Marilyn Chin reads and discusses Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues"
When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night Then trouble's takin' place in the lowlands at night I woke up this mornin’, can’t even get out of my door I woke up this mornin’, can’t even get out of my door There's been enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she want to go Then they rowed a little boat about five miles ’cross the pond Then they rowed a little boat about five miles ’cross the pond I packed all my clothes, throwed them in and they rowed me along When it thunders and lightnin’ and when the wind begins to blow When it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go Then I went and stood upon some high old lonesome hill Then I went and stood upon some high old lonesome hill Then looked down on the house were I used to live Backwater blues done call me to pack my things and go Backwater blues done call me to pack my things and go ’Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no more Mmm, I can’t move no more Mmm, I can’t move no more There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go
This poem is in the pubic domain.
Bessie Smith recorded “Backwater Blues” in 1927, and it became an anthem for one of the most devastating national disasters in US history. The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was horrific. About a thousand people lost their lives. Almost half a million homes were destroyed. Almost a million people became homeless for a time. Entire black neighborhoods were wiped out. This incident gave birth to an important blues era, now known as the Delta Blues era. The blues artists who wrote and sang in this era there are famous names in this era such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and of course, Bessie Smith, who is one of my favorites.
Bessie actually wrote “Backwater Blues” for the Cumberland River flood that hit Nashville on Christmas morning 1926. Nonetheless, when she recorded it in 1927 “Backwater Blues” became an anthem for the great Mississippi River Flood. The flood was a devastating ordeal. There were reports that officials behaved in a discriminatory fashion. They relocated the white folks in an expedient manner but corralled the black folks into abysmal camps. There was evidence of lynchings and unspeakable killings and terrible acts against the black community. Let’s look at this poem closely. I mean, first, it sets up a terrible storm when it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night, when it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night. But the second strophe, the second stanza, we turn inward, and it’s about personal disaster: I woke up this morning can’t even get out of my door, I woke up this morning can’t even get out of my door. The poem moves to personal depression. I think in the best identity poems that the self represents something much larger than the self. The scene is set with the terrific storm by the female speaker, so depressed that she can’t even get out of the door. This personal depression by extension is about the depression of an entire people, marginalized in the back waters, stricken with poverty, homelessness, suffering social injustice, discrimination, and now hit with this catastrophic natural disaster. The despair is deep, is deeply personal, but it is also metaphorical and speaks to the despair of an entire community. Of course, we Americans have historical amnesia. Most of us don’t remember the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, but when I read this poem a few years ago during a gathering on the behalf of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the same issues resounded—neighborhoods destroyed, slow government response, the African American neighborhoods were hit the hardest. Terrible images came across the television screen and recently with global warming and continuous flooding and natural disasters this poem survives the test of time and can speak to a variety of incidents and international dislocated peoples.
Let’s look at the blues poem as a form. The first two lines are of almost equal length. The first line sets the scene, the second line repeats the first for emphasis. The third line either comments or reverses the first two lines. There is one integral line throughout the stanza. The “a” rhyme glues the three-line stanza together. “Backwater blues done caused me to pack up my things and go, / Backwater blues done caused me to pack up my things and go, / 'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more.” This is a song poem. The best song poems, I believe, can live on the pages as well as in the ear. The blues poems remind us that the American poetic tradition can be traced to African American oral tradition; that great art, great poems come from deep suffering that is personal, historical, and political and could be read on the page as well as sung out loud. I can’t do justice to this poem, to “Backwater Blues,” by just reciting it myself. Please download this song, preferably the original 1927 recording by Bessie Smith, and listen to her amazing singing. There’s this rich toughness in her voice that tells us this girl and her people are going to get through this calamity. Her voice is subversive, defiant despite all odds against her.
I love writing blues poems. As a poet who writes in English I know that every time I write a sonnet I pay homage to the high European tradition and to master poets like Shakespeare, Dunn, Keats, Petrarch. I see myself as an activist Chinese American poet, and I want to show the multiple sides of my literary inheritance. I make it a point to learn the African American poetic tradition. The blues poems was more here on American soil, and so I study the blues poems closely and write blues poems to pay homage to all those African American blues masters. Of course, I learn so much from the Bessie Smith’s blues poems. I have her strong voice in my ear at all times. Thank you
Blues on Yellow
The canary died in the gold mine, her dreams got lost in the sieve. The canary died in the gold mine, her dreams got lost in the sieve. Her husband the crow killed under the railroad, the spokes hath shorn his wings. Something’s cookin’ in Chin’s kitchen, ten thousand yellow-bellied sapsuckers baked in a pie. Something’s cookin’ in Chin’s kitchen, ten thousand yellow-bellied sapsuckers baked in a pie. Something’s cookin’ in Chin’s kitchen, die die yellow bird, die die. O crack an egg on the griddle, yellow will ooze into white. O crack an egg on the griddle, yellow will ooze into white. Run, run, sweet little Puritan, yellow will ooze into white. If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write. If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write. If you cut my yellow fists, I’ll teach my yellow feet to fight. Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, Buddha’s compassion is nigh. Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, our boat will sail tonight. Your babies will reach the promised land, the stars will be their guide. I am so mellow yellow, mellow yellow, Buddha sings in my veins. I am so mellow yellow, mellow yellow, Buddha sings in my veins. O take me to the land of the unreborn, there’s no life on earth without pain.
Marilyn Chin (1955- ) was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Oregon, and received her MFA from the University of Iowa. She is the author of three collections of poems, most recently Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002). Chin is the recipient of the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, a Fullbright Fellowship, and the Paterson Prize, among numerous other honors. She teaches in the MFA program at San Diego State University.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) began her professional career as a blues singer in cabarets in 1912. She began recording regularly in the 1920s, distinguishing herself as the most successful African American artist of her time with her recording “Down Hearted Blues” in 1923. She made almost 200 recordings, including duets with Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith. Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten