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Jazz Poetry: 1920s-30s

"poetry reproducing the sound and feel of jazz through literary style"

"demonstrates jazz-like rhythm or the feel of improvisation"

See also: What is Jazz? and Jazz Poetry.

Ma Rainey

Sterling Allen Brown


When Ma Rainey

Comes to town,

Folks from anyplace

Miles aroun',

From Cape Girardeau,

Poplar Bluff,

Flocks in to hear

Ma do her stuff;

Comes flivverin' in,

Or ridin' mules,

Or packed in trains,

Picknickin' fools. . . .

That's what it's like,

Fo' miles on down,

To New Orleans delta

An' Mobile town,

When Ma hits

Anywheres aroun'.


Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,

From blackbottorn cornrows and from lumber camps;

Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin' an' a-cacklin',

Cheerin' lak roarin' water, lak wind in river swamps.

An' some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin' in de crowded aisles,

An' some folks sits dere waitin' wid deir aches an' miseries,

Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin' gold-toofed smiles

An' Long Boy ripples minors on de black an' yellow keys.


O Ma Rainey,

Sing yo' song;

Now you's back

Whah you belong,

Git way inside us,

Keep us strong. . . .

O Ma Rainey,

Li'l an' low;

Sing us 'bout de hard luck

Roun' our do';

Sing us 'bout de lonesome road

We mus' go. . . .


I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,

"She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.

She sang Backwater Blues one day:

'lt rained fo' days an' de skies was dark as night,

Trouble taken place in de lowlands at night.

'Thundered an' lightened an' the storm begin to roll

Thousan's of people ain't got no place to go.

'Den I went an' stood upon some high ol' lonesome hill,

An' looked down on the place where I used to live.'

An' den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an' cried,

Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an' cried,

An' Ma lef' de stage, an' followed some de folks outside."

Dere wasn't much more de fellow say:

She jes' gits hold of us dataway.



Sterling Allen Brown

(1927, Black & Tan Chicago)

Rich, flashy, puffy-faced,

Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon,

The overlords sprawl here with their glittering darlings.

The smoke curls thick, in the dimmed light

Surreptitiously, deaf-mute waiters

Flatter the grandees,

Going easily over the rich carpets,

Wary lest they kick over the bottles

Under the tables.

The jazzband unleashes its frenzy.

Now, now,

To it, Roger; that's a nice doggie,

Show your tricks to the gentlemen.

The trombone belches, and the saxophone

Wails curdlingly, the cymbals clash,

The drummer twitches in an epileptic fit

Muddy water

Round my feet

Muddy water

The chorus sways in.

The 'Creole Beauties from New Orleans'

(By way of Atlanta, Louisville, Washington, Yonkers,

With stop-overs they've used nearly all their lives)

Their creamy skin flushing rose warm,

O, le bal des belles quarterounes! *

Their shapely bodies naked save

For tattered pink silk bodices, short velvet tights,

And shining silver-buckled boots;

Red bandannas on their sleek and close-clipped hair;

To bring to mind (aided by the bottles under the tables)

Life upon the river--

Muddy water, river sweet

(Lafitte the pirate, instead,

And his doughty diggers of gold)

There's peace and happiness there

I declare

(In Arkansas,

Poor half-naked fools, tagged with identification numbers,

Worn out upon the levees,

Are carted back to the serfdom

They had never left before

And may never leave again)

Bee--dap--ee--DOOP, dee-ba--dee-BOOP

The girls wiggle and twist

Oh you too,

Proud high-stepping beauties,

Show your paces to the gentlemen.

A prime filly, seh.

What am I offered, gentlemen, gentlemen. . . .

I've been away a year today

To wander and roam

I don't care if it's muddy there

(Now that the floods recede,

What is there left the miserable folk?

Oh time in abundance to count their losses,

There is so little else to count.)

Still it's my home, sweet home

From the lovely throats

Moans and deep cries for home:

Nashville, Toledo, Spout Springs, Boston,

Creoles from Germantown;--

The bodies twist and rock;

The glasses are filled up again. . . .

(In Mississippi

The black folk huddle, mute, uncomprehending,

Wondering 'how come the good Lord

Could treat them this a way')


Down in the Delta

Along the Yazoo

The buzzards fly over, over, low,

Glutted, but with their scrawny necks stretching,

Peering still.)

I've got my toes turned Dixie ways

Round that Delta let me laze

The band goes mad, the drummer throws his sticks

At the moon, a papier-mache moon,

The chorus leaps into weird posturings,

The firm-fleshed arms plucking at grapes to stain

Bending, writhing, turning

My heart cries out for

M U D D Y  W A T E R

(Down in the valleys

The stench of the drying mud

Is a bitter reminder of death.)

