Here’s a two-fer Music Poems post (since I missed November by a mile) — two with Bessie Smith, the ‘Empress of the Blues’ who had an unsurpassed voice and was in her time (the 1920s) the highest paid black performer around.
First up, Jericho Brown’s “Langston Blues“. I saw Jericho Brown last weekend at a Copper Canyon Press shindig in Seattle and holy moly is he a great performer! He was mesmerizing and his work was beautiful (not pretty beautiful, hard beautiful). I strongly urge you, if you have the chance to hear him live, to take it.
Let my words
Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
And perfect as a moan
That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
Of heaven. Blues for the angels
Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
They know. O weary drinkers
Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
So close? […]
The roll from line to line of that early image, words lying sound (ooh, that doubling of the word ‘sound’) in the mouths of men who are speaking invocations, invocations which are as a moan that is mounting in the mouth of Bessie Smith, and how about that description of the blues, “for the angels kicked out / Of heaven. Blues for the angels // Who miss them still.” And so on. Bonus on that link to read the entire poem, an interview with Jericho Brown where he talks about the impetus for the poem.
And Robert Hayden’s classic 1966 poem “Homage to the Empress of the Blues“, which centers more then Browns’ around Bessie Smith the performer. The poems’ images and sheer sounds do equal work — “gracile and dangerous as a jaguar” is a wonderful line to say aloud, as is “torn hurdygurdy lithographs” — the man in the candystripe shirt, the fists of snow, the riot squad of statistics, her smile. I think I first read this poem in high school and still every time I read it I think it’s one of the perfect ones.
So that wraps up this year’s monthly series (you can read all of 2014’s Music Poems posts here). 2013 was Animals, 2013 was Months. I’ll do another ongoing monthly series in 2015, though I haven’t decided which topic I’ll focus on yet. Swing back by in January to find out…
And to end, here’s a taste of Bessie Smith: