Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how?
The first slave ship landed on the shore and an African disembarked, meeting her fate. A couple of centuries and some change later, that slave’s great-great-great- and too-many-greats-to-mention descendants toted sacks down cotton rows, looked up at that fiendish sun. Bore the sacks up again.
Then happened a Saturday night: a backwoods joint and the sweetness of a lowdown lover, the pint jar full of bug juice.
Then praying time on Sunday and the call-and-response to the good Word.
Then some other night, the waiting in the dark by the railroad tracks, and hopping a train headed for a promised land.
These are the romantic and romanticized origins of the blues, the truth of Drylongso black folk. The blues rose undeniably from some corner of that community, and by America’s past laws and by blood memory, the black American has held onto Africa. That “one-drop” joke made even the palest of blacks disenfranchised and standing on the outside, and though some revisionists want to claim the blues by virtue of new and supposedly benevolent (post)racial definitions, most black folk figure that it’s too late now, that we might not ever get the last laugh. But we did get the blues for our trouble.
We can agree that the blues is African-American music, but let’s also agree that the African-American community is, like all the other communities in America, as much a hybrid as the music it created. We know that the blues was born in a certain landscape and to a certain race and class (i.e., disenfranchised Southern black sharecroppers who either stayed home or, as a result of that disenfranchisement, took the Great Migration journey to Chicago, Detroit, New York City, etc.).
Thus, the blues remains a dynamic and young poetic that refuses to deny its humble beginnings, but how does the blues poetic allow those not from those beginnings, the others who don’t stand on the margins of this marginalized poetic, to write blues poetry successfully? And what exactly defines the blues poetic, anyway?
Obviously, I’m not the first poet to write about the blues; I come from a long line of those who’ve tried to pin down the blues, which has been a hard job over the years. But what follows is (I hope) a reasonably plainspoken yet craft-based attempt to explain to poets of all backgrounds the seven elements that construct a blues poem.
According to Ralph Ellison, “As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically” (79-80). To put a finer point on it, a traditional/anonymous African-American saying states that “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman feelin’ bad.” In other words, blues music is characterized by pathos, first and foremost. However, the blues is not just about feeling bad or about a bad situation; this is a common misconception.
The pathos is clear in blues songs, but we should distinguish between the blues song and the blues poetic. The poetic is relatively young (only about ninety years old) and includes, but is not limited to, the “blues feeling,” a metaphysical condition black folk have experienced for nigh on four hundred years. The problem that many poets have encountered is that the “feeling” of the blues is the primary, common marker of blues poetry, but the rest seems difficult to locate. Poetic “craft” largely depends on technical details, and since most traditional (read: European) forms that have gained large followings over the years (if not centuries) privilege “craft” over “feeling,” the blues (read: African-American) form has been regulated to the margins. But I argue there is a “craft” structure to the traditional blues lament housing the blues “feeling.”
Look at most early, transcribed blues songs: the stanzas of the traditional blues lament are in three rhyming lines (aaa), the second line usually repeating the first; the ensuing stanzas repeat the rhyme scheme in this regular pattern (bbb, ccc, etc.). A variation of this three-line stanza is the six-line stanza, which represents the breaking up of the three lines. Although sometimes irregular (because the lines are broken), the rhyme scheme in the six-line stanza usually has a first, enjambed line that continues to a second line. These lines repeat and rhyme in third and fourth lines that are the same, or almost the same, as the first and second lines. The fifth and sixth lines of the stanza are brand-new, but the sixth line usually rhymes with lines two and four. Thus, the rhyme scheme would be ababcb, dedefe, and would continue in that pattern until the end of the song.
Now, let’s continue to the three movements.
In any blues song, three essential and distinct movements must be present: identification, exploration, and resolution. First, the problem, the source of the blues, is named. Then, the singer spends a little time with the problem, letting the listener connect to the pathos of the situation. Finally, the problem that was identified and explored is wrapped up by the end of the song; this problem is resolved, but not necessarily in a bright, positive way. (That’s maybe why it’s called the blues and not the pinks or the greens instead.) Remember that this trinity of movements is not new to black music; it doesn’t take a scholar to notice this. If one looks at any of the traditional Negro spirituals—what one might call the sacred blues—one sees the three movements worked in an overt way. The blues, an obviously secular musical form, shares the same roots as the spirituals, and thus, both forms use the three movements similarly.
