Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Moon Goin' Down [Charley Patton]

Ellipsis is a device characteristic of folk song. Narrative, for instance, is omitted between exchanges of dialogue in classic English balladry. Sometimes the transmission process edits a song, with the audience assuming deleted information, though over time such changes can render the words obscure or alter their basic significance. Such decentering may enhance or enfeeble the lyric’s effect. Charley Patton’s “Moon Goin’ Down” [1] well illustrates the successful use of this elliptical style in the Delta blues.

Oh well, where were you now, baby,
Clarksdale mill burned down.
Oh well, where were you now, baby,
Clarksdale mill burned down.
I were way down Sunflower,
With my face all fulla frowns.

Lord, I think I heard the Helena whistle,
Helena whistle,
Helena whistle blow.
Lord, I ain’t gonna stop walkin’
Till I get in my rider’s door.

After summoning his audience with an introductory “well,” Patton’s song begins with the fundamental blues note, a cry of unsatisfied desire. The singer is looking for his lady, calling out to her. Her absence is amplified by association with a catastrophic fire in Clarksdale. Perhaps she was in the doomed factory and is no longer alive. The mixture of tenses, while very likely a dialect usage, expresses anxiety and frustration as well as projecting the lovers’ separation from the past into the present in an almost cinematic way.

Her answer seems for a moment cheerful. She was far from the deadly fire in a place called Sunflower, a name with the most positive associations. Only a moment later, however, she describes her face as “all fulla frowns.” Though we know nothing specific of her frustrations, they seem to mirror those of the singer.

In the next verse the “Helena whistle” sounds a plaintive note of need, similar to the distant sound of wild geese in Chinese poetry. The whistle blows three times, with each repetition increasing the tone of tense melancholy. The singer declares that he will keep walking, evoking the image of life as a pilgrimage or a journey. Resolution arrives with the destination rhyme balancing “whistle blow”: viz. “my rider’s door.” This metaphor neatly invokes a world of experience through the implied term “easy rider,” [3] an illicit lover (as the courtly love couple too must be adulterous according the Andreas Capellanus). The lewd implication of his lover’s “door” jostles with fainter suggestions of the grave, the earth’s lid, and a final end of “walking.” On the realistic level, the words very naturally denote simple relief at returning home after a time on the road.

The progress of images resembles what Pound through Fenollosa thought happened in Chinese poetry. After the initial statement of longing, the reader encounters the burned mill. The reader must connect the two even if it takes a challenging leap. Then follow the huge sunflower and the unhappy grimace. In the second stanza the sonic image of the whistle is succeeded by the walker and the arrival at the threshold. The relation between the parts is never explicit. The telegraphic lyrical style is, of course, reinforced by music and the artist’s powerful performing style, though these elements must remain untreated here.
The moon of the title never appears in the lyric, yet it sets the tone precisely. The setting of the moon will plunge the world, already ill-lit, into deeper darkness. In Patton’s other recording with the same title, the “moon going’ down” is directly juxtaposed with a scene of the singer’s lover telling him “Lord, I don't want you hangin’ ‘round.” In the darkness of night the wayfarer may lose the road or be set upon, though in this alternative text he has the blessing of the North Star, a central image of freedom in spirituals. With this remnant of hope, unmentioned in the text above, the singer summons the spirit to make art of his pain and to imagine a better future once arrived in his “rider’s door” or in the equivalent “green house” of the second version.

The use of a well-established corpus of phrases, lines, and songs in the Delta blues tradition, like similar material in more thoroughly oral cultures, allowed the poet to create more subtle and sophisticated works. Through sideways allusion, implication, and ellipsis, through signifying in fact, these poets created some of the most beautiful poems of the twentieth century.

1. Patton recorded another version using the same title. The text follows.

Aw, that moon has gone down, baby, North Star 'bout to shine
Aw, the moon goin' down, baby, North Star 'bout to shine
Rosetta Henry told me, "Lord, I don't want you hangin' 'round"

Oh well, where were you now, baby, Clarksdale mill burned down1?
Oh well, where were you now, babe, Clarksdale mill burned down?
(spoken: Boy, you know where I were)
"I were way down Sunflower with my face all full-a frowns"

They's a house over yonder, painted all over green
They's a house over yonder, painted all over green
(spoken: Boy, you know I know it's over there!)

2. This association existed as far back as the Shijing. Cf. also Du Fu’s “Climbing the Yue Yang Tower with Xia Shi-er,” Yuan dynasty play lyrics, and a great many other texts.

3. The significance of the term is suggested by Big Bill Broonzy’s claim to have heard early blues from a songster named See See Rider in 1908. Though the song of that title (with all its variations) has been done by a long list of singers, Ma Rainey’s 1924 recording is one of the most beautiful.

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