Tag Archives: Langston Hughes

Bessie Smith & Bessie Smith

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? […]

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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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April Comes Like an Idiot

It’s April. Fields of flowers, tons of rain, loss and renewal, and poetry.

I love Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Spring,” not just for its oh-so-quotable (and I often do) “April / comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers,” but for what precedes it — “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” I love how angsty and dark it is, teenagery — even as it describes spring beauty (“The smell of the earth is good” and “the redness / of little leaves opening stickily”)  there are maggots eating brains, and not just underground either. It’s a delicious mix of darknesses. She doesn’t deny beauty, it just isn’t enough.

For April rain we turn to Langston Hughes’ “April Rain Song.” Not a complicated poem in thought, but it has a wonderful rhythm.

A consequence of rain is of course mud, and mud makes the world mudlicious, Continue reading

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