Perhaps there is no better definition of the blues than the one that has been offered by the writer Ralph Ellison, who said, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details… of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it… by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near comic lyricism" (cited in Switzer 25). The reader sees how Ellison’s definition is an appropriate articulation of the impulse that resulted in the creation of the poems “Crazy Blues" by Perry Bradford and “Down-Hearted Blues" by Lonnie Austin and Alberta Hunter. In both of these poems, the reader notices how the writers describe very similar experiences—the emotional agony of being jilted by a no-good lover—but do so using very different resources of poetic language and structure. While both poems qualify as blues, a comparison of “Crazy Blues" and “Down-Hearted Blues" reveals that one poem is more successful than the other when it comes to conveying the pain of fingering the jagged grain of the broken heart.
In Perry Bradford’s poem “Crazy Blues," the speaker assumes an immediate familiarity with his reader, and opens the poem by revealing that he is so troubled that he “can’t sleep at night" (l. 1) nor “eat a bite" (l. 2). It is hard to deny that the images of the sleepless lover without his usual appetite may be trite; such images have been used in popular literature for centuries. Nevertheless, the commonness of the restless lover who no longer knows hunger or the joy of eating actually functions paradoxically. By using these well-worn images, the speaker is ensuring that anyone who has ever been left by a lover will know and immediately understand precisely the kind of pain about which Bradford is writing. This is one of many examples of Bradford’s poetic skillfulness. Throughout “Crazy Blues," he takes familiar images, ideas, and themes and does not render them anew—he does not need to. Instead, he uses their familiarity to engage the reader and inspire confidence and empathy between the speaker and his audience.
The opening lines of “Crazy Blues" are short and concise. The speaker provides neither too much information nor too little, and while some of the lines found later in the poem will be longer, the entire poem is marked by an economy of language that keeps the reader engaged. The reader understands the speaker’s pain and identifies with it without getting bogged down or depressed by it. The content develops logically, if predictably, as the speaker explains to the reader how the “gal" he loves “don’t treat me right" (ll. 3-4). The use of colloquial language is another device that is used effectively to signal that the speaker is a man who is more interested in conveying the intensity of his emotion that speaking correct English. The authenticity of the speaker’s voice lends the poem a compelling character and the reader feels as if he or she is being spoken to directly, as if the speaker telling a story he would tell any close friend.
As the poem progresses, there are more predictable images and rhymes, such as the speaker’s propensity to sit and “sigh" (l. 7) and then “cry" (l. 8) because he is so lost and forlorn that he does not know what to do with himself. At this point, however, there is a subtle but important shift in the tone and imagery of the poem. The speaker indicates, first of all, that the woman was not merely a sexual object for him, but that she was his “best friend" (l. 9). He also recognizes that his pain is so profound that it exists outside of himself; he is willing to take the risk of hyperbole by saying that there has been a “change in the ocean" because his lover has left him, and the idea is so important to him that he repeats it again, with a slightly different twist: “change in the deep blue sea" (l. 12). Importantly, though, he notes that there has been “no change" in himself, at least not a positive one (l. 13); he continues to love her desperately. The speaker’s desperation becomes increasingly acute, and his exaggerated but powerful images become more prominent. “[T]he doctor’s gonna do all he can," the speaker says—presumably to help the man heal from a pain that is so raw and so deep that it has transcended the psychological and become physical—but the man is certain that the doctor’s efforts will be in vain, and concludes, “But what you’re gonna need is an undertaker man" (ll. 23-24). He concludes by observing that he has “the crazy blues" (l. 26), a line that brings the poem closure and which reasserts the wound of lost love. Although the poem’s end rhymes are dangerously sing-songy and the images are hopelessly clichéd, “Crazy Blues" fulfills the function of the blues poem, which is to convey the intensity of a suffering person’s pain to a sympathetic listener (Switzer 25). The poem’s brevity, its repetition of the notion of pain without the repetition of images, and the speaker’s candor all permit even the most disinterested reader to identify with the speaker, to acknowledge his pain, to perhaps share in it, and to keep the memory of that pain alive.
