Monday, October 26, 2020

Sterling Allen Brown introducing Slim in Hell

Sterling A. Brown via Kentake Page

The Library of Congress has audio of Sterling Allen Brown reading his poems with comment in the Recording Laboratory, July 9, 1973:

From Southern road : Odyssey of Big Boy ; Long gone ; Checkers ; After winter ; Sister Lou ; Old man buzzard ; Ma Rainey -- Puttin' on dog -- Sporting Beasley (from Southern road) -- Slim in hell -- Old Lem -- Break of day -- Bitter fruit of the tree -- An old woman remembers -- Ballad of Joe Meek -- Strong men (from Southern road).

Transcribed by me below, Brown's great introduction to Slim in Hell which starts around 31:00:

One of my favorite characters is The Great Liar. In folk life of course the Great Liar is the Mark Twain yarn-spinner. To be called a great liar is a great praise. For instance I'm one of the greatest liars at Howard University, and that would include the President and the Board of Trustees and many of the faculty meetings. Ralph Bunche was a great liar. E. Franklin Frazier was a great liar. I imagine there's some great liars at other schools but I don't know them as well as I do Howard University. I'm sure there's some great liars in Congress. For instance I imagine that Senator Ervin is a great liar. This is an American type and in Negro life it's especially a noticeable type. And so I had a barbershop liar named Slim Greer and that was his actual name. He never lived long enough to sue me for royalties but I did not write this about him.

I wrote this poem in a class at Harvard in Anglo-Saxon where we were reading about Orpheus and Eurydice; now I know that's not an Anglo-Saxon story, but this was a group of stories that scholars prepared for us to learn the language before we started reading Beowulf. Now that's a long introduction. The only thing classical about it is that the dog in it is Cerberus. But I imagine, since Orpheus went to Hell, I imagine that my great tale-teller Slim Greer went to Hell. So I will now give you without any more exegesis or exodus or hell whatever they call it I will now give you Slim in Hell....

"Slim in Hell" is in The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper; reissued in 2020 by Northwestern University Press with a new foreword by Cornelius Eady and contributions from James Johnson and Sterling Stuckey. 

Harper mentions Brown's expertise on Twain and Melville, and many other literary subjects, about five minutes into this 1994 conversation with Roland Flint on the poetry of Sterling Brown:


At 14:15 Harper reads "Slim in Hell."

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