Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
- "To and fro" is the same thing as back and forth, but the speaker has already described the singer in that way. He's just keeping it fresh.
- The "rickety stool" tells us that the piano player has just about swayed his chair apart from rocking out night after night. Also, crummy furniture fits into the dive bar atmosphere.
- You might have heard of ragtime music; it's usually syncopated piano music and it gave birth to jazz. "Raggy tune" could mean ragtime style, but it also makes us think of rags. Blues music is all about being down and out; so the rags and rickety stool tie the whole scene together.
- The musical fool is like the court jester. Shakespeare had a soft spot for the singing fool that entertained people with his own sadness.
Coming from a black man's soul.
- This is where the politics of the poem become a little clearer.
- The music (a.k.a. the blues) isn't coming from the gut or the throat, but straight out of the musician's soul.
- Here "soul" doesn't exactly mean a person's spirit. It's more like the source of creative self-expression and emotion. As in, James Brown is the "godfather of soul."
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
- These two lines sum up what we already know.
- The song and the voice are both very sad, and the speaker of the poem heard the singer a few days ago.
- Again, in case we forgot, the singer is an African American, and the piano is moaning like a person.
- The phrase "deep song voice" runs all three words together in the same way that the speaker's description is merging the musician and the music into one thing.