Despite the fact that Lonnie Austin and Alberta Hunter also label “Down Hearted Blues" as a blues poem, a genre that is rather formulaic in its content and structure (Ford 101), and although they are writing about the same topic of forlorn love that the reader encountered in “Crazy Blues," the techniques and resources of language and structure are completely different from those used in “Crazy Blues." Instead of opening with the simple but always-powerful first-person use of the word “I," “Down Hearted Blues" opens with the word “Gee," an ambivalent, imprecise, and impersonal word that does little to draw the reader into the poem (l. 1). The first line continues in this awkward fashion, transitioning immediately from “Gee" into a phrase that seems to catch the speaker in mid-thought: “but it’s hard to love someone, when that someone don’t love you" (l. 1). From the outset, then, the reader is not welcomed into the poem and the awkwardness does not ease up as the poem develops. The construction of most lines is in passive voice, making the reading somewhat difficult and unnatural, as in “The next man I see he’s got to promise to be mine, all mine" (l. 5). Though the diction in “Down Hearted Blues" is colloquial, there is nothing about it that feels natural.
“Down Hearted Blues" simply does not function as well as “Crazy Blues," for many other reasons beyond those that have already been addressed. The speaker begs the patience of the reader by repeating lines unnecessarily. In many blues poems, repetition can and does serve a critical function in driving home the intensity of the speaker’s pain and by reinforcing the power of an image (Ford 90), but in “Down Hearted Blues," that critical function is not performed. The lines are so long that they become heavy with their verboseness, losing the potential that is realized, for example, in the rapid-fire rhyme of Bradford’s short lines in “Crazy Blues." In every stanza there is an image that is repeated at least once, often achieved by repeating an entire line. In the final three stanzas, in which Austin and Hunter should be building up for their finale, the unwieldiness of the lines becomes more, rather than less, pronounced.
Finally, “Down Hearted Blues" lacks the insight and trajectory of resolution that “Crazy Blues" moves toward and achieves. The speaker of “Down Hearted Blues," unlike the speaker in “Crazy Blues," never really articulates why she loved “a man… [who] mistreated me all the time" (l. 4), the “man who wrecked my life" (l. 18). She does not indicate what the man truly meant to her, what feelings he elicited in her before he left her. She has not matured during the course of the poem, and shows no evidence of doing so anytime soon. Instead, she is filled with a blind jealousy that makes her want to make life miserable for the man who “drove me from his door" (ll. 19-20). In fact, she is so distraught by her experience with this man that she has decided to make life difficult for any other man who might be her partner in the future. The speaker declares that she has the “world in a jug" and “the stopper’s in my hand" (ll. 13-14), and she refuses to relinquish any control of the man until he comes “under my command" (l. 15). At the end of the poem, however, she has neither achieved calling the man back to her nor experiencing any insights or cathartic grieving of her own. She is unable, by her own admission, to feel any satisfaction, and the lack of resolution leaves the reader hanging. While the conclusion of “Crazy Blues" may have been dismal, it was, at the very least, consistent with what the speaker had established early in the poem and offered some suggestion of a resolution; it also, notably, had witnessed the speaker’s growth of awareness and insight.
To return to the definition of the blues by Ralph Ellison, each poem allows the reader to render a final comparative analysis of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues" and Lonnie Austin’s and Alberta Hunter’s “Down Hearted Blues." Although both poems fit the criteria of the blues genre, “Crazy Blues" is far more effective than “Down Hearted Blues" in conveying just how painful the loss of a love is. The speaker in “Crazy Blues" is captivating and credible. Though he hardly tells the reader anything he or she does not know from personal experience, this is precisely why the poem works. Paradoxically, old images become effective because they serve as a means for the reader to identify with the speaker and, in so doing, to acknowledge the speaker’s pain. In “Down Hearted Blues," by contrast, almost everything—from word choice, to line length, to the ineffective use of repetition, and the insistence upon revenge rather than insight and growth—feels forced and inauthentic. Although “Down Hearted Blues" tries hard to conform to the requisites of the blues genre in terms of its theme, its tone, and its construction, nothing seems to function in this poem quite as it should. In fingering the jagged grain of the heart of Bradford’s speaker, the reader can sense the danger of being cut. In fingering the jagged grain of the heart of the woman in “Down Hearted Blues," though, one walks away with hardly even a dull ache.
Ford, Karen. “These Old Writing Paper Blues: The Blues Stanza and Literary Poetry." College Literature 24.3 (1997): 84-104.
Switzer, Robert. “Signifying the Blues." Alif: Journal of