African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Sterling A. Brown, "When De Saints Go Ma'ching Home" (1927)

He'd play, after the bawdy songs and blues,
After the weary plaints
Of “Trouble, Trouble deep down in muh soul,”
Always one song in which he'd lose the role
Of entertainer to the boys. He'd say
“My mother’s favorite.” And we knew
That what was coming was his chant of saints
“When de Saints go ma’chin home
And that would end his concert for the day.

Carefully as an old maid over needlework,
Oh, as some black deacon, over his Bible, lovingly,
He'd tune up specially for this. There'd be
No chatter now, no patting of the feet.
After a few slow chords, knelling and sweet
Oh when de saints go ma’chin home
Oh when de sayaints goa ma'chin home
He would forget
The quieted bunch, his dimming cigarette
Stuck into a splintered edge of the guitar.
Sorrow deep hidden in his voice, a far
And soft light in his strange brown eyes;
Alone with his masterchords, his memories. . .
   Lawd I wanna be one in nummer
   When de saints go ma’chin home.

Deep the bass would rumble while the treble, scattered high
For all the world like heavy feet a trompin’ toward the sky.
With shrillvoiced women getting ‘happy’
All to celestial tunes.
The chap’s few speeches helped me understand
The reason why he gazed so fixedly
Upon the burnished strings.
For he would see
A gorgeous procession to ‘de Beulah Land’
Of Saints—his friends—‘a climbin’ fo’ deir wings.’
Oh when de saints go ma’chin home
Lawd I wanna be one o’ dat nummer
When de saints goa ma’chin home...


THERE’D BE—so ran his dream
“Old Deacon Zachary
With de asthmy in his chest
A puffin’ an’ a wheezin’
Up de golden stair
Wid de badges of his lodges
Strung acrost his heavin’ breast
An’ de hoggrease jest shinin’
In his coal black hair
An’ ole Sis Joe
In huh big straw hat
An’ huh wrapper flappin’
Flappin’ in de heavenly win’
An’ huh thinsoled easy walkers
Goin’ pitty pitty pat
Lawd she'd have to ease her corns
When she got in!”
Oh when de saints go ma’chin home.
“Ole Elder Peter Johnson
Wid his corncob jes a puffin’
And de smoke a rollin’
Like stormclouds out behin’
Crossin’ de cloud mountains
Widout slowin’ up fo’ nuffin’
Steamin’ up de grade
Lak Wes’ bound No. 9:
An’ de little brownskinned chillen
Wid deir skinny legs a dancin’
Jes’ a kickin’ up ridic’lous
To de heavenly band
Lookin’ at de Great Drum Major
On a white hoss jes’ a prancin’
Wid and gold and silver drumstick
A waggin’ in his han’.
Oh when de sun refuse to shine
Oh when de mo-on goes down
In Blood

“Old Maumee Annie
Wid huh washin’ done
An’ huh las’ piece o° laundry
In de renchin’ tub,
A wavin’ sof’ pink han’s
To de much obligin’ sun
An’ her feet a moverin’ now
To a swif’ rub a dub;
And old Grampa Eli
Wid his wrinkled old haid
A puzzlin’ over summut
He ain’ understood
Intendin’ to ask Peter
Pervidin’ he ain't skyaid
‘Jes what mought be de meanin’
Of de moon in blood? . . .
Wen de saints go ma'chin home


WHUFFOLKS, he dreams, will have to stay outside
Being so onery.’ But what is he to do
With that red brakemen who once let him ride
An empty, going home? Or with that kindfaced man
Who paid his songs with board and drink and bed?
Or with the Yankee Cap'n who left a leg
At Vicksburg? ‘Mought be a place, he said
Mought be another mansion for’ white saints
A smaller one than hisn’ not so gran’
As for the rest oh let them howl and beg.
Hell would be good enough, if big enough
Widout no shade trees, lawd, widout no rain
Whuffolks sho to bring n**** out behin’
Excep’—wen de saints go ma’chin home.


Sportin’ Legs would not be there—nor lucky Sam
Nor Smitty, nor Hambone, nor Hardrock Gene
An’ not too many guzzlin’, cuttin’ shines
Nor bootleggers to keep his pockets clean.
An’ Sophie wid de sof’ smile on her face,
Her foolin’ voice, her strappin’ body, brown
Lak coffee doused wid milk—she had been good
To him, wid lovin’, money and wid food.—
But saints and heaven didn’t seem to fit
Jes rite wid Sophy’s Beauty—nary bit
She mought stir trouble, somehow, in dat peaceful place
Mought be some dressed up dudes in dat fair town


She got a dear ole modder
She is in hebben I know

He sees
L‘il mammy—wrinkled face
Her brown eyes, quick to tears—to joy
With such happy pride in her
Guitar plunkin’ boy.
Oh kain't I be one in nummer?
With deep religion defeating the grief
Life piled so closely about her
Ise so glad trouble doan last ‘alway’
And her dogged belief
That some fine day
She'd go a machin
When de saints go ma'chin home.
He sees her ma’chin home, ma’chin along,
Her perky joy shining in her furrowed face,
Her weak and quavering voice singing her song—
The best chair set apart for her worn out body
In that restful place . . .
I pray to de Lawd I'll meet her
When de saints go ma’chin home.


He'd shuffle off from us, always, at that,
His face a brown study beneath his torn brimmed hat
His broad shoulders slouching, his old box strung
Around his neck;—he’d go where we
Never could follow him—to Sophie probably,
Or to his dances--in old Tinbridge flat.

Published in Opportunity, July 1927
Awarded First Prize in Opportunity Poetry Competition, 1927

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