In addition to the pathos and the three movements, what should be present in a blues song are “blue notes.” Even if there is pathos, or a traditional structure and rhyme, without blue notes there’s no singing or writing the blues. In music, blue notes are pitches, sometimes also called “bent notes.” They are flatted notes on the third, fifth, or seventh scale degree, and they result in the singer’s sudden, unexpected phrasing that is not always in tune, a surprise in the song (Charters 17). The blue note is an important component of the blues, so that the sorrow experienced by the singer confronts the conflicting force of the singer’s voice dipping between major and minor scales. More important, the same bending or dipping within the lyrics accompanies the singer’s actual vocal blue note. A blue note gives the music a complex phrasing instead of just an annoying whine about one’s personal problems. In a poem, the blue note equals tension or conflict.
Thus, there is an initial five-part equation of a blues song: one part pathos + three movements/the trinity + one part blue note.
This equation is deceptively simple in songs, as with Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”; ironically, this song was recorded a few months before the devastating Mississippi flood of 1927 caused tragedy and mass displacement for many Southern blacks. Although this song is longer than twelve bars, it is in three-line blues lyric stanzas or verses. We can hear Bessie Smith’s blue notes, the layering that shouts out code and irony in the song. The metaphor and metonymy of water indicate the classic displacement of African-Americans in the aftermath of slavery and during the first part of the twentieth century, and if we doubt Smith’s ability to code, we have only to look at some of the traditional Negro spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” or “Go Down Moses,” which not only were antebellum protest songs but also, brilliant codes for the underground railroad, codes composed by slaves with no formal education.
Stage to Page: The Great (Musical) Migration
Just as it would be impossible to list all blues singers, a discussion of all the poets who have written in the blues poetic, either devotedly or briefly, would be interminable, but the earliest blues poets are Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, of course, wrote in the vernacular about working-class black folk, and I would argue that, technically, his body of work could be considered blues poetry, but Hughes and Brown utilized actual blues music in addition to Dunbar’s folk language and culture.
Hughes’s work has captured much attention; he has been called “the first and greatest poet to write in the blues form” (Young 13). There has been a postage stamp for Hughes, an Academy of American Poets celebration for the centennial of his birthday, and several conferences focusing on him. Hughes deserves this attention since his fine blues poems represent a huge body of work. No author of a book of blues poetry, or even one blues poem, can ignore his or her debt to Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926), which established him as the wunderkind of the Harlem Renaissance.
Although Hughes is the undisputed poet laureate of the blues—his sheer number of blues poems earn him this title—Sterling A. Brown rivals Hughes as “best blues poet” (much like the way Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan compete with each other in greatness). Until recently, Brown’s work has not garnered the same critical attention from mainstream (i.e. non-black) critics, and this is unfortunate. Architects of the Harlem Renaissance praised his first volume of poetry, Southern Road (1932), and critic Sterling Stuckey, in his introduction to a later edition of Southern Road (1974), asserts, “Brown’s treatment of the folk Negro was destitute of maudlin sentimentality and outlandish humor, hallmarks of most traditional dialect poetry” (13). Most likely Stuckey refers to Dunbar’s “dialects,” an unfair characterization of the work of this great poet, but I will not debate that here.
Both Hughes and Brown codified early blues poetics in their work; when they took the music from the oral tradition to the page, they transcribed the blues song into poetry and located the blues as “lyric” according to the original definition (music) as well as the later, contemporary definition (subjective, emotional verses). The two poets had to endow the poetic form with more complexity because, stripped of instrumental embellishment, the words stand out in relief, necessarily withstanding more critical scrutiny.
But let’s come back to the craft imperative: how does one move a blues song into a blues poetic?
If we want the blues to remain a dynamic poetic, one that’s not redundant in terms of structure and rhyme, then lyrical progression of the form, a poetic migration, is essential. I take “migration” as my metaphor because although the blues started in the Mississippi Delta, the form traveled with musicians to the American North and West, a result of the mass exodus of blacks out of the South known as The Great Migration.
