Folk Aesthetics and the Spirituals in Southern Road

 Sterling Brown’s scholarship in folk culture and African American history is unparalleled when considering the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown’s first collection of poems, Southern Road, was published in 1932 to high critical acclaim. Although he is often thought of as a blues poet, his influences included folk ballads, work songs, secular songs and stories, as well as spirituals passed on through generations. He took from African American culture the history, religion, tradition, philosophy, and an explicit experiential understanding to inform and shape his work. Sterling Brown’s poetry not only participates in folk culture through the spiritual aesthetics of Southern Road, it extends and continues its milieu and discourse.

            Sterling Brown argued that the spirituals that emerged during slavery were not narrowly focused on sin and redemption, as many critics of the early twentieth century believed. Prominent white authors and folklorist interpreted the foundation of the spirituals to be rested on “contentment with slavery” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 96). Such an argument, according to Brown, was “convincing only to those who must defend slavery at all cost” (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama 18). The spirituals contested all other folk forms in their indelible impressions of oppression, justice, and sociological and political discourse. Sterling Brown scholar, Joanne Gabbin, notes that through “experimenting with the blues, spirituals, work songs, and ballads, he invented combinations [and] gave a convincing view of how the folk . . . pulled from a common storehouse in producing the spirituals” (Brown’s Poetic Voice 424). While many of the poems in Southern Road are exemplar of Brown’s “invented combinations,” a few stand out as primarily inspired by the spirituals and classes of spirituals he discusses in his other writings. 

            “When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home” mingles folk genres on the surface, with a setting in jazz and blues that climaxes into a discourse on heaven both as a release from trouble and its jubilant transition. But in the poem, both rest and celebration stress an inure of racial oppression.  The central figure in the poem, Big Boy Davis, is the mediator, as performer, taking his audience from an earthly gathering to his heavenly vision. He begins with his “bawdy songs and blues,” but the performance is not complete until “he’d lose his role” and initiates a transition:  

The chap’s few speeches helped me understand

The reason why he gazed so fixedly

Upon the burnished strings.

For he would see

A gorgeous procession to ‘de Beulah Land,’ –

Of saints­–his friends–“a-climbin’ fo’ deir wings.”

                                             (Collected Poems, 26-27)

Brown discusses various subtypes to be found in the spirituals in his essay “Negro Folk Poetry.” The form of celestial consultation in this poem most resembles “spirituals in which [the] heavy burden was lightened, jubilant announcings (sic) of heaven and its glories” (Negro Poetry and Drama, 20). Though, Brown emphasizes, this jubilee is centered on “escape . . . sometimes the joy is almost anguished because of the present contrast, and sometimes what should be a happy release is still in [a] mournful strain” (20). As such, “I wanna be one o’ dat nummer” becomes stoic and reserved, similar to the way Big Boy describes his procession of saints while including details of their earthly lives (Collected Poems, 27).

‘Ole Deacon Zachary

With de asthmy in his chest

. . .

An’ ole Sis Joe

In huh big straw hat

. . .

Ole Elder Peter Johnson

Wid his corncob jes’ a-puffin’

. . .

An’ de little brow-skinned chillen

Wid deir skinney legs a-dancin’

. . .

Ole Maumee Annie

Wid huh washin’ done

. . .

An’ old Grampa Eli

Wid his wrinkled old haid  (27-28)         

            Kimberly Benston describes the scene as the internalization of experience through an omnipotent, sustaining lens, so that:

What ‘finally’ occurs within the hero’s chant is not a realized but an intended scene; each act potentially ‘means’ every other in a song in which the envisaged saints exist as possibilities not memories, in which none is actually present but everyone ­– under the hero’s watchful ‘gaze ­– is immanently re-presented (38-39).

Part III of the poem becomes a song of protest and an inclusive-oriented contemplation of justice. Big Boy speaks of heaven within the assumption of the restraints of segregation:

“Whuffolks,” he dreams, “will have to stay outside

Being so onery.” But what is he to do

With that red brakeman who once let him ride

An empty going home? Or with that kind-faced man

Who paid his songs with board and drink and bed?

Or with the Yankee Cap’n who left a leg

At Vicksburg? (28)

The performer attempts to resolve the matter judiciously but remains fretted in a perpetual chain of inequality and difference:  

Mought be a place, he said

Mought be another mansion fo’ white saints,

A smaller one than his’n . . . not so gran’.

As fo’ the rest . . . oh let ‘em howl and beg.

