Memphis Minnie on the Icebox

By a poet, though not technically a poem, “Memphis Minnie on the Icebox” is this month’s Music post — a hell of a great piece of writing by Langston Hughes penned originally for the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1943.

All of it is fabulous. For instance, the description in this paragraph:

Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.

You can hear it, even if you’ve never heard Memphis Minnie (or possibly even if you don’t know what the blues sounds like — hard for me to say on that one, but I’ll venture it’s so).

And then the turn the piece takes from the music to the world from which the music comes, with the gesture of the question, the mindset, “It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it?” and then that end bit, about the men who take the money. Chillingly, thrillingly good little bit of writing, this piece — it seems to me it does everything a good short essay should. Sets the scene and puts you in it, has something to say, says it, and leaves you feeling your life has another before and after to mark, before and after you first read this.

 

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