Migration really translates into improvisation, and it is necessary in order to keep the blues relevant for new generations of poets from different cultural and racial backgrounds. Thus, it is permissible to use other forms and combine them with the blues, as long as the requirements of the blues poetic are satisfied. Once a poet “takes five”—one part pathos + three movements/the trinity + one part blue note—the next step is incorporating music into the poem. The issue of retaining the traditional blues musical stanza is not as important as the issue of music within the poem. The blues poetic started from an impulse to mimic the music, and so by definition, any blues poem should take music as a sonic imperative within the poem. There is no excuse for a tone-deaf blues poem, a poem lacking grace, a poem with two left feet. Ideally, a blues poem should “sing” as much as possible.
There are existing forms of poetry “music” that can be adapted to the blues, including the sonnet because of its end-rhyming sounds and the regular metric structure of the Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or even the very difficult (for me) Spenserian sonnet. Other forms such as the villanelle and the rhyming pantoum work wonderfully because their rhyme schemes and repetition help guide the poem through the necessary three movements; in so doing, the tension of blue notes is easily located. The reader’s eye, ear, and mind contend with the building power of blue notes as the poem works the movements, but the reader accepts repetition. What could be better? Similarly, though some contemporary poets have dismissed the sestina as a pointless and circular exercise, I have found it effective for the blues precisely because of the repetition of end words and the ease of working the three movements.
Other forms, some of which are relatively new to Americans, also work well with the blues poetic, such as the ghazal. As a Poetry Scholar at the 1997 Bread Loaf Writers Conference, I was introduced to the ghazal by Agha Shahid Ali, my workshop teacher, who insisted that I write a blues ghazal. To my everlasting regret, I did not do so before his death, but anyone interested in the blues ghazal must read A. Van Jordan’s first book of poetry, Rise (2001), for strong examples of this form (including “The Lifestory of Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. As Told Through His Hands” and “To My Brothers”) since he is, I believe, the first poet ever to use this form for the blues. Natasha Trethewey has an especially evocative blues ghazal, “Miscegenation,” in her Pulitzer Prize-winning third volume, Native Guard (2006); though the poem doesn’t include the word “blues” it does contain all the blues markers. I began experimenting with the ghazal as blues because the repetition of words at the end of each couplet builds the power of the blue notes; the title poem of my third book of poetry, Red Clay Suite (2007), is a blues ghazal.
And there is a new form, only about fifteen years old, called the “bop” that was invented by Afaa Michael Weaver. The bop was an exercise created by Weaver for his students at Cave Canem, a workshop/retreat started by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in 1996. Weaver used the bop partly to incorporate black music within the poem; since all African-American musical forms link up with the blues (and the spirituals), the three movements work perfectly. After I first read Weaver’s essay on the bop as a Cave Canem fellow, I attempted the bop form myself and realized how essential these three movements would be to a blues poetic. Later, I published bops (“To Know You is to Love You,” and “The Battered Blues”) in my first two books of poetry, The Gospel of Barbecue and Outlandish Blues.
In the bop, the first sestet identifies some sort of problem and uses a line or lines from a song of the black musical tradition (blues, spirituals, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, or hip-hop). Next, the speaker explores a problem in an octave and then presents lines from the same song, either the lines previously used or new lines. The final sestet resolves the problem (again, not necessarily to satisfaction), and the poem ends with the final lines from the song.
A poet may stay with free verse in the service of ruthless individualism and avoid rhyme or strict form altogether; however, if using free verse for the blues I would suggest taking a serious look at rhyme and/or rhythm within the line to facilitate music. Many poets use groupings of similar sounds in their work anyway, sometimes unknowingly. This is how I discovered the hum of the blues in my own work, and, after a while, I began to group these sounds together intentionally.
Down to the Racial and Class Crossroads
How does a person who is not the descendent of black sharecroppers; who has not sung the Negro spirituals with one’s kin in a clapboard church; or, in contemporary times, who has not experienced racism understand the blues and stay true to the form?
The most sensitive issues with the blues that many blues poets of African descent will not address out loud (or should I say, in racially mixed company), but which I will meet head-on so that there are no misunderstandings, are the issues of race, class, and culture. To put it extremely bluntly, can white folks write blues poetry? Or should they just give it up and go on to something else?
Yes, of course, white folks can write blues poetry.
But there are some caveats that must be taken into account, such as with language use. For example, someone who doesn’t know how to speak a black vernacular dialect fluently shouldn’t write in a black vernacular dialect. Admittedly, I am conservative when it comes to white poets attempting to mimic the black vernacular (keeping in mind that “vernacular” has as its root the Latin “verna” or “slave born in his master’s house”), because when white poets who have not given their all attempt to mimic black vernacular speech, it tragically results in minstrelsy, whether intentional or not. Thus, the continuing issues surrounding Berryman’s Mr. Bones character in “Dream Songs,” who I am certain was not meant to offend the black community, who resounds with complexity, but whose speech lacks the linguistic integrity of the black vernacular (which Mr. Bones seems to be trying to speak, though that’s still up for critical debate). And therefore, in my opinion, Mr. Bones’s speech lacks the beauty of that vernacular.
But let me say that I am conservative when it comes to certain black poets attempting vernacular, too, because, all assumptions to the contrary, many black poets can’t speak or write the black vernacular, either. The supposed blood quantum or so-called authenticity of one’s parentage does not determine competency in the use of black vernacular. And anyway, there are so many different dialects of black vernacular: Black Belt, New Orleans/Gulf Coast vernacular, Geechie-Gullah vernacular, and the different Northern Urban Dialects such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.
For example, I’m positive that my own Black Belt vernacular sounds exceedingly lovely to the ear, with its molasses cadences, because it is mine, but not everyone has the ear to repeat what is heard, and it is best to know what one can and cannot do. My father, a well-known Black Arts Movement poet, spoke fluent French, but he never attempted to write poems in that language. Furthermore, as a lifelong member of a black bourgeoisie family (going back three generations before him), Daddy never learned to speak or write any black vernacular dialect with any real authority or beauty (though, strangely enough, he played a mean blues piano and wrote both blues- and jazz-related poems). He’d never heard that vernacular until attending Tuskegee Institute High School in 1937; he just never got the hang of it. My mother, on the other hand, is the child of Georgia sharecroppers, and I inherited my second black vernacular language from her.
To be blunt, if a poet isn’t black, she shouldn’t try to enter the vernacular without giving it her all. (Not giving all is labeled “faking the funk”—again, funk as a metaphysical state of being, not a musical genre.) Not her scholarly all. Her bodily all and her soul all. It’s not possible to read about how to be black; it’s necessary to live among the people or at least have several black friends, not just the one. But one does need to read about the culture from the point of view of the insiders of black culture, and not get outraged when someone in that culture says what he really thinks, instead of what he believes someone (not black) wants him to think. In order to approach African-American culture(s), a person who’s not African-American needs to give up whatever cultural or racial privilege s/he possesses in relation to that culture. This is the only way to truly understand: from the inside out, not the other way around.
There are alternatives to all that study and immersion, however, because someone doesn’t have to write in black vernacular to write the blues. Everybody has a language of his or her own that will do just fine.
I would argue passionately that the last important requirement for a blues poet is not that she writes from a particular racial ethos or use racial language, but that she writes from a class ethos—that would be a working-class ethos. The blues must remain a folk form, a form that speaks to the particularity of the working-class ethos, even if the speaker or author of the poem is not working-class or Southern or black, and does not (or cannot) speak in a black vernacular dialect, because the blues is stripped of its original particularity, it will be reduced. It becomes manipulated by those who simply exploit the poetic to squeeze out a poem, who have no real deep and abiding interest in the blues or its history, only in a momentary need to write a poem (and possibly get published).
Once the poetic is removed from its working-class particularity, it really isn’t discernable from any other poetic; in other words, there won’t be a blues poem. Instead, someone will write a simple, sad poem, and why would a poet need a form so unique and complex as the blues just to whine and moan in some non-specific, directionless way?
