Brian Gilmore on WARING CUNEY
(May 6, 1906 - June 30, 1976)
At Nina Simone's last Washington DC performance--in May 2000, three years before her death--she took time out to perform a song called "No Images," delivering a captivating a capella performance. Simone prefaced its arrival by stating that the song was for the West Indian servant women who had come to toil in America but who would never know their true beauty in such an oppressive society. Its familiar concluding words--"But there are no palm trees/On the Streets/And dishwater gives back no images"--rang true throughout DAR Constitution Hall that night.
Nina Simone had begun performing "No Images" at her concerts in the 1960s. One of the first times the song was included in her show was at New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall in May 1964. But "No Images" is not really a song. It is a poem set to music--a poem written in 1926 by Washington D.C.'s William Waring Cuney (or as he has been known over the years, Waring Cuney). Cuney was an obscure poet then as he is now, but "No Images" was soon to become part of Simone's repertoire.
Yet "No Images" had a reputation long before Simone made it part of her show. It is one of the most anthologized poems in the history of 20th century African-American literature because it is economical and full of poignant, yet subtle, imagery (no pun intended). Young poets like myself gravitated to such a simple comment on life in America for persons of color.
Waring Cuney was born in Washington D.C. on May 6, 1906. to a solid middle class family. He attended Armstrong High School and eventually studied at Howard University. Though he studied music and took voice lessons, Cuney's calling became literature. And as luck would have it, he came of age in Washington at the time the Harlem Renaissance was taking shape. This period of high literary energy provided an atmosphere in which one's literary aspirations were respected and encouraged rather than condemned and criticized. Washington contributed many writers to the Harlem Renaissance, Cuney among them.
Cuney, perhaps the least known of Washington's native-born African-American writers in this period, came to know Langston Hughes, one of the most famous. This chance friendship has forever entangled Hughes and Cuney in the history of African-American literature. As the story is told in Hughes' memoir, The Big Sea, the two simply met on the street:
"One day on a street car in Washington, I met Waring Cuney. He had a Chicago Defender, oldest American Negro newspaper, in his hand, and my picture was in the Defender with the announcement of the forthcoming publication of The Weary Blues. Cuney looked from the picture to me, then asked if I were one and the same. I said yes. Then he said he wrote poetry, too. I said I'd like to see it, so later he brought some of his poems to show me."
This was likely 1925 when Hughes had come to the city of Washington to live. Cuney encouraged him to enroll at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where Cuney was a student. The two developed a close friendship at Lincoln and began to be published on campus and nationally. Both won prizes in various poetry contests. In 1926, Cuney's famous poem "No Images" was published in Opportunity Magazine and shared first and second prize for poetry. It would be the beginning of an endless life for the poem. Though he would be overshadowed over the years, Cuney had already obtained literary immortality. Written when he was just 18, the poem grows in power and relevance over time.
NO IMAGES by Waring Cuney
She does not know
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory.
If she could dance
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river,
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dish water gives back no images.
Despite the focus over the years on this one poem, Waring Cuney has made another significant but little known contribution to American culture. After originally considering a career in music, he returned in a way to that world.
Josh White was a gospel and blues star in America by the 1930s and was said by many critics to be a heavy influence on Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. In 1941, White recorded his defining album, Southern Exposure. Cuney provided all the lyrics. Cuney and White discussed the themes and then Cuney wrote poems that White set to his singular guitar and singing style. It was a fascinating collaboration.
"Hard Times Blues" is an especially notable tune from their partnership. Unlike many blues records of the time, it is overtly political lyrically rather than just in mood.
I went to the boss at the commissary store
Folks all starving, please don't close your door
Want more food, a little more time to pay
Boss man laughed and walked away.
("Hard Time Blues")
Cuney is given credit on all of the songs on Southern Exposure, including "Hard Times Blues." It is an album that reflects the times in America and most importantly, documents the folk-blues tradition that was so rich in African-American life. Cuney, like many of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance era, understood that tradition.
Cuney's poetry was published eventually in two collections of verse. In 1960, a collection called Puzzles appeared from a press in Holland, then in 1973, the more well-known Storefront Church was published in London. "No Images," the poem Cuney wrote at 18, continues to be anthologized throughout the world. The lyrics he wrote for Josh White continue to be heard.
Suggested Reading and Listening
Waring Cuney, Storefront Church. London: Paul Breman Ltd, 1973.
Waring Cuney, Paul Bremen, Ed., Puzzles. Utrecht, Holland: DeRoos, 1960.
David Landis Barnhill, Ed., At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place: A Multicultural Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Countee Cullen, Ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York: Harper, 1927.
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940.
James Weldon Johnson, Ed. Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1931.
David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, eds., Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings Nina (Jazz Master 58). CD: Verve, 1996.
Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
DC Public Library, Black Renaissance web site: http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/bios/cuneyww.html
Angela Jackson, "What Is American About American Poetry?" on the Poetry Society of America web site: http://www.poetrysociety.org/jackson.html
Elijah Wald, "Josh White and the Protest Blues," http://www.elijahwald.com/joshprotest.html