie-woogie to gettin' salty to woofin' and solid. Using African American slang is essential to being hip in America. When American writers use this same genius in their literature, they are bringing blues to the page, wading their words in the waters of a tradition wide and deep as the Mississippi River, that artery of sustenance that nurtures the nation. When you read many outstanding figures in American literature, you'll hear the blues flowing through their verse.
A. Van Jordan, author of Rise (Tia Chucha, June 2001) and the forthcoming Macnolia: Poems (W.W. Norton, June 2004), spoke to this heritage in a recent interview. "The philosophy in the blues has had a great deal of influence on voice in American poetry, whether in vernacular or not. Of course, we see it overtly in Sterling Brown or Langston Hughes, but it creeps into John Berryman, William Matthews, the Beats and others--like the blues music is in the Beatles, Cream and American rock acts. The blues is an American art form that has influenced American culture since its inception."
Kevin Young, author of Jelly Roll (Knopf, January 2003), has recently edited the anthology Blues Poems (Knopf/Everyman Library, September 2003). The book features poets from many different ethnicities who have felt the distinctly American blues influence in their work. Marilyn Chin, Sherman Alexie, W.H. Auden and Charles Wright are featured alongside the blues lyrics of Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson. Cornelius Eady and Nikki Giovanni share space with Muddy Waters and Allen Ginsberg. As Young says in his forward: "...now that black people have invented and named the blues, people all over the world speak them." We have invaded the English language as much as it has invaded us.
Bluing the Form
The blues is also an original American poetic form. The music's A-A-B structure has been used and riffed upon by countless poets in their quest for meaningful expression. When J.B. Lenoir sang his "Alabama Blues", he used the same structure of Langston Hughes's "Bound No'th Blues." Both troubadours make their lament loud and clear in the first line, and then repeat it in the second, initiating their own call-and-response. The final line delivers resolution.
Other times, however, the resolution lies in the act of witnessing collective trauma. This is a quality that Chicago poet Duriel E. Harris finds liberating in her pursuit of the muse. "The blues form creates a space for conversation" within a culture. Her first book, Drag (Elixir Press, September 2003), contains a "Villanelle for the Dead White Fathers" that overflows with the blues, and a "Crazy Woman Blues" that bemoans relationships. "Blues people are marginalized people, and there is an undercurrent of protest that is sublimated in the blues," she writes. Black folks couldn't just go out and protest racism in the '20s and '30s. But we could give voice to our pain through a blues song, and part of our resolution would be the discovery of solace in our voice.
Writing in the blues tradition does not mean that African Americans are restricted to the A-A-B form, however. As poet Camille Dungy, 2003 National Endowment for the Arts Award-winner, said recently: "Blues is one of the tools I draw on--just like the English sonnet form is one of the tools I draw on." And when black writers use traditional European forms, they often blue those hand-me-down instruments in order to tell their stories. Sterling Plumpp, acclaimed author of several books of poetry and 2003 recipient of a Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Literature from the Blues Foundation, describes the art form as "the highest and most eloquent form of black expression, particularly at the secular level.
"We are descendants of Africa who adopt Europe and make Europe what we want it to be," Plumpp stated in a recent interview. "When Louis Armstrong developed the form of jazz, it was a way of making those instruments blue." Just as black folks have always done in music, taking European instruments and playing them in ways they were never supposed to be played, from the harmonica to the saxophone to the turntable, we have also taken literary form and fixed it to suit our purpose, blowing our blues through its changes.
Gwendolyn Brooks blued the form when she "mastered classical poetics, but blackened and blued those devices without making them cheap." When she employed the sonnet form in poems like "The Children of the Poor" and "The Rites for Cousin Vit." She took the classical trumpet of European form and turned it out with African American voice. This black woman on the South Side of Chicago took a 14-line structure--a device used to carry Shakespeare's woes--and blew African Americans' collective voice through its valves:
What shall I give my children? who are poor, Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land, Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand No velvet and no velvety velour
Brooks showed the world that the kitchenette realities of everyday, working-class black folks could fit inside the traditional structures but still retain the vibrant warmth of the people in her community. She set an example for black poets today such as Constance Merritt ( A Protocol for Touch , University of North Texas Press, March 2000) and Natasha Tretheway ( Domestic Work , Graywolf Press, September 2000).
From Toomer to Morrison, from Hughes to Komunyakaa, the blues line has been passed down in our literature like a well-worn family heirloom. Jean Toomer squeezed the blues into Cane . In 1923, when "Karintha" was published in Broom 4: An International Magazine of the Arts , a note instructed readers of the piece that it was "To be read, (aloud) accompanied by the humming of a Negro folk song." Toomer was entranced by the blues during time spent in the countryside of Georgia. Although Cane did not enjoy wide circulation, it influenced a whole generation of Harlem Renaissance writers. Langston Hughes was on a first name basis with the blues. His award-winning "The Weary Blues" became the title poem for his first book, published three years after Cane , in 1926. It's difficult to remember now, but the first blues recording, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," had just been released in 1920. Langston had the foresight to recognize this form as an authentic voice from his people, to!
recognize its influence and incorporate it into his verse. In "Weary Blues" he intones:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, I heard a Negro Play Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway...
He did a lazy sway...
Sterling Brown's works such as Southern Road (1932) were planted in the blues tradition. Detroit's Robert Hayden continued in the blues tradition with The Lion and the Archer and Ballad of Remembrance . Both Brown and Hayden have had their collected work assembled in volumes edited by Michael Harper, a blues descendant whose seminal work made the transition to a jazz voice with Dear John, Dear Coltrane (University of Illinois Press, June 1985). There arc countless other poets to list: Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Henry Dumas, Etheridge Knight, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez and others. These black poets have all added to the blues tradition in their verse.
Blues to the Future
Sterling Plumpp's poem "216" comments on the blues' personal use.
to tell me/is personal
and I nod half-approval.
For I know birth
elevates. I know growth
is sanctity. And adulthood
is divine. For gods/rise
from dreams rolling into
dreams. Everybody gotta
heart. They say/blues
is what everybody feels;
when they connected/won't let
go hurt. Keep it alive til
they can soothe it to sleep .
The safe bet is that the blues will still be relevant to serious writers for a very long time to come. As A. Van Jordan said: "I think the blues will influence African American--and American writers, in general--much in the way it has influenced American music: through osmosis. The interest in hip-hop is no different from the interest in the blues, jazz or any other black style; it's constantly being cross-pollinated and redefined as something else, but it's still the blues."
Perhaps, poetry is the last vestige of our blues that ain't been "taken up and gone," as Langston would say. Still our original voice, we only need to recognize it and sing it aloud on the page.