According to Ira Gershwin in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959, pp. 33-34), “As a term for depressed spirits, ‘the blues’ goes back to the first decade of the nineteenth century: ‘and I saw he was still under the influence of a whole legion of the blues’ (Washington Irving: Salmagundi, 1807). Irving’s phrase is his shortened version of the earlier British and Scottish ‘the blue devils,’ which figuratively meant a visitation by the spirits of Melancholia. A century went by before The Blues began to be used as a music term; this, thanks principally to the talent and output of W. C. Handy and his world-famous ‘St. Louis Blues,’ ‘The Memphis Blues,’ and many more.”
Langston Hughes is given credit for making the "blues" as much a part of American literature as it was of American music, for as artistic expression, the blues is a phenomenon of Black American musical tradition rather than Black literature specifically. A subgenre of jazz, blues is equally a form of lamentation or complaint with roots in the Bible, in particular the Old Testament which, more than the New Testament, has guided and solaced generations of American Blacks.
Blues first appeared as a consciously literary form in Langston Hughes' poem, "The Weary Blues," which won Opportunity magazine's poetry prize in 1925 and, in the following year, was the title poem of his first book, The Weary Blues (1926). Despite his overstatement of the fixity of the blues form, Langston Hughes was much looser in his practice. He never used the rhyming triplet form, preferring merely to express the sadness that is the tone and subject of “the blues,” which he defined in his poem titled “The Blues”:
When the shoe strings break
On both your shoes
And you're in a hurry —
That's the blues.
When you go to buy a candy bar
And you've lost the dime you had
Slipped through a hole in your pocket somewhere —
That's the blues, too, and bad!
Hughes also tied “the blues” to music in a much less formal way in the title poem from his prize-winning first book in 1923, “The Weary Blues”:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway...
He did a lazy sway...
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues,
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan —
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."
My own first attempt at writing the blues took place at Yaddo where I spent part of the summer of 1959 between graduation from the University of Connecticut and entering the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa in the fall. Unwittingly following in Hughes’ footsteps, and in the true tradition of improvisation, I was having lunch in my room one day with the artist Roger Crossgrove. We were discussing how quickly one could create an image or write a poem, and I said that I could write a decent poem in fifteen or twenty minutes. Roger scoffed at me. I got a pad of paper and a pencil and said, “Give me a subject.” “How about that waitress we were flirting with last night at the dive across from the racetrack?” he replied. I said, “Okay,” and the result was,
Lorrie looked good — man,
she was a jazz band, straight
as a clarinet, and the tunes she played
with her hip action wowed my crowd.
Lorrie swung like a prime ensemble,
smiled the cool blues as we sipped our
brews in the racetrack dive while the
bass thrummer, a basic type, swiped
at the strings, making us think
of beds and things.
There we were, dancing our eyes
among the beers while Lorrie walked
her pert way among us, mashers all,
and we asked, "What's up tonight,
"I've no time," she smiled, "no time —
I'm a college girl, my major's law.
"By night I slide drinks down
to your hands, and in the daylight
I guard lives at Ryall's beach."
Then, when the jazz bunch quit and
the horn stopped snorting
and the drums bumped the last bum
out the door, we went too, man,
we went too
Who wants to see Lorrie meet her beau?
Who wants to see his old eyes, older
than she'll ever be, and his dark hands
grab her wrist hard as they leave to park
in the raceway woods?
My collaborator of many years, the printmaker George O’Connell, who is also an amateur jazz musician and plays the vibes in local bands, loves this poem. He made a beautiful Xmas card of it in 1984 and, later on, an entire Artist Book which he gave to me.
it was not until the 1970s that the blues stanza came to be recognized as an identifiable literary form. At that time Stephen Henderson, in the introduction to his 1973 anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry (a title which was intended to be a reply of sorts to the New Critical Brooks and Warren "Bible" of the Caucasian academy, Understanding Poetry) wrote about the "'classic' twelve-bar, three line form" of the blues, as in Eddie 'Son' House's 'Dry Spell Blues'":
The dry spell blues have fallen, drove me from door to door.
Dry spell blues have fallen, drove me from door to door.
The dry spell blues have put everybody on the killing floor.
Now the people down south sure won't have no home.
Now the people down south sure won't have no home.
'Cause the dry spell have parched all this cotton and corn.
These rhythms are to be found in earlier English poetry as well, however, as one noted in Visions and Revisions (1986, pp. 125-6), specifically in Robert Browning's "A Toccata of Galuppi's."
House's line is identifiable as loosely iambic hexameter and Browning's as a loose fourteener (i.e., a "fifteener," each line containing fifteen syllables; see The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, 1986, p. 202), but the blues line may vary in length from tetrameter to heptameter; thus, both examples are within the metrical boundaries of the tradition. The triplet stanza and its rhyme scheme are as important to the blues as its meters. Browning's stanza rhymes aaa but in the strict form of blues stanza the rhyme scheme is AAa —The second line is an incremental refrain, a slightly changed repetition of the first line; the third line is a synthetic parallel which gives a consequence of the repeated lines. And so forth. Here is a portion of the Browning poem:
Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings.
The rhythms and rhymes are the same. The only thing missing from the Browning poem is the formal repetition. The main point is that, though the forms differ slightly, the techniques are the same. The styles are completely different, and it was style that Henderson was discussing, not “technique.”
