This article delivers a two-pronged intervention into blues prosody. First, it argues that scholars have repeatedly misidentified the metrical organization of blues poems by Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. The dominant approach to these poems has sought to explain their rhythms with models of alternating stress, including both classical foot prosody and the beat prosody of Derek Attridge. The article shows that the systematic organization of blues structures originates in West African call-and-response patterning (not alternating stress), and is better explained by models of syntax and musical phrasing. Second, it argues that these misclassifications — far from being esoteric matters of taxonomy — lie at the heart of African American aesthetics and identity politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Whereas literary blues verse has long been oversimplified with conventional metrics like “free verse,” “accentual verse,” and “iambic pentameter,” the article suggests that its rhythms arise instead from a rich and complex vernacular style that cannot be explained by the constraints of Anglo-American versification.

This content is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.