Memphis Blues


Nineveh, Tyre
Not much lef’
Of either one.
All dese cities
Ashes and rust,
De win’ sing sperrichals
Through deir dus’. . . .
Was another Memphis
Mongst de olden days,
Done been destroyed
In many ways. . . .
Dis here Memphis
It may go
Floods may drown it;
Tornado blow;
Mississippi wash it
Down to sea—
Like de other Memphis in


Watcha gonna do when Memphis on fire,
    Memphis on fire, Mistah Preachin’ Man?
Gonna pray to Jesus and nebber tire,
    Gonna pray to Jesus, loud as I can,
        Gonna pray to my Jesus, oh, my Lawd!

Watcha gonna do when de tall flames roar,
    Tall flames roar, Mistah Lovin’ Man?
Gonna love my brownskin better’n before—
    Gonna love my baby lak a do right man,
        Gonna love my brown baby, oh, my Lawd!

Whatcha gonna do when Memphis falls down,
    Memphis falls down, Mistah Music Man?
Gonna plunk on dat box as long as it soun’,
    Gonna plunk dat box fo’ to beat de ban’,
        Gonna tickle dem ivories, oh, my Lawd!

Watcha gonna do in de hurricane,
    In de hurricane, Mistah Workin’ Man?
Gonna put dem buildings up again,
    Gonna put em up dis time to stan’,
        Gonna push a wicked wheelbarrow, oh, my Lawd!

Watcha gonna do when Memphis near gone,
    Memphis near gone, Mistah Drinkin’ Man?
Gonna grab a pint bottle of Mountain Corn,
    Gonna keep de stopper in my han’,
        Gonna get a mean jag on, oh, my Lawd!

Watcha gonna do when de flood roll fas’,
    Flood roll fas’, Mistah Gamblin’ Man?
Gonna pick up my dice fo’ one las’ pass—
    Gonna fade my way to de lucky lan’,
        Gonna throw my las’ seven—oh, my Lawd!


Memphis go
By Flood or Flame;
Nigger won’t worry
All de same—
Memphis go
Memphis come back,
Ain’ no skin
Off de nigger’s back.
All dese cities
Ashes, rust. . . .
De win’ sing sperrichals
Through deir dus’.


From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.