Sterling Brown sat attentively throughout Saturday's day-long colloquium on "Black American Blues Song: A Study in Poetic Literature." At 80, Brown is not only dean of contemporary Afro-American poetry but a lifelong champion of the dignity, grace and power of the blues lyrics that he described as "a pool of poetic literature."
Brown, speaking in a voice of quiet passion, quoted liberally from a speech he had made at the Library of Congress 42 years ago: " 'The blues ain't nothin' but a poor man's heart disease . . . ain't nothin' but a good man way way down.' These are the Negroes' secular songs of sadness and frustration. With their elemental honesty, depth of insight and original phrasing, blues at their best belong with the best of folk poetry."
For several minutes that seemed to edge backward in time, Brown recited lines exemplifying the terse vocabulary and acute social memory of blues:
"There's 19 men lives in my neighborhood, 18 of them are fools and the other ain't no doggone good . . .
"I used to love you, but oh goddam you now . . .
"I'd rather drink muddy water and live in a hollow log than to stay in this town mistreated like a dirty dog . . .
"That man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea . . .
"You got a big fat momma, with the meat shakin on her bones / every time she moves some skinny gal done lost her home . . . "
Brown also read from his own poems, emphasizing the influence of blues lyrics in his direct, haunting imagery and taut sensibility. "My favorite line in the blues is 'sun's gonna shine in my back door some day,' " Brown said. "For the blues, this conference is something out of the sunshine."
Like clouds of intellect, the scholars rained down words and concepts and managed to keep the 150 attendees somewhat somnolent. In defining the historic, social and artistic dimensions of the blues they managed to draw and quarter the passion as well.
The crowd seemed to be composed equally of those from musical and academic corners; you could spot the musicians -- they were the ones struggling to stay awake through Paul Oliver's discourse on the binary principles and structural dichotomies of the blues.
The paradox of opposites and parallels that Oliver perceived in blues lyrics were never more apparent than in the immense seriousness of the professors and the earthy immediacy of the living examples. Koko Taylor struggled to the stage at 10 a.m. and immediately turned the clock to p.m. with a raucous, joyful collection of tunes that shook staid Baird Auditorium. Someone asked Taylor's guitar player how he was feeling. He couldn't say. It had been a mighty long time since he'd seen that part of the day from the waking side, he said.
If the scholars were the drones, Willie Dixon was the king bee, a strapping bear of a man who's been building a blues anthology, song by song, for 40 years.
In a bright red shirt and supported by a cane, Dixon moved through the colloquium, a visible inspiration and the conscience of reality. At a midday lunch, he leaned over the table cradling an obviously fattening dessert and confessed, with a smile, that he was "built for comfort, not for speed. If my wife was here though, she'd hit the ceiling."
The blues remain an eloquent expression of the black American experience -- birthed in slavery, compounded in racism and segregation, obscured by all the pop styles that have emerged from it. "Every time people came up with something they could say wasn't the blues, they could sell it," said Dixon.
The blues reflects a particularly black experience, but it has a universal edge. Dixon is both the proof and the pudding; his tunes have been covered by blues legends like "Muddy Waters" and "Howlin' Wolf" as well as by an astounding range of artists one doesn't think of as relating to the blues: the Rolling Stones, Peggy Lee, The Norman Luboff Choir, Otis Redding, Count Basie, Elvis Presley, and the Doors, among others.
"In the beginning Adam had the blues 'cause he was lonesome," Dixon explains. "So God helped him and created a woman. Now everybody's got the blues."
The Smithsonian's colloquium confirmed at least the perishability of blues history. The literature of the blues is scattered and often distant from the emotion of the idiom. Sterling Brown, sitting attentively in the second row, confided to an associate that many historians seemed "a bit overwhelmed by their contact with universities." Taj Mahal spoke for many when he pounded out "Goin' to Chicago," then prolonged the release by saying, "I'd like to take this opportunity to do one more and then we'll get back to yak yak."
There was continuing debate as to whether blues were a historic artifact or a living tradition. The scholars were impaled on the past, the performers exultant about tomorrow. J. C. Burris flapped out rhythms and harmonica shouts as he sang about inflation and medflies. Dixon had just delivered a new record to the president and the Congress, 4 1/2 minutes of living blues titled "It Don't Make Sense You Can't Make Peace":
"You can make a transfusion that can save a life/why you can change the darkness into broad daylight/you make the deaf man hear and the dumb man speak/but it don't make sense you can't make peace."
The scholars and the artists rode the seesaw of contention all day Saturday. On the one hand were stark, brutal images of suffering and institutional melancholy; on the playing hand, optimism, resilient toughness. The images sought a balance -- tragic or stoic, poison or potion, and they provided what Sterling Brown called "regeneration." The kickoff lines tended to speak of dreams: "If I only had my way . . . nobody knows the way I feel . . . been down so long, feels like up to me . . . good mornin' blues, how do you do/good mornin' blues, I come to talk to you."
While most classic composers are decomposing, the blues -- coming from nameless, illiterate slaves and handed down through troubled times that have not ended -- are recomposing. As statements of a human condition, they remain vibrant and unparalleled. Brown, recalling a '30s encounter with blues lyrics, said, "as I read the words, they called my name."
"Happy or sad, they always tell the truth, although sometimes people exaggerate," Dixon added. "In the blues, God gave us something to be proud of and something to work with. Its values have never been told."