BLUES POETRY: STERLING A. BROWN AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

Despite its humble origins and its often formulaic and repetitive nature, the blues has represented one of the most flourishing resources and one of the most important deposits for African American culture. Poets and writers have turned to it in search of powerful tools and symbols, shapes and figures suitable to describe a peculiar and particular vision of the world: above all a deep and ancient knowledge, an inalienable code through which to filter experiences and expressions, a interpretative prism suitable for reading and rereading the present.

The simultaneity of two very important phenomena was instrumental and functional: on the one hand, the phonographic explosion of the blues, from 1920 onwards; on the other, the beginning of a decisive movement of reformulation and rearrangement of the cultural and social coordinates of the African American people initiated by a group of brave intellectuals – poets, writers and musicians – remembered under the generic definition of Harlem Renaissance.

In that neighborhood of New York, the first great reflection on the black identity of the post-slavery era was launched, accompanied by an extraordinary flowering of artistic experiments tending to mix and weld the primitive strength of Afro-American expressiveness with the most modern forms of contemporary arts.

Over the course of a very bright twenty years, Harlem became the cultural ground for African American artists and intellectuals to explore, deepen and express the historical experience of African Americans: challenging the paternalistic and racist attitudes of whites, they exalted black dignity and creativity, while also claiming their freedom to express themselves in their own way. They examined their identity as black Americans, celebrating the black culture that had emerged from slavery and their cultural ties to Africa.

Within this cultural fervor, poets and writers began to measure themselves with the blues; not only with its formulas and rigid schemes, often reused as such, although intended for the written page and not for singing, but with the widest range of motifs, themes, representations.

From the cotton fields of the Delta, from the brothels of New Orleans to Harlem, the blues is transformed into another peculiar and inimitable art form. In poetry.

It is in this fervent context that we meet the capable pen of Sterling A. Brown.

A well-rounded intellectual, poet and theorist, Sterling A. Brown devoted much of his energy to the blues. He wrote about it on several occasions, trying to grasp its perimeter, to identify its profound nature against the generalizations that many parts of white public opinion tended to trivialize with regard to the historical and social experiences underlying the twelve bars.

As a historian, Brown had very clear ideas: for him the blues was the result of the creative spirit of the African American people, not a simple record that the industry passed off as such. Blues as shared knowledge and code, irrefutable reference framework. 

Brown’s poetry is known for its frank, unsentimental portraits of black people and their experiences, and the incorporation of African American folklore and contemporary idiom into his verse. 

“I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a [Black]. What the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.”

Southern Road

Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Ball an’ chain, bebby,
On my min’.

White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’ . . .

Riverbank Blues

A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin’, no need for doin’,
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage,
Little Mary’s, Big Mary’s, Cedar Creek,
Flood deir muddy water roundabout a man’s roots,
Keep him soaked and stranded and git him weak.

Lazy sun shinin’ on a little cabin,
Lazy moon glistenin’ over river trees;
Ole river whisperin’, lappin’ ‘gainst de long roots:
“Plenty of rest and peace in these…”

Big mules, black loam, apple and peach trees,
But seems lak de river washes us down
Past de rich farms, away from de fat lands,
Dumps us in some ornery riverbank town.

Went down to the river, sot me down an’ listened,
Heard de water talkin’ quiet, quiet lak an’ slow:
“Ain’ no need fo’ hurry, take yo’ time, take yo’
time…” Heard it sayin’—”Baby, hyeahs de way life go…”

Dat is what it tole me as I watched it slowly rollin’,
But somp’n way inside me rared up an’ say,
“Better be movin’… better be travelin’… Riverbank’ll
git you ef you stay…”

Towns are sinkin’ deeper, deeper in de riverbank,
Takin’ on de ways of deir sulky Ole Man—
Takin’ on his creepy ways, takin’ on his evil ways,
“Bes’ git way, a long way . . . whiles you can.”Man got his
sea too lak de Mississippi Ain’t got so long for a whole lot longer way,
Man better move some, better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay…”

Sources:

Brown, S. Southern Road
Martorella, V. Il blues
https://poets.org/poet/sterling-brown
https://allpoetry.com/Sterling-A-Brown

Published by Bibi

Blues dancer, insegnante e dj - Viaggiatrice compulsiva - Amante della vita, della natura e dei gatti!

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