Beginning in 1986 the blues stanza is described in The New Book of Forms, (op. cit., pp. 101-2) as a triplet derived from the Afro-American tradition of lamentation or complaint in which line two is an incremental (meaning “slightly changed) repetition of line one and the third line is a synthetic parallel which gives a consequence of the first line and its repetition, AAa, BBb, etc., as in this diagram (the large X or other letter indicates a stressed syllable, the small x an unstressed one; letters other than x = rhyme, and a large letter other than X = a repeated line):
lines meters and rhymes
1. xX xX xX xX xA
2. xX xX xX xX xA
3. xX xX xX xX xa
4. xX xX xX xX xB
5. xX xX xX xX xB
6. xX xX xX xX xb and so forth:
Listen to the author read his poem Blues for George Gershwin
BLUES FOR GEORGE GERSHWIN
September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937
When I was three you stepped out of the light.
When I was three years old you spurned the light
And wandered off into the dark of night.
You left behind a melody or two,
A tune, a song, a melody or two,
And that was quite enough for you to do
To justify your stay among us here,
To pay your way while you were with us here
Upon this mortal coil, this spinning sphere.
When I grew up I heard the songs you made,
I listened, and I learned the songs you made
And wished¾oh! how I wished that you had stayed.
I do not understand why you were taken
So young. Some force of Nature was mistaken
When it decided to leave the world forsaken
Of all that possibility of song,
That minstrel’s bag of melody and song
That now we’ll never hear forever long.
Therefore we pick your bones and make up tunes
Out of the scraps you left, those scraps of tunes
Your brother Ira kept through nights and noons
Until he got too old and joined you there
Wherever you are, rose up and joined you there
To help you strike those strings in the ringing air.
Henderson wrote, “In…the poem as ‘score’ or ‘chart,’ we move to the most challenging aspect of Black poetic structure [he kept saying “structure,” not “style” or “tradition” which is in fact really what he was talking about] — the question of limit, or performance of the text.” Later he wrote, "A poem may thus differ from performance to performance just as jazz performances of 'My Favorite Things' would. Moreover, it implies that there is a Black poetic mechanism, much like the musical ones, which can transform even a Shakespearian sonnet into a jazz poem, the basic conceptual model of contemporary Black poetry. The technique, the fundamental device, would be improvisation, lying as it does at the very heart of jazz music."
In Visions and Revisions (p. 130) I wrote, "Neither in music nor in poetry is improvisation in any way linked merely to jazz or to a specific ethnic group [as Henderson claimed]. The Arabic qasida is a form dating from prehistoric times, and its essence is improvisation. As to turning Shakespearean sonnets into jazz poems, one can even blend the sonnet with the blues; this following sequence, written by Wesli Court [the anagram pen-name under which I write formally traditional verse], is a set of terza-rima blues sonnets, ending with [the first ever] pure blues sonnet as an envoi"; each poem adds a heroic couplet to four triplet stanzas of iambic pentameter terza rima in the first three poems (aba bcb cdc efe ff), or iambic pentameter blues stanza in the "Envoi" (AAa BBb CCc DDd ee):
THE BONEYARD BLUES
I'm sitting in the boneyard singing songs,
Sitting singing songs as blue as blue —
Considering my days, their shorts and longs,
The days we spent together, me and you.
Yes, you and me and all those other folks
Who've come and gone. Oh, please don't misconstrue
My meaning — yesterday is gone in strokes,
In strokes and chimes, and time cannot be turned,
I'm well aware; it plays its dirty jokes
And leaves us on our ashes, bare and burned.
We bare our hearts, and then we burn our spans,
But who's to say what lessons we have learned?
The ifs and maybes, shall-bes, will-bes, cans
Turn into bonedust, rusting pots and pans.
Rusting pots and pans pile up and ring,
Pile up and ring us round with shards of loss,
With echoes of the songs we used to sing
In living rooms and bedrooms filled with moss,
With moss and lichen now of recollection.
The kitchen where we used to sit and toss
Together meals of love and of affection
Has grown a mold upon the oven grate,
And there is nothing left of our confection
Except a little sweeting on a plate,
The plate of dreams, its edges chipped and cracked.
In the beginning already it was too late —
The gun was loaded and the deck was stacked.
The tune could not provide what the lyrics lacked.
And so I'm sitting in this boneyard, blue
As blue, and singing songs that leave me cold.
The words — they may be false, they may be true,
They may be new — more likely they are old,
As old as flesh and time. I hear the knell
Of generations as the peals are rolled
Among the stones, within the stony well —
That stone-cold well of destiny gone dry.
Who is the sexton hauling on the bell?
Why is the deacon grinning at us? Why?
Why are his cheekbones sunken, and his teeth
So moonlight-gleaming? Wherefore is his eye
The hollow of a heartbeat underneath
The zero of a withered floral wreath?
Just let me drop this note into the dark,
Yes, let me drop this note into the dark —
I'll light it with a match and watch it spark.
I'll sail it into night with fire and flare,
Fly it into darkness, see it flare
And wink out in those shadows circling there.
I'll watch it take its place among the stars,
Among the minor planets and the stars.
I'll hum the blues, not much — a couple bars —
Until the spark has died to inky ash,
And words have flickered into smoken ash.
Then I'll have me a sip of sour mash,
And lean against this marker made of stone
That will not last as long as ink or bone.
This sequence of poems also ends The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems by Wesli Court, which also includes "Blues for George Gershwin," www.StarCloudPress.com, 2010, ISBN 978-1-932842, trade paperback, $14.95, 115 pages; BUY FROM AMAZON.COM .