Dee da dee D A A A A H


* (French) "Oh, the ball of the beautiful quadroons."


Gwendolyn Bennett

I am weaving a song of waters,

Shaken from firm, brown limbs,

Or heads thrown back in irreverent mirth.

My song has the lush sweetness

Of moist, dark lips

Where hymns keep company

With old forgotten banjo songs.

Abandon tells you

That I sing the heart of race

While sadness whispers

That I am the cry of a soul. . . .

A-shoutin' in de ole camp-meeting-place,

A-strummin' o' de ole banjo.

Singin' in de moonlight,

Sobbin' in de dark.

Singin', sobbin', strummin' slow . . .

Singin' slow, sobbin' low.

Strummin', strummin', strummin' slow . . .

Words are bright bugles

That make the shining for my song,

And mothers hold down babies

To dark, warm breasts

To make my singing sad.

A dancing girl with swaying hips

Sets mad the queen in the harlot's eye.

Praying slave

Jazz-band after

Breaking heart

To the time of laughter . . .

Clinking chains and minstrelsy

Are wedged fast with melody.

A praying slave

With a jazz-band after . . .

Singin' slow, sobbin' low.

Sun-baked lips will kiss the earth.

Throats of bronze will burst with mirth.

Sing a little faster,

Sing a little faster,




Helene Johnson

Little brown boy,

Slim, dark, big-eyed,

Crooning love songs to your banjo

Down at the Lafayerre--

Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,

High sort of and a bit to one side,

Like a prince, a jazz prince. And I love

Your eyes flashing, and your hands,

And your patent-leathered feet,

And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.

And I love your teeth flashing,

And the way your hair shines in the spotlight

Like it was the real stuff.

Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.

I'm glad I'm a jig. I'm glad I can

Understand your dancin' and your

Singin', and feel all the happiness

And joy and don't care in you.

Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears

And hear tom-toms just as plain.

Listen to me, will you, what do I know

About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,

Don't you? It belongs to us.

Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,

And the way you sing, and dance,

And everything.

Say, I think you're wonderful. You're

Allright with me,

You are.


Sonnet To A Negro In Harlem

Helene Johnson

You are disdainful and magnificent--

Your perfect body and your pompous gait,

Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate;

Small wonder that you are incompetent

To imitate those whom you so dispise--

Your shoulders towering high above the throng,

Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,

Palm trees and manoes stretched before your eyes.

Let others toil and sweat for labor's sake

And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.

Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?

Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.

I love your laughter, arrogant and bold.

You are too splendid for this city street!



Langston Hughes

Oh, silver tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

A dancing girl whose eyes are bold

Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve's eyes

In the first garden

Just a bit too bold?

Was Cleopatra gorgeous

In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!

Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.


Juke Box Love Song

Langston Hughes

I could take the Harlem night

and wrap around you,

Take the neon lights and make a crown,

Take the Lenox Avenue busses,

Taxis, subways,

And for your love song tone their rumble down.

Take Harlem's heartbeat,

Make a drumbeat,

Put it on a record, let it whirl,

And while we listen to it play,

Dance with you till day--

Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.


Dream Boogie

Langston Hughes

Good morning, daddy!

Ain't you heard

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:

You'll hear their feet

Beating out and beating out a --

You think

It's a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:

Ain't you heard

something underneath

like a --

What did I say?


I'm happy!

Take it away!

Hey, pop!





Trumpet Player

Langston Hughes

The Negro

With the trumpet at his lips

Has dark moons of weariness

Beneath his eyes

where the smoldering memory

of slave ships

Blazed to the crack of whips

about thighs

The negro

with the trumpet at his lips

has a head of vibrant hair

tamed down,

patent-leathered now

until it gleams

like jet--

were jet a crown

the music

from the trumpet at his lips

is honey

mixed with liquid fire

the rhythm

from the trumpet at his lips

is ecstasy

distilled from old desire--


that is longing for the moon

where the moonlight's but a spotlight

in his eyes,


that is longing for the sea

where the sea's a bar-glass

sucker size

The Negro

with the trumpet at his lips

whose jacket

Has a fine one-button roll,

does not know

upon what riff the music slips

It's hypodermic needle

to his soul

but softly

as the tune comes from his throat


mellows to a golden note

Negro Dancers

Langston Hughes

"Me an' ma baby's

Got two mo' ways,

Two mo' ways to do de Charleston!"

Da, da,

Da, da, da!

Two mo' ways to do de Charleston!"

Soft light on the tables,

Music gay,

Brown-skin steppers

In a cabaret.

White folks, laugh!

White folks, pray!

"Me an' ma baby's

Got two mo' ways,

Two mo' ways to do de



Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio

Carl Sandburg

It's a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes.