Hell would be good enough–if big enough– (28)

            Brown’s poem “Sister Lou” is more adamantly situated in the Brown’s designation of the spirituals as a longed for release. The narrator encourages Sister Lou to a solemn acquiescence, speaking about endless days of rest, rejuvenation, and the joy of becoming acquainted with those awaiting her in heaven. The poem’s first stanza establishes escape as the frame of ascension, “When de man / Calls out de las’ train / You’re gonna ride,  / Tell him howdy” (Brown Collected Poems, 54) The typical blues symbol is grounded as a true folk symbol as “Sister Lou has the train, the dominant symbol of escape and separation in folk parlance, serve as the heavenly chariot to take her friend ‘home’” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 146).

Don’t be feared of them pearly gates,
Don’t go ‘around to de back,
No mo’ dataway
Not evah no mo’.

. . .


Go straight on to de Big House,
An’ speak to yo’ God
Widout no fear an’ tremblin’.

. . .


Let ’em know youse tired
Jest a mite tired.

Jesus will find yo’ bed fo’ you
Won’t no servant evah bother wid yo’ room.
Jesus will lead you
To a room wid windows
Openin’ on cherry trees an’ plum trees
Bloomin’ everlastin’.  (54-55)

Permanence and stability reiterate heavenly qualities and contrast with life in America subject to the dominant culture. Sister Lou is promised the everlasting, and assured that it is nothing like the temporal experience as her caretaker proclaims, “An’ dat will be yours / Fo’ keeps” (55). Through “Sister Lou,” Brown contributes to the folk aesthetic, writing “what he believes to be the intimate relationship that exists between Black folk and the heavenly host” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 147). Certainly, as Brown argued, protest over one’s disposition is richly layered into the melody of a spiritual that’s “rejoice” is “escape” and is not simply centered on “freedom from sin” (Negro Poetry and Drama, 20).

Den take yo’ time . . .
Honey, take yo’ bressed time. (55)

            The poem “Virginia Portrait” explores another mode of the spirituals, that of “tragic intensity” and “quite resignation” (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, 19).

The winter of her year has come to her,

This wizened woman, spare of frame, but great

Of heart, erect, and undefeated yet. (38)

“This wizened woman” has had a life of hardship. She has “seen hopes that promised a fine harvest / Burnt by the drought; or bitten by the hoarfrost” (Brown Collected Poems 38). She characterizes an expectant sullen despair that accompanies a radical transition that is out of one’s control. In life, “grief has been hers,” and she has becomes accustomed to misfortune (38). Her resignation is communal. She speaks only one line in the poem, “‘Folks all gits used to what dey sees so ‘often’” (38). “Virginia Portrait” closely aligns with spirituals meant to profess an absolute alienation:

The makers of the spirituals, looking toward heaven, found their triumphs there. But they didn’t blink their eyes to the troubles here. As the best expression of the slaves’ deepest thoughts and yearnings, they speak with convincing finality against the legend of contented slavery. This was not their home. (Brown, Son’s Return, 245)

The anguish of finality is not expressed directly by the woman in the poem, but through her extreme resignation. She is unshaken by confounding circumstance:

She has found faith sufficient for her grief,

The song of earth for bearing heavy years,

She with slow speech, and spurts of heartfelt laughter,

Illiterate, and somehow very wise.

She has been happy, and her heart grateful.

Now she looks out, and forecasts unperturbed

Her following slowly over the lonesome hill,

Her ‘layin down her burdens, bye and bye. (39)

            Similarly, “Maumee Ruth” falls into this group of “Sorrow Songs.” They were not intended to simply express the woes of tragic circumstance. In their language they sought to reflect an emotional range accountable to historical accuracy (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, 19). “Maumee Ruth” achieves this language with a clearly stressed abandonment as it “brings the otherworldly idealism of the spirituals in conflict with the immediacy of life” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 150).

Might as well bury her

  And bury her deep,

Might as well put her

  Where she can sleep

Might as well lay her

  Out in her shiny black;

And for the love of God

  Not wish her back.

. . .

Might as well drop her

  Deep in the ground,

Might as well pray for her,

  That she sleep sound….(24-25)

            “Memphis Blues” is a very different poem. Delighting in opposition, “Memphis Blues”represents the futility of change. In the tone of biblical vengeance, “both modern and ancient Memphis signify the same mutability of human endeavors” (Sanders 63). This poem closely resembles the type of seculars that “grew up, side by side with the spirituals” (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, 21). The seculars, too, attempt to find an aesthetic range that contribute to “a realistic understanding of slavery” (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama 22).

In many ways….

