It Don't Mean A Thing: The Blues Mask of Modernism
The blues contain multitudes. Among the last mysteries, blues music resists not only sentimentality, but also easy summary: just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways. They are the definitive statement of that new invention, the African American, though when Langston Hughes first wrote on them and through them in the 1920s, he felt as much resistance from black folks as white. Known by black churchgoers as "devil's music," the blues are defiant and existential and necessary. Blues singers describe walking with the devil, or "Preachin' the Blues" as Son House did—
Yes I'ma get me religion
I'ma join the Baptist church
Yes I'ma get me religion
I say I'ma join the Baptist church
You know I want to be a Baptist preacher
So I won't have to work
—then turn round and sing of "John the Revelator." Both the bluesman and the preacher, whose own story often includes being called to the pulpit after a life of sin, know full well that most folks choose both Saturday night and Sunday morning: one, after all, turns into the other. Perhaps the best way to describe the blues is that they reveal and revel in all our holy and humane contradictions—and that this revelatory quality announces itself not with the book of the seven seals, but rather the broken seal on a bottle of whisky. The same bottle that, poisoned one way or another, will leave you barking at the moon. The same bottle that, broken, you can smooth down to slide over the neck of your guitar.
The blues will surely get you, but offer "Good Morning" when they do.
What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)?
The rise of modernism parallels the rise and reach of the blues. This is no coincidence—after all, what critic Frederic Jameson identifies as "the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation,"i could be summed up as simply having them blues.
But, as I have said elsewhere, the blues means both a form and a feeling, the one a cure for the other.ii The blues are good-time music after all, meant to make you tap your feet and feel, if not better, then at least comforted by the fact that you are in good (or deliciously bad) hands. The blues offer company, even if only misery's.
It is in the face of alienation and anomie that the mask, modern and often racial, becomes necessary. This is why the dominant mode of the modernist era is the persona—the mask both as metaphor and means of production. But the mask is not just T.S. Eliot's blackface, Ezra Pound's love of Noh drama, or Edvard Munch's iconic rictus of despair in The Scream, but also the Janus mask of the blues, which laughs and cries at the same time.
The blues then are both an approach and a feeling—one that had to wait for former slaves to name. Virginia Woolf tried, declaring "On or about December 1910 human character changed."iii Woolf's dating, even in hindsight, what may be called the advent of modernism has become more true after it was said—just as when asked about why his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn't look like her, Picasso reportedly answered: It will. Such history as a form of fortune-telling was reflected and refracted in the first published blues, W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (1914), and in the first recorded blues, Mamie Smith's "The Crazy Blues" (1920), whose very title indicates the vector of this change of "human character" ten years after the fact. Alongside Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues," which reinvented the jazz solo, forever changing music, ultimately history itself was reinvented by those too often seen as victims of it. From New Orleans on north up the Mississippi, the blues and their offspring, jazz, mark the modern moment as well as anything.
For the "St. Louis Blues" weren't just St. Louis-born T.S. Eliot or Josephine Baker's; they were everyone's. When Handy wrote down the first blues lyrics, he was capturing the common oral culture of African Americans, the "floating verses" that amounted to a shared store of imagery, one as allusive and elusive as The Waste Land, published years later. "I hate to see de ev'nin' sun go down": even the iconic first line of the song looks west, and ahead to the "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with its evening sky "like a patient etherized on a table." Could hindsight as second sight help us recognize that the love song Prufrock proffers might indeed be a blues? Well before "Ash Wednesday" the "St. Louis Blues" announced
Oh ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
I said ashes to ashes and dust to dust
If my blues don't get you my jazzing must.
However we date its start, by the early 1920s, the modernism that before and during the First World War once proved strange and unsettling seemed to culminate in the high modernist moment: in literature alone, the publication of William Carlos Williams's Spring and All (1923), H.D.'s Palimpsest (1921), Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Marianne Moore's Observations (1923), James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and Wallace Stevens's Harmonium (1923) all signaled not just a new sheriff in town, but that all the "low modernists" and populists who had begun the deputizing of modernism a decade or more before, now had till sunset to get out of town. As the twenties roared, high modernism was in full swing.
Swing would seem to be the operative word, not just describing the music that propelled the Jazz Age, but also the quality of change in attitudes and culture that accompanied the advent of the New Negro—who had been agitating for change since at least the century's turn, and whose rise almost exactly parallels modernism's. What's commonly called the Harlem Renaissance had begun by the early 1920s, inaugurated by Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922), Georgia Douglas Johnson's Bronze (1922), Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), and James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922); by the time of the second of Opportunity's award dinners in 1925 (from the first had come the anthology The New Negro), the younger generation had been duly anointed.iv This younger group, affiliated with heiress A'Lelia Walker's Dark Tower Salon—and the house that Hurston, Wallace Thurman and others jokingly termed "Niggerati Manor"—simultaneously continued and rebelled against the strict desire for a "positive" image set forth by the older generation.v While the era and movement has been greatly explored in recent years, the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance's importance, intricacies, and intimacies cannot be overstated—if only to reemphasize how the achievement of these African American writers (and artists) should be thought of as one of the heights of modernism.
So, too, should the release of the first blues record in 1920. The popularity and passion of "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith (which, in its first year, sold over a million copies) provides the first full expression, still overlooked, of a black modernist presence previously hinted at by the dialect of Dunbar and realized in the nineteen-teens by the work of Fenton Johnson, a poet equally worthy of further study. You could even say that what I call the storying tradition serves as a true vernacular to the standard borne by modernism, however avant-garde modernism self-consciously (and congratulatorily) thought itself. For now, it seems to me that, alongside Modernism & All, we should place Blues & Thangs, in order to fully appreciate the new, modern consciousness—one urban and urbane, ironic and genuine, cosmopolitan and American, black and white.
iFrederic Jameson. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Postmodernism. 11.
iiSee my introduction to Blues Poems, New York: Everyman’s Pocket Poets, 2003. Kevin Young, ed.
iiiTaken from Woolf’s essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in 1924. Questions of proper dating and periodicization swirl around the Harlem Renaissance modernism, usually with political implications, both large and small. In her terrific Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995), Cheryl Wall effectively argues that ending the Renaissance in 1932 is not just a question of accuracy, but bias: if we don’t expand either the start or end, we leave out many of the important works by Hurston and other women writers. Others would say by not dating the Renaissance earlier than the 1920s, we avoid the connectedness to what might be called the New Negro movement that can even be seen before the turn of the century. In his Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker opens with a discussion of Woolf’s quote, countering it by establishing the commencement of Afro-American modernism” to September 18, 1895 and “Washington’s delivery of the opening address at the Negro exhibit of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.” Baker, Modernism,15.
ivJust as I have not provided here an endpoint of modernism, I do not provide one for the Harlem Renaissance—in part to provide for a broader inclusiveness and avoid problems of periodicization (see footnote 120, above). For a description of the Opportunity parties (and a good gossipy overview), consult Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African American Culture, 1920–1930. Pantheon, 1995. 1995 was a banner year for Renaissance studies!
vFor a look at some of the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance’s publishing history and visual impact, consult the catalog I curated, “Democratic Vistas”: Exploring the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.