The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.

The banjo tickles and titters too awful.

The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers.

The cartoonists weep in their beer.

Ship riveters talk with their feet

To the feet of floozies under the tables.

A quartet of white hopes mourn with interspersed snickers:

"I got the blues.

I got the blues.

I got the blues."

And . . . as we said earlier:

The cartoonists weep in their beer.


Jazz Fantasia

Carl Sandburg

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,

sob on the long cool winding saxophones.

Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy

tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-

husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,

moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a

racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang!

you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns,

tin cans -- make two people fight on the top of a stairway

and scratch each other's eyes in a clinch tumbling down

the stairs.

Can the rough stuff . . . now a Mississippi steamboat pushes

up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo . . . and the green

lanterns calling to the high soft stars . . . a red moon rides

on the humps of the low river hills . . . go to it, O jazzmen.


Jazz Band

Frank Marshall Davis

Play that thing, you jazz mad fools!

Boil a skyscraper with a jungle

Dish it to 'em sweet and hot--


Rip it open then sew it up, jazz band!

Thick bass notes from a moon faced drum

Saxophones moan, banjo strings hum

High thin notes from the cornet's throat

Trombone snorting, bass horn snorting

Short tan notes from the piano

And the short tan notes from the piano

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Chopin gone screwy, Wagner with the blues

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Got a date with Satan--ain't no time to lose

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Strut it in Harlem, let Fifth Avenue shake it slow

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Ain't goin' to heaven nowhow--

crowd up there's too slow . . .

Plink plank plunk a plunk

Plink plank plunk a plunk


Do that thing, jazz band!

Whip it to a jelly

Sock it, rock it; heat it, beat it; then fling it at 'em

Let the jazz stuff fall like hail on king and truck driver, queen and

laundress, lord and laborer, banker and bum

Let it fall in London, Moscow, Paris, Hongkong, Cairo, Buenos Aires,

Chicago, Sydney

Let it rub hard thighs, let it be molten fire in the veins of dancers

Make 'em shout a crazy jargon of hot hosannas to a fiddle-faced jazz


Send Dios, Jehovah, Gott, Allah, Buddha past in a high stepping

cake walk

Do that thing, jazz band!

Your music's been drinking hard liquor

Got shanghaied and it's fightin' mad

Stripped to the waist feein' ocean liner bellies

Big burly bibulous brute

Poet hands and bone crusher shoulders--

Black sheep or white?

Hey, Hey!

Pick it, papa!

Twee twa twee twa twa

Step on it, black boy

Do re mi fa sol la ti do

Boomp boomp

Play that thing, you jazz mad fools!



"Blues" (contemporary)
by Jesse Reisch


"Poor Man's Cotton" (1944)
by Hale A. Woodruff


"Wrapping It Up at the Lafayette"
(contemporary) by Romare Bearden


[Title unknown] by Lois Mailou Jones


"Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors--
Seventh Avenue Style" (1940)
by Stuart Davis


"Negro in an African Setting" (1934)
by Aaron Douglas


"Interpretation of Harlem Jazz" (1925)
by Winold Reiss


"Aspects of Negro Life:
A Song of the Towers" (1934)
by Aaron Douglas


"Les Fetiches" (1938)
by Lois Mailou Jones


"Blues" (1929) by Archibald J. Motley Jr.


"Jazz: Icarus" (1943) by Henri Matisse


"Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) " (1938)
by Arthur G. Dove.


"Me and the Moon" (1937)
by Arthur G. Dove


"Jitterbugs" (c. 1941) by William Johnson


"Play de Blues"
by Aaron Douglas


"Lenox Avenue (1938)
by Sargent Johnson


"Harlem" (1946)
by Jacob Lawrence


"Beale Street Blues" (1938)
Palmer Hayden


"Tribal Dancing" by Lois Mailou Jones

from Zora Neale Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"

(prose selection)

When I sit in the drafty basement that is The New World Cabaret with a white person, my color comes.  We enter chatting about any little nothing that we have in common and are seated by the jazz waiters.  In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one plunges into a number.  It loses no time in circumlocutions, but gets right down to business.  It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonies.  This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through to the jungle beyond.  I follow those heathen--follow them exultingly.  I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai [spear] above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way.  My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue.  My pulse is throbbing like a war drum.  I want to slaughter something--give pain, give death to what, I do not know.  But the piece ends.  The men of the orchestra wipe their lips and rest their fingers.  I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

"Good music they have here," he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.

Music.  The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.  He has only heard what I felt.  He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.  He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.


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Background MIDI: Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues"
Source:  Ragtime Press

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Last updated: 9/10/12