Dis here Memphis

It may go;

Floods may drown it;

Mississippi wash it

Down to sea­–

Like de other Memphis in

History (Brown Collected Poems, 60)

Though evoking a far more serious vision then the type of seculars that sprang from the spirituals that came to be known as “Devil Tunes,” its social commentary is analogous:

Our Fader, who art in heaven

White man owe me ‘leven, pay me seven,

Thy kingdom come, they will be done

And ef I hadn’t tuck that, I wouldn’t git none

                (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, 21)

Brown concentrates the folk aesthetic in “Memphis Blues” by using “folk rhymes . . . to emphasize the speakers’ indifference to the inevitable destruction of Memphis” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 150). Mark Sanders writes that the “cultural dynamic within the poem is spiritual, but the poem itself asserts a blues inflection” (65). The elements of resignation explored earlier appear again, demonstrating the inter-connectedness of folk aesthetics.   

Memphis go

By Flood or Flame

Nigger won’t worry

All de same–

Memphis go

Memphis come back

Ain’ no skin

Off de nigger’s back.

All des cities

Ashes, rust. . . .

De win’ sing sperrichals

Through deir dus’. (Brown Collected Poems, 60)

Though unlike many of secular songs that Brown relates to the spirituals, “Memphis Blues” is completely void of a satirical element. Besides from seculars that “preferred . . . lightheartedness to the brooding of the spirituals” and explored less imposing stories and rhymes, others maintained an autonomy and “irreverently used biblical phrases in a satirical, freethinking way” (Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, 21).

            Social satire is unleashed in the poem “Slim in Hell.” The poem continues a popular folk story that has risen repeatedly in African American literature. For example, in Ralph Ellison’s short story “Flying Home,” a central character tells his own version of being banished from heaven and sent to the South. Here the southern United States also symbolizes hell. Slim Greer is sent to survey the devil’s doings and report back to St. Peter.

        St. Peter said, “Well,

           You got back quick.

        How’s de devil? An’ what’s

           His latest trick?

An’ Slim say, “Peter,

   I really cain’t tell,

De place was Dixie

   Dat I took for Hell.”

        Then Peter say, “You must

           Be crazy, I vow,

        Where’n hell dja think Hell was

           Anyhow?

“Git on back to de yearth,

   Cause I got de fear,

You’se a leetle too dumb,

   Fo’ to stay up here . . .” (Brown, Collected Poems 92)

In the anecdote of Slim Greer’s harrowing of hell, the hero becomes a foil to his own cause. Slim’s dumb luck resolves to an eternal weight that “obliquely comment[s] on the absurdity of Southern racism” (Gabbin, Brown’s Poetic Voice 428). The complex dynamics of spiritual aesthetics in Brown’s poetry borrows from the folk experience to reignite the shape of the African American experience to a presence that transcends artistic forms.

            The fixed contrast in poems like “Effie” demonstrate the “effects [Brown’s] aesthetics have on New Negro literary arts. . . [The] renovation of poetic language point toward the continuity essential for understanding our own cultural and political movement” (Sanders 172-173). The poem returns morbidly, yet “oh, so determined,” to the subject of physical release. For Effie, the jarring finality of death illustrates the stability she could not find in life and suspends in time the legacy of her strength:

She who was easy for any chance lover,

Whose frequent laugh rang flaccid and shrill;

She, finding death at last, the dazed fret over

Lies here so oddly stern for once, and still.

Put her away, and put away with her

What she has now of harshness and strength,

She who was clay for any clumsy sculptor

Becomes inflexible; fixed of form at length

She who would veer with any passing wind

Like a rusty vane with rickety ways,

She is aloof now, and seems–oh, so determined;

And that is the Paradise crowning her days.

                             (Brown, Collected Poems 103)

The folk aesthetics that define Brown’s poetry work within and in response to a socio-political environment of exploitation and persecution. Through songs and stories of recollected trials, African American culture was able to retain the intimacy of those experiences and “pass on those values that were enduring and abiding” (Gabbin, Black Aesthetic Tradition 89). Understanding Brown’s scholarship is essential to appreciating the depth of communication in his poetry. His poetic vision is that of the informed cultural agent, sharing and contributing to a tradition that had already been paved for his generation. As Kimberly Benston states, “Brown pushed our estimation of Afro-American expression past cliché, ideology, and narrow preconception toward an ever-wider and more complex awareness of black tradition’s vitality” (33).

Benston, Kimberly W. “Sterling Brown’s After-Song: ‘When de Saints Go Ma’Ching Home’ and the Performances of Afro-American Voice.” Callaloo. 14/15. 1982. 33-42. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jan. 2011.

Brown, Sterling A. “A Son’s Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown.”Ed. Mark A. Sanders. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. Print

– –  “Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, The.”Ed. Michael S. Harper. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999. Print

– –  “Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction.”New York: Atheneum, 1968. Print

Gabbin, Joanne V. “Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition.” Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994. Print

– – “Sterling Brown’s Poetic Voice: A Living Legacy.” African American Review. 13.3. 1997. 423-431. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.

Sanders, Mark A. “Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown.” Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1999. Print