[By Goyland Williams]
Last semester, I had the privilege of taking a course entitled Theorizing Black Music, Theorizing Black Poetry. My curiosity was sparked throughout the course as significant connections were made between themes in blues lyrics and those in African-American poetry. Given the long history of the black oral tradition, the African-American musical tradition has merely been an extension of that narrative and has impacted the writing of many African-Americans.
When one looks at black literature-more specifically black poetry, we find an equally important source: black speech and music with its distinct oral and aural tradition. The blues tradition predates America and stretches back to the banning of African drums.
The blues poem, similar to its musical and oral counterpart, addresses themes of love, despair, and struggle. However, Albert Murray reminds us in his classic text Stomping The Blues, that contrary to popular belief, the blues is not played to give in to despair, but to find relief from it. One of Langston Hughes most famous poem “Weary Blues” not only reflects the degree to which poetry was influenced by music but also the interconnectedness between the two. In the poem, the musician sings and repeats the line “I got the weary blues and I can’t be satisfied”. The title of Muddy Water’s 1948 hit and Blues Guitar Legend-Big Bill Broonzy’s 1930 song “I cant be satisfied” are all indicative of the play on and power of Hughes’ poem.
While poetry is most notably influenced by the blues, African- American literature also has hints of a blues idiom. A few of the novels that jump out at me are Alice Walker’s Color Purple, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Ralph Ellsion’s Invisible Man. All of these novels wrestle with themes of existential angst, grief, lovelessness, and absurdity in the world in which they live and exist.