Although brief, “Singing Dinah’s Song” is dense with implication and allusion. After Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington was the most prominent blues vocalist of the 1950’s. Her recordings were a staple of black jukeboxes in all northern cities, as Aretha Franklin would be a decade later. Like Brown, she grew up in Chicago and died young. Like Daddy-o, she sought to mold the cacophony of urban existence into rhythms of the soul. Like both of them, she saw life as a contest between noise and melody. Like them, she celebrated the spiritual heroism of the black working class. Throughout the decade, she sang poignant songs of frustrated dreams and unrequited love that mixed high-pitched, gospel-inspired intensity with tender, languorous understatement. Such was the bittersweet effect that Brown wished to translate into his writing. As Daddy-o says, “Ain’t that broad mellow?”
The narrator retains the colloquial phrasing when he admits, “I was so shook when my buddy Daddy-o did his number the other day. I mean his natural number.” Such common language is the vehicle for common themes—the basic human needs of jobs and dignity—that is frequently found in the work of Chicago writers. All use nicknames to give their characters a larger, mythic significance. If Daddy-o must break, must do “his natural number,” then all mere mortals must soon follow. In Poems from Prison (1968), Etheridge Knight pays tribute to Brown with a poem on Dinah Washington and the memorable “Hardrock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” Hardrock is a Daddy-o in prison gear who goes wild, is sent away for electroshock, and comes back without a mind.