Blues Poems, an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets book edited by Kevin Young, is a fascinatingly crucial, diverse, and succinct look at the poetry of the blues, the rawest emotion of living.
This wide ranging selection includes many of the greatest poets of the last century and today, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Cornelius Eady, Etheridge Knight, Sherman Alexie, Amiri Baraka, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and lyrics from several of the original blues masters, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Big Mama Thornton, all in a thin 3×5” volume that can easily be carried close to the waist.
Blues has always been a subversive art. The state of having the blues is most often rooted in oppression, and oppression is often tied with brutal racism and living with myriad disadvantages in a white supremacist society. In this context, all blues is protesting the ills of society. Some of the later poems are bolder in calling out the racism, classism, poverty, sickness, violence and overall desolation enacted against people, like “The FB Eye Blues” by Richard Wright:That old FB eye Tied a bell to my bed stall Said old FB eye Tied a bell to my bed stall Each time I love my baby, gover’ment knows it all. Woke up this morning FB eye under my bed Said I woke up this morning FB eye under my bed Told me all I dreamed last night, every word I said. Everywhere I look, Lord I see FB eyes Said everywhere I look, Lord I find FB eyes I’m getting sick and tired of gover’ment spies. My mama told me A rotten egg’ll never fry Said my mama told me A rotten egg’ll never fry And everybody knows a cheating dog’ll never thrive. Got them blues, blues, blues Them mean old FB eyes blues Said I got them blues, blues, blues Them dirty FB eyes blues Somebody tell me something, some good news.
Here Wright gives voice to the tragedy and disgrace of having the “man” encroaching upon the most sacred, private aspects of being alive, such as lovemaking and dreaming. “The FB Eye Blues” is a sorrowful, wonderfully Orwellian poem that uses blues standards of rhyme and sung story, while calling out the evil ways of the government that preys upon people because of their race.
Blues Poems demonstrates the brilliance of blues motifs. The blues tells huge stories of life’s aches, contrasted with life’s joys and loves, in few words. Blues hooks us with rhyme and refrain and playful use of language, such as double entendre.
As Kevin Young says in the forward, “For in spite of navigating the depths of despair, the blues ultimately are about triumphing over that despair—or at least surviving it along enough to sing about it. With the blues, the form fights the feeling. Survival and loss, sin and regret, boasts and heartbreak, leaving and loving, a pigfoot and a bottle of beer—the blues are a series of reversals, of finding love and losing it, of wanting to see yourself dead in the depths of despair, and then soon as the train comes down the track, yanking your fool head back. The blues are having the gun, but no bullets to fit it. As one saying goes, the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man (or woman) feelin’ bad. But another saying knows the opposite is true: the blues ain’t nothin’ but a bad woman (or man) feelin’ good.”
This brings to mind the JB Lenoir song, Feelin’ good, in which Lenoir declares that all the money in the world is spent on feeling good. It’s the joy, and the love of life that we’re fighting for, and that we get the blues for when it’s taken away.
Young’s book shows how the blues embodies some of the most spare, poignant, razor bone poetry there is; and how blues often draws on gospel and has hopeful, spiritual redemptions.
Here’s an apt poem for International Worker’s Day, by Fenton Johnson:Tired I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization. Let us take a rest, M’Lissy Jane. I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the rest of the night on one of Mike’s barrels. You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people’s clothes turn to dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit. You will spend your days forgetting you married me and your nights hunting the warm gin Mike serves the ladies in the rear of the Last Chance Saloon. Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored. Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars mark my destiny. I am tired of civilization.
Poem sums up despair so deep you feel booze wrecked and helpless. Having to work all the hard long days so the capitalists can stay rich. Wanting to save the children from the violence of oppression. Wanting to remove the beauty of the stars because they map out a cruel destiny.
It’s easy to see from this volume of Blues Poems how blues, rock, folk, pop songs of today all have origins in the old blues – timeless, oral, roots poetry able to instruct, comfort and heal.