Friday, April 26, 2019

Commentary: Stevie Wonder’s Poetic Genius in “Living for the City”

E.F. Slattery is a freelance editor (mostly of mysteries) living in New York, and has been published in Poetry, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Criminal Element, and Crimespree Magazine. She offered the following commentary when I mentioned on Twitter 30 Days of The Five-Two was open to songs. Follow her @EFSlattery. —Gerald So

"I’m not a normal man," Stevie Wonder told Oprah in a 2004 interview, and his 1973 classic,

from the Grammy-award winning Innervisions album, isn't a normal song; it's a compressed, layered, tightly wound work of storytelling that does extraordinary things with language. It's a poem—and, at its center, the protagonist is framed for a crime he didn't commit.

From the opening line, "A boy is born in hard-time Mississippi," you're dropped into the chronicle of a specific family; through the first four verses, parental strength and love insulate a small boy and his siblings from the systemic racism of pre-1964 Mississippi. (The first three lines of the first four verses scan as iambic pentameter; you get a sense of comfort, repetition, security.) Wonder's specific details—"His father works some days for fourteen hours"; "His mother goes to scrub the floors for many"—were the lived truth for families in the Great Migration. In her 2010 book, which takes its title from this song, Rutgers Professor Donna Jean Murch describes this sense of loss that accompanies the family’s struggle: "The melancholy of Stevie Wonder's ‘Living for the City’ comes not only from the displacement of migration but the recognition that the longed for escape from Jim Crow had not materialized.”1 The rhythm of the last line, "Living just enough, just enough for the city," is where the internal structure of the line breaks, and you get a series of trochees that disrupt the stability and underscore the obvious tensions and questions: Will the family make it? Will this central character make it?

The song's narrative trajectory places the children on a collision course with the disillusionment and racial injustice Murch describes:

Her brothe'’s smart; he's got more sense than many
His patience's long, but soon he won’t have any
To find a job is like a haystack needle
Because where he lives they don’t use colored people
Living just enough, just enough for the city

“Haystack needle” is a phrase Shakespeare would’ve stolen if he could: it hits you with trochaic punch and alacrity, and you’re likely to never forget it. Wonder’s language, rhythm, and characters in the first half of the song evoke Robert Hayden’s 1966 poem, "Those Winter Sundays":

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

In the second half of “Living for the City,” the song shifts out of the rhyme and rhythm of the first four minutes, rooted in 12-bar blues, and into a spoken interlude—the story within the story. The little boy held in his family’s embrace in the first verse becomes a young man framed for a crime, moments after arriving in New York City. The economy of language in the first half of the song mirrors Wonder’s narrative speed, and, in seconds, you hear the young man’s awe—“Wow, New York, just like I pictured it / skyscrapers and everything”—undercut by sirens and a hasty invitation to run something across the street for five dollars. Awe instantly becomes panic and disbelief: “Hell no, what did I do?” New voices entering the song, including those of the bus driver, the drug runner who frames the young man, the white police officers, white judge, and racist white jailer (who yells a racial epithet), are immediate and disorienting.

By this point in the song (which runs over seven minutes long), you’re riveted as a listener not only by the commentary—as damning today as in 1973—but by Wonder’s lyricism, power, and narrative and linguistic compression. In seconds, the young man is arrested, booked, and sentenced to ten years in prison; in the last image we have of him, in the second to last verse, “[h]is hair is long / his feet are hard and gritty / He spends his life walking the streets of New York City.” The narrative arc plunges as far down as you can go. Living just enough for the city is impossible: “He tried and fought but to him there’s no solution.”

Epic in scope, “Living for the City” is a remarkable migration narrative that tracks the progress of a single young man from birth in the Deep South to near the end of his life, in New York. It’s an indictment of systemic racism, a song of innocence and experience, and a nesting doll of a story within a story. I’m always awestruck by the power of this song to stop the listener in their tracks, and the more I listen to it, and the more of its layers I peel back, the more it reveals of Wonder’s musical genius, prowess as a poet, and strength as a storyteller of Black experience. It’s worth noting that Wonder’s voice in the last two verses is raw, hoarse, and shouting, that of a prophet issuing a warning: the song ends, "Stop giving just enough for the city." —E.F. Slattery

1 Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 230.

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