I said I’d return to our encounter with the 1926 Harlem Renaissance issue of Fire!! magazine — and here we are with another poem that was printed there. If you’ll remember from earlier this Black History Month, Fire!! was largely organized, written, and edited by young people under the age of 25, and as such it wanted to represent a generational change from the curators of anthologies like James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry or Alain Locke’s The New Negro of 1925. There’s more emphasis on free verse in the poetry section for example, and throughout the issue there’s less attention to propriety. Though only a year separates Fire!! from The New Negro, long-time readers here may recall that Locke’s book included an essay on Black music casting a suspicious eye on what the essayist cast as frivolous Jazz music — and Blues, as a vocal music depicting a lot of disreputable situations, wasn’t considered an art at all.
The cohort of Fire!! didn’t share that outlook. If anything, they wanted to make sure they touched on unconventional thoughts and affinities. And here’s something we now think we know about the young writers in Fire!! — a substantial portion were gay or bisexual. Afro-Americans in the 1920s were coming out as full-fledged contributors to all the public arts — would that other status, fully-illegal and disrespected, muddy the waters of “racial uplift?”
Today’s piece uses a poem by a lesser-known contributor in this issue of Fire!!, Waring Cuney. Like Helene Johnson, who you may have been introduced to earlier this February, Cuney deserves to be better-known. While not directly part of the Harlem scene, Cuney was friends with Langston Hughes, one of the chief instigators of Fire!!, and like Hughes he was a young man who was comfortable with the language and outlook of the Blues.
I can’t seem to find a picture of the young William Waring Cuney, but here he is later in life modeling modern vinyl hipsterism.
Today’s set of words, Cuney’s poem “The Death Bed” doesn’t use Blues forms directly, but I’ve already been working with some other Cuney poems that do for possible performance, so I decided that I could include some of that today. “The Death Bed” is a poem about a dying man who doesn’t seem very interested in his family’s consolations of religion. While getting religion as death approaches is a common trope, our dying man quickly tells his relatives there’s no need for prayer. The relatives leave for another room, and instead of the purposeful theology of public prayer, our protagonist listens to the enigmatic wind. For one moment he tries to join the windsong with his own song, but finds he can find no words. If windsong is nature (likely) or the paraclete (possible), our dying man cannot form his response.
The poem ends with the dying man concerned with what the relatives in the other room are praying. Are they seeking to intercede for the non-believer? Or might they think he needs to be cleansed of some evil — maybe they are even praying to be protected from the sins this sinner personifies?
Cuney’s poem as it appeared in Fire!!
In my performance I sought to open-up intimations of another possibility via music. The Godhead or the universe may not require intercession or last-minute prayers. I made a rare choice to use a conventional musical sample* for this performance. The slide guitar you hear in the main body of “The Death Bed” is taken from a 1927 recording “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” by gospel/blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson. While many guitarists think Johnson’s sound and distinctive slide-vibrato is unmatchable, one could suppose I could have tried to approximate it. However, I was taken with the romantic notion of combining this 1926 poem with a slice of music recorded around the same time. I then included a short coda with a sung variation of this song.** The rest of the music was made with percussion and the sound of bowed cymbals. You can play this performance of Waring Cuney’s “The Death Bed” with a graphical player below. No player to see? This highlighted link is a backup method to play it.
*Portions of modern popular and art music intentionally use collaged and looped sections of existing recordings. I tend to avoid that for whatever reason, generally choosing to play or electronically “score” my instruments.
**The performers in that short coda are Fred and Annie McDowell. Fred McDowell is another master of the bottleneck slide guitar.
2 thoughts on “The Dying Bed”
Good one, Frank. Very creative with the addition of Blind Willie Johnson’s slide guitar.
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In a more perfect world I would have tried to approximate it myself, but as it was, I was glad I could use modern tools to meld it with the drums and vocal. I have several part-way done pieces, and if time allows there will be more of my own less-than-Blind-Willie-Johnson bottleneck guitar playing coming up this month.
No spoilers, but Waring Cuney’s career has more musical touch-points as his life continued after 1926.