Hughes’s poetry not only addresses the same daily concerns and struggles as the blues, but also has the rhythms and cadences of the blues deeply embedded in it.
The blues was more than just a musical form. It had a central organising role in African-American cultural history, emerging in the late 19th century from the direct experience of the racism of American society. Slavery was followed by an institutionally racist system which was enforced by the terrorism of the lynch mobs. The blues emerged as a cultural response to this situation – music which grew from the day to day struggle of black people to survive in a violent and oppressive society.
Although it has sometimes been criticised as being non-political, nothing could be further from the truth. Its language, tone and posture were subversive. The style and tone of the blues related directly to a sense of lived oppression which was experienced on a mass scale by both blacks and whites, and became expressed through what Marcuse called the ‘subversive, dissonant, crying and shouting rhythm, born… of slavery and deprivation’. When in 1946 Walter Davis sang, ‘I woke this morning laughing, laid down last night a-crying/Lost all my money, broke and didn’t have a dime’ or Charley Jordan complained, ‘The times are getting tighter, getting tighter day by day/But the rent man comes as usual, when he knows that we can’t pay,’ they were describing experiences familiar to all those at the base of capitalist society.
Sometimes the songs could express spontaneous rebellion against oppression: ‘Bring me my machine-gun, bring me two or three belts of balls…/I wants to go and free my baby from behind the penitentiary walls’. At other times it could threaten the ruling class with theft and expropriation: ‘You rich people listen, you better listen real deep/If we poor peoples get so hungry we gotta get some food to eat.’
The blues became a globalised cultural form not only because it emerged at the same time as broadcasting technology was developing, but more importantly because its concerns and perspectives were immediately identifiable to large numbers of working class people everywhere. The attitude of the blues was not only to describe the troubles in lived reality but also to transcend them. Through the performance of this music issues of racism and oppression could be addressed when they were way off the ‘official’ political agenda.
But the blues challenged ‘the way things were’ on a more fundamental level. The surrealist writer Paul Garon identified the revolutionary potential of the blues: ‘Fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be. Here lies the revolutionary nature of the blues: through its fidelity to fantasy and desire, the blues generates an irreducible and, so to speak, habit-forming demand for freedom and what Rimbaud called “true life”.’
The blues was part of a culture of resistance which developed a lyricism that sustained and uplifted people in their daily lives by providing a poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society. We are presented with a vision not only of our unhappiness but of its conquest as well. As Garon says, ‘The supercession of reality (alienated work, surplus repression), shows how the blues, in an even larger sense, can, through its assertion of the primacy of desire in the face of reality, lay claim to being revolutionary.’
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