As a poet—a Black poet—it is truly healthy and enjoyable to delve into the lyrics of the old Blues songs. And “Berta, Berta” is one of the classics. Thanks to the late, great August Wilson for this song’s revival in my life as he, through the powerful talents of Charles S. Dutton, Carl Gordon, Lou Myers and Courtney B. Vance, introduced and performed an excerpt from this song in the play turned into a 1995 motion picture, The Piano Lesson.

I assume that August Wilson staged this scene in order to pass this song down to a new generation—and I am living proof that his work was not in vain. “Berta, Berta” comes from the same place that gangsta rap comes from—except the elder, “Berta Berta,” is more consistently honest and responsible than the horror show going on sale in the 1990s. “Berta, Berta” comes right off the “set” of Mississippi’s Parchman Farm. To understand the historical context around this song, my old college essay, “Bryan Wilhite: The Constitution of the United States,” might help.

When I heard Cornel West in a 2004 speech speak of the “tragic, comic hope of the Blues,” I felt something was revisionist and accommodating in this statement. A whole generation of North American youth raised on edited Martin Luther King footage can appreciate the word “hope.” These people (many of them my peers) would be uncomfortable to hear me say that there is no “hope” in the Blues—not the old Blues I have listened to, sung by Black people to other Black people. What my 21st-century contemporaries might fail to understand is that there is something more powerful and active than passive and captive “hope.” When I hear “Berta, Berta” and write out the lyrics I experience the tragic, comic precision of the Blues.

Since I have few resources in the field of ethnomusicology, I put together the lyrics to this song using the August Wilson play and Leroy Miller’s rendition in the Alan Lomax collection Southern Journey, Vol. 3: 61 Highway Mississippi. And, of course, I used myself—we got Blues singers in the family… so I “hope” you enjoy this work as much I do.


Words and Flow by . . . . . . . Parchman Farm Captives

Research by . . . . . . . August Wilson, Alan Lomax and Bryan Wilhite