The Poetry of the Blues

The Poetry of the Blues

The Poetry of the Blues

The Poetry of the Blues

Excerpt

In one of his essays James Baldwin describes an African writer rising to defend his insistence on the importance of an African culture. "'What we are doing is holding on to what is ours. Little,' he added sardonically 'but it belongs to us.' Because the blues is a mingled expression of the life of the Negro in another continent he might prefer to ignore it, but the blues does belong to the Negro, and in both range and depth it is a great body of folk poetry. The poetic achievement of the blues is in many ways unique, and if it is still little known this is another aspect of the same social discriminations that have forced it into being. Baldwin himself learned, in Europe, that it is the blues which were at the heart of his own identity as an American Negro, an identity which he tried unsuccessfully to reject. In his essay, "The Discovery Of What It Means To Be An American," he wrote,

In Switzerland ". . . armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to try to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.

It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that for years I would not touch watermelon), but in Europe she helped to reconcile me to being a "nigger."

For many Negroes in America, as it was for James Baldwin, it will be emotionally necessary to reject the background, but always in the blues they will find again the memory of the life they have left behind. As I wrote I thought more often of these men and women than I did of anyone else who might be interested in the poetic expression of the blues. If I seem, at times, to be insistent on emphasizing the ugly reality of American racial discrimination it is because I think of it as the dominant moral issue facing American society today, and if I sometimes seem to have a personal emotional involvement in the blues it is because the reality of the blues is not too different from the reality of the life of any of us living in the United States in these troubling years.

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