The blues allows for migration to different cultural or racial sensibilities, different geographical regions, and other intersecting poetic forms, but the particularity of class cannot be compromised; once a poet locates the blues in its working-class milieu, the poet can explore the essence of the blues poetic. Furthermore, if we can go back to the original blues music that nurtured the ensuing poetic, we can see how the music has migrated, becoming a brand-new genre that retains this essence.
Now, this is a dangerous and slippery thing to catch hold of, but in trying to locate the blues/class essence, let us consider the example of the banjo.
Though blues aficionados certainly know the origins of the banjo, it might shock lay fans of Country and Western music to learn that the banjo, a popular instrument commonly played in Appalachian bluegrass, actually is an instrument of West African origin (Charters 14). Captured Africans taken into slavery made and played the banjo—one can’t get much more working-class than slavery! Later, those slaves’ descendants used the banjo in blues instrumentals. Black musicians really don’t use the banjo widely in commercial musical production anymore, though “independent” black musicians have played the banjo for years. (One wonderful, contemporary group, Carolina Chocolate Drops, is reintroducing that instrument to African-American audiences who’ve been unfamiliar with the instrument.) While the banjo may be associated with Country and Western (i.e. mostly white) musicians, for anyone who has listened to banjo music, the sounds undeniably evoke a working-class, “folk” sensibility. It can be argued that at least a bit of the original blues/working-class intent of banjo music remains intact, even though the instrument has migrated to a different musical genre in another racial/cultural community.
The same folk intent should remain for the blues. If we go back to the earliest and best blues poets, Hughes and Brown, what their poems have in common besides race and culture is the particular class awareness. By adhering to the working-class sensibility, it’s possible to write good blues poetry, even if a poet isn’t of the same racial or cultural background as the original blues subjects.
Some of my first memories are of my parents’ music. My father, a man who was trained as a child to play classical piano from printed notes, played jazz and blues tunes on Saturdays by ear alone. My mother sang along with him in her used-to-be soprano voice. (She had started smoking in her college years). They both collected records along the way but didn’t take care of them; now, they’re scratched beyond repair. Much later on, in my late twenties, after I overcame my own embarrassment of what I thought was a simplistic genre, I sang with a blues band in graduate school, fell in love—hard—with both the music and the early blues poetry, and, over ten years later, I’m still writing blues poetry, even though I don’t collect many records, scratched or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a scholar or an historical archivist when it comes to blues music; I’m just a fan.
I’m not talking to a distant “one” here. I’m talking to you now.
I’ve told you that it’s necessary to count to seven: Take five + music + working-class ethos = a blues poem. But because I love the blues so much, I waited until the end to tell you this: even if you can count, even if you are respectful of the African-American historical origins, even if you have the best of cultural or class intentions, it might not matter, because you don’t choose the blues. See, blues chooses you. If you are lucky. Or, if you are unlucky.
This essay is a revised version of a craft lecture I presented at the Bennington Writing Seminars, June 17, 2004, during my Associate Faculty residency. In addition, I remain indebted to Afaa Michael Weaver for our many phone conversations on black music and black literary traditions, which helped me navigate my way to this analysis. By examining Weaver’s bop form and the three sections of that form, I was able to frame my own theory of the “three movements” of the blues poetic.
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Absence,” American Sublime. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2005. [Quote used by permission of the author.]
Brown, Sterling A. Southern Road. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932. Reprinted in 1974 (Boston: Beacon Press) with an introduction by Sterling Stuckey.
Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences,” Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. Ed. Lawrence Cohn, et al. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.
Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. The Gospel of Barbecue. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000.
—. Outlandish Blues. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
—. Red Clay Suite. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.
Jones, Leroi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1963.
Jordan, A. Van. Rise. Chicago: Tia Chucha, 2001.
Smith, Bessie. “Backwater Blues” in Blues Poems. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Everyman’s Library/Knopf, 2003.
Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Weaver, Afaa Michael. “The Poetic Form: The Bop,” / http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5773/
Young, Kevin. “Foreword.” Blues Poems. New York” Everyman’s Library/Knopf, 2003.