Poetry and the Blues

No poetry class I ever took pointed out a parallel between English and American poems printed on the page and blues lyrics sung with guitar backing. I was a grad student, teaching assistant and instructor at the University of Notre Dame 1965-1970 when the great 60s blues revival was in full swing. I fell in love especially with rural blues listening to the landmark Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues album over and over, along with Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins of Texas and others. These blues greats wrote strikingly powerful, primal yet subtle lyrics that cut deep.

After moving to Long Island in 1970, I kept listening to the blues, even as I began to write poetry about my Midwestern German roots, family history and love of nature. My affection for Walt Whitman’s poems had deepened in a seminar taught at Notre Dame by the late Ernest Sandeen, a fine poet. Later, when I returned to Indiana after retiring from teaching in 2004 at sixty, I told audiences and reporters who interviewed me as Indiana Poet Laureate that it was the poetry of Walt Whitman and the songs of blues greats, Johnson’s in particular, that inspired me to start writing poetry in 1971. At that early stage of writing, however, I did not talk about the blues connection, because academic poetry specialists almost never talked about blues lyrics as poetry. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs, maybe; but rarely blues lyrics.

For me, though, songs like Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and “Come on in My Kitchen,” in which a domestic scene becomes a metaphor for a relationship, resonate on several levels, like good poems. I recognized the artistry of using condensed spoken language to carry subsurface emotional and psychological depth. I felt the power of the lyrics, not just through the guitar technique of the artist, but because the lines are charged with feeling and meaning, making the sung words convey more than one thing at the same time. The sense of loss, abandonment and separation, with the pain of rejection and rootlessness present in many blues lyrics, are long and heavy shadows of slavery.

When I was ready in 2007 to write about my childhood abuse that ended in 1957, poems erupted in four voices. One was Mr. Blues, a kindly, earthy mentor who comments like a chorus on the relationships between the other voices, the boy, the man, and the priest in what became Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing. I had no idea that dramatic poems would come in voices. It just happened that way, naturally, with no forethought or planning. Mr. Blues appeared like an old friend waiting to lend a hand.

Eventually I came to see that of these 325 poems I wrote in 2007, reduced to 130 in the book, many came out of my absorption in the blues. It’s as though Mr. Blues, a healer with a sense of humor who speaks in the rhymed format and idiom of the rural blues, steps out of all the blues songs I loved and treasured over the decades and speaks to and through me.

The sexual abuse I suffered as a child but did not talk about for so long is in no way equivalent to the horrors of slavery endured by the families of the blues greats, their relatives, and friends. Now decades later, however, I see that this childhood trauma made me keenly receptive to the mastery of the blues singer-songwriters and the developing musical heritage that enabled them to survive and endure. Despite our different histories, they were important models to me. I give them my unending heartfelt thanks.


*This piece first appeared at the Indiana Authors Awards website.
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the museum published Norbert Krapf‘s poetry in Issue One.

To read “B.B. King on His Bicycle,” click here.

To purchase Krapf’s brave collection, Catholic Boy Blues, click here.