Poetry is meant to be read aloud. The lyrical nature of poetry begs to be embraced in an oral and auditory manner, which lends itself to music. A poet is in a sense composing a song. Langston Hughes was only
twenty-four years old when his poem “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926. “The Weary Blues” builds at a poised and lyrical progression because Hughes had expected his poems to be performed with musical accompaniment, as was common in the infamous Harlem jazz and blues clubs of the day.
The poet’s connection to music exist far past the rhythms and imagery of his poems, however because Hughes also wrote musicals, operas, and cantatas. He was also known to frequently collaborate with many of the jazz and blues composers and musicians in Harlem. (www.poets.org) The poem, “The Weary Blues,” is a wonderful example of how Langston Hughes allowed jazz and blues music to influence his writing.
Langston Hughes was born in Missouri but grew up in both Kansas and Illinois. After leaving home lived in Mexico, New York, and traveled through out the continents of Africa and Europe while working a number of odd jobs. He published his first book, The Weary Blues, named after the central poem in 1926 and was generally regarded as the voice of his race. He died of complications from prostate cancer in his beloved Harlem on May 22, 1967. Hughes had been a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance and the author of several plays, poems, and novels.
Jazz had extensive influence on Langston Hughes’ poetry. Jazz poetry is a literary genre defined as poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz music, either paying homage to its rhythms or has an element that implies improvisation. Jazz poetry, like the music itself, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Hughes wrote many essays defending jazz music as a legitimate form of music. He argued with those who claimed that jazz should not to be treated with the seriousness of classical music. (www.d.umn.edu)
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes set the stage for jazz poetry to follow by introducing the idea of music in the prose:
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan
Hughes talks of the contrast between the “ivory” of the piano keys and the “ebony” of the player’s hands in a lyrical way. The prose takes a further musical emphasis by illustrating the “tone” and “moan” of the singer and the piano. Langston Hughes was obviously as influenced by the music of Harlem as by the human struggle.
Human struggle and despair are integral to the idea of blues poetry. One of the most popular forms of American poetry, the blues poem, originates from the African American oral and musical traditions that manifested in the blues. A blues poem illustrates themes such as human struggle, emotional despair, and sexuality. Hughes was influenced by the blues and its emotional resonance and he often wrote poems like, “The Weary Blues,” that combine the two poetic styles. Blues poetry often follows a form, in the form a declaration is made in the first line, in the second line the statement is restated, and an ironic variation of the declaration in the third line.
The title poem of Hughes’ first book, The Weary Blues, is a superb model of a blues poem. It begins:
“Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . . ”
The speaker of Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” describes a night of listening to an African-American blues musician in Harlem. With its delivery, its repetition of passages and its inclusion of lyrics, the poem calls to mind the somber tone and rhythm of blues music and places the reader into the state of mind of the blues musician in the poem.
In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes stated that “The Weary Blues,” incidentally winning him his first poetry prize, “included the first blues [he’s] ever heard way back in Lawrence, Kansas, when [he] was a kid.” The music of his life both jazz and blues obviously shaped Langston Hughes’ poetry and “The Weary Blues” is a great example of the musically influences finding poetic form.
Anderson, Erin. “Jazz Poetry: A Genre Emerges”.
University of Minnesota. May 2006.
Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues” The Weary Blues
New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. 1926.
Poets.org. “Groundbreaking Book: The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes (1926)”. The Academy of American Poets. 2007.
Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues.
Chicago, Ill : University of Illinois Press. 1988.