Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 to 2003) is a Distinguished Professor at colleges in New York and Florida. TheNew York Times has called him “the most popular poet in America”, with his poetry books selling far beyond most volumes of poetry. His poem,The Blues, laced with humor, captures the essence of the blues. Here it is:
Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.
Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn’t even stop to say good-bye.
But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,
People will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation
By that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar
And turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you’re a hard-hearted man
but that woman’s sure going to make you cry.
Brilliant, isn’t it? I love the first couple of verses in particular, which point to the repeated first line of the typical blues verse. Take Robert Johnson’s Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, for example: “I love my baby, my baby she don’t love me” – repeated before the resolution of the verse “Really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be.” Collins suggests that such is the disinterest in other’s pain, that the line needs to be repeated twice.
The point is made with good humor, but the “no one takes an immediate interest in the pain of others” strikes home. Too often we’re too caught up in our own worlds of self-interest, or maybe just the busyness of everyday life to be too worried about the pain of those around us. The blues always have been and always will be a stark reminder of the pain and suffering in the world – it may be at the level of the personal relationship where “your baby left you early this morning” or at the level of injustice in the world (B B King’s That’s Why I Sing the Blues catalogues the injustice suffered by his own community – “It seems like everybody got the blues”).
The blues is a necessary corrective to the dedicated self-interest that numbs us from neighborly concern with the grief, pain and discomfort of others.
(A version of this first appeared at Down at the Crossroads)