Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Long Track Blues (Sterling A. Brown)

Continuing the series of "stories behind the songs" from my new album, American Songs volume 2, we reach one of my favorite poets: Sterling A. Brown.

If you've missed the stories behind the songs in previous posts and would like to catch up, please use these links:

Story behind the song:
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have certainly noticed the name Sterling Brown once or twice before. Sterling A. Brown was born in Washington D.C. in 1901 and died in 1989. He continues to be one of the most influential African-American Poets of all time.

What I love about Sterling Brown's poetry is his sense of rhythm and cadence. He wrote a lot about jazz and blues, and those two musical forms obviously had a great influence on the sound of his poetry...the poems almost sound like they are *meant* to be sung. So Anthony, Carter, and I got together and decided to put "Long Track Blues" to music. Carter did an amazing job with the guitar work...he captured the gutwrenching melancholy perfectly, and it even sometimes sounds like you can hear a train off in the distance.

I love the first and last stanza of "Long Track Blues." The speaker, hanging around the train tracks, longing for the one who left, does the only thing there is to a blessing: "Lordy, let your green light/Shine down on that babe of mine."

You can hear Sterling Brown read 3 of his poems, including one of my favorites, Southern Road, at the Academy of American Poets website.

A few years ago, Smithsonian Folkways came out with a CD of Sterling Brown reading his own work, including Long Track Blues and another of my favorites, Ma Rainey. If you have a subscription to Rhapsody (which I *love*) you can listen to the whole album here.

Here's a link to the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper.

Here's a nice tribute written by Sterling Brown's colleague, E. Ethelbert Miller.

Here's an in-depth article from the African American Review about Sterling Brown. Joanne Gabbin, the author, says this about the poet:
His is the voice of the poet that captures the blues moan of lost and long-gone loves, the chant of saints who pray to be in the number, the tragicomic cry in the face of injustice and violence, and the jubilee songs of endurance and perseverance.
Lyrics (Click on the title to listen to a sample):

Long Track Blues (Sterling A. Brown)

Went down to the yards
To see the signal lights come on;
Looked down the track
Where my lovin' babe done gone.

Red light in my block,
Green light down the line;
Lawdy, let yo' green light
Shine down on that babe o' mine.

Heard a train callin'
Blowin' long ways down the track;
Ain't no train due here,
Baby what can you bring back?

Brakeman tell me
Got a powerful ways to go;
He don't know my feelins
Baby, when he's talkin' so.

Lanterns a-swingin',
An' a long freight leaves the yard;
Leaves me here, baby,
But my heart it rides de rod.

Sparks a flyin',
Wheels rumblin' wid a mighty roar;
Then the red tail light,
And the place gets dark once more.

Dog in the freight room
Howlin' like he los' his mind;
Might howl myself,
If I was the howlin' kind.

Norfolk and Western,
Baby, and the C. & O.;
How come they treat
A hardluck feller so?

Red light in my block,
Green light down the line;
Lawdy, let yo' green light
Shine down on that babe o' mine.

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