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Poetic Song Verse - Blues-Based Popular Music and Poetry

Poetic Song Verse

Blues-Based Popular Music and Poetry

By Mike Mattison & Ernest Suarez
Hardcover : 9781496837271, 254 pages, 2 b&w illustrations, November 2021
Paperback : 9781496837288, 254 pages, 2 b&w illustrations, November 2021

A thorough explication and revelation of the literary power in blues-fueled songwriting


Poetic Song Verse: Blues-Based Popular Music and Poetry invokes and critiques the relationship between blues-based popular music and poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The volume is anchored in music from the 1960s, when a concentration of artists transformed modes of popular music from entertainment to art-that-entertains. Musician Mike Mattison and literary historian Ernest Suarez synthesize a wide range of writing about blues and rock—biographies, histories, articles in popular magazines, personal reminiscences, and a selective smattering of academic studies—to examine the development of a relatively new literary genre dubbed by the authors as “poetic song verse. ” They argue that poetic song verse was nurtured in the fifties and early sixties by the blues and in Beat coffee houses, and matured in the mid-to-late sixties in the art of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gil Scott-Heron, Van Morrison, and others who used voice, instrumentation, arrangement, and production to foreground semantically textured, often allusive, and evocative lyrics that resembled and engaged poetry.

Among the questions asked in Poetic Song Verse are: What, exactly, is this new genre? What were its origins? And how has it developed? How do we study and assess it? To answer these questions, Mattison and Suarez engage in an extended discussion of the roots of the relationship between blues-based music and poetry and address how it developed into a distinct literary genre. Unlocking the combination of richly textured lyrics wedded to recorded music reveals a dynamism at the core of poetic song verse that can often go unrealized in what often has been considered merely popular entertainment. This volume balances historical details and analysis of particular songs with accessibility to create a lively, intelligent, and cohesive narrative that provides scholars, teachers, students, music influencers, and devoted fans with an overarching perspective on the poetic power and blues roots of this new literary genre.


"The concept of great songwriting seems to live in between worlds. Is it literature or music? Even with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in 2016 there is still an uneasiness with what falls where. Mike and Ernest’s work takes that discussion quite a few steps down the road and makes a strong case for the poetic song form as its own unique genre. From W. C. Handy and Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Marvin Gaye and beyond, they follow the roots and evolution of this relatively new art form. And like Robert Palmer’s seminal work Deep Blues the exploration of the book’s subjects only enhances your love and interest in it. I’m excited to dig into many of the songs and albums that they discuss with a new-eyed appreciation and understanding. "

- Derek Trucks, Tedeschi Trucks Band

"Poetic Song Verse is a persuasive argument for the existence of a new galaxy of literary and sound expression; a legal brief of facts, purpose, and context; and a riveting narrative that is both enlightened and inspiring. It is a new way of looking at the development and consequences of twentieth-century popular, contemporaneous music just when you thought that ground reraked, overplowed, and consigned to academia. In this book the music lives again and is forever new. "

- John Snyder, five-time Grammy Award winner and founder of Artists House recording company

"Poetic Song Verse by Mike Mattison and Ernest Suarez exposes and critiques how and why time runs the bloodline of American music—blues, folk, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, pop, funk, rap, and hip-hop—as it travels the world. And race and racism are not sidestepped in this heartfelt query. The authors not only know and show, but also feel the music; they cinch up all connections, detailing the cross-pollination, as well as venture behind the scenes timely, and existentially. Poetic Song Verse reveals the artist reckoning with music in language, whether seeking atonement or praise. "

- Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet

"Poetic Song Verse secures the blues and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics’ signature place in history as a literary genre. Mattison and Suarez unravel the threads linking Orpheus, Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Lucinda Williams, Grandmaster Flash, and many other artists. During the twentieth century, the United States’ oral history was sung, not spoken; it was written in code and camouflaged by melody and rebellious rhythms that influenced artists around the world. This book translates the people’s story as told by artists. Symbolism in work songs of the enslaved and ties between bebop and beatnik jive; between 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and segregation; between poetry and psychedelic imagery; and between soul, street funk, and rap battles are peeled back and situated in their cultural contexts. The quest for freedom is never-ending—and artists’ efforts to break down barriers and influence the world has never stopped adapting and evolving. "

- Luther Dickinson, the North Mississippi Allstars

"A deep delve into the influence of blues on poetry and songwriters, Poetic Song Verse makes a meaningful contribution to both music and poetry. Mike Mattison and Ernest Suarez explain the roots of poetic song verse and connect the past and future, outlining how poets and songwriters have influenced each other over the years. A must read. "

- Charlotte Pence, editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics