A Harlem Renaissance Poet
Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes
“The Weary Blues” From the Eyes of a Musician
(c) Angela K. Mack 2/05
Langston Hughes is a fascinating African American writer who has written many poetry books such as The Weary Blues, Fire Clothes to the Jew, Shakespeare in Harlem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, and Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz. His autobiography is titled, The Big Sea. He has also written children’s books, musicals, and the Manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance titled, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and so much more!
Many of his poems contain jazz and blues rhythms. Langston Hughes got swallowed up in the jazz scene in Harlem during its Renaissance and his passion came out in many of his poems. His poem, “The Weary Blues” is a great example of such a poem. Yet other than the musical fingerprints found in this poem, incredible symbolism involving what was going on historically during the Harlem Renaissance can be found as well.
Contrary to what the title suggests, this song is not solely set up to a blues rhythm. It is primarily structured around jazz rhythms. These rhythms combined with the words make for fascinating interpretation.
First of all, “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes is dripping with clever words of onomatopoeia. Not only do many of the words sound like their meanings, but they sound identical to jazz specifically. The type of jazz that is expressed in this poem through onomatopoeia and specific imagery is the sort of jazz that one would listen to in a club late at night close to “bar time”. It’s that “droning drowsy syncopated” blues played by the “Negro” “by the pale dull pallor of one bulb light” that is described in his poem. When I read this poem, I envision a dimly lit smoke-filled room with a few people left to linger over their final drinks.
The opening line, “droning a drowsy syncopated tune” suggests a song that has a depressing tone and is repetitive”. As I read it out loud, I hear the words “droning” “drowsy” and “tune” as jazz chords that are held for a longer duration than the rapid word “syncopated”. The words “rocking back and forth to a mellow croon” give the poem an almost melancholy or whining feel. It is here that the rhythm of the jazz tune is established. The repetitive phrase, “He did a lazy sway” ends the first musical phrase and makes for a nice hook. It is here that the reader of the poem or listener of the jazz tune becomes engaged.
“To the tune o’ those Weary Blues” is the beginning of the musical refrain. This refrain ends with “Coming from a black man’s soul. O Blues!” The exclamation point suggests that the music in this poem is emphasized here. This chosen punctuation on “O Blues!” “Sweet Blues!” and then “Oh Blues!” again indicate a slight musical climax or place in which the song is lifted out of its depressed state. This adoration and celebration of the blues is exemplified as being the source of hope. These phrases with exclamations are louder than the rest. They are accented musically.
I love how Hughes uses words of onomatopoeia in the refrain that sound musical. Words such as “moan”, “swaying”, “rickety”, and “raggy” explain the diversity that exists in jazz. Some instruments play repetitively while others improvise in syncopation. In other words, some instruments “sway” and “moan” as if depressed. Yet, in jazz, there is always that overcoming joy that exists as notes hop and dance against the laws of musical gravity. This defiance of gravity is visually expressed in the rickety stool which I imagine lifting off of the ground slightly with each sway.
This dichotomy in jazz, I believe, can be taken as being symbolic for the time in which this poem was written. Langston Hughes once wrote about the Harlem Renaissance, “It was the period when the Negro was in vogue.” During World War I, many African Americans moved north with the hopes of finding jobs and escaping inequality in the south. Harlem was a newly developed city that desperately needed tenants in its new townhouses and apartments. Eager to occupy the new buildings, landlords rented to blacks. By 1914, Harlem was considered a “black city”. This move north is also known as being the “Great Migration”.
Harlem, in its day, was symbolically a series of syncopated rhythms that overcame and defied the moaning gravity of suppression. During this time, African Americans were excelling in blues, jazz, theatre, clubs, musicals, intellectual dialogue, literary works, visual arts and an overall sense of unity and community. There was a NAACP office in Harlem as well as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Urban League office. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of extreme momentum much like the music of Duke Ellington who was a famous pianist during the era. Also carrying much momentum in this time period were the railroads which were popular and aided in expansion overall in America. The jazz loved by all at that time was as fast sounding as a train! Likewise, the Harlem Renaissance was a fast explosion of creativity that burst out of many depressing years of segregation and inequality for the blacks.
This syncopation of the Harlem Renaissance was sandwiched in between 1919 in which the race riots of Chicago contributed to 76 African Americans being lynched and 1929 when the stock market crashed. The Harlem Renaissance was an amazing and legendary time in history. It was definitely something to shout about with an exclamation point! It appeared to be a type of new beginning in the lives of African Americans.
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes refers to new beginnings as the jazz pianist sings, “I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ And put ma troubles on the shelf.” Again, there is a sense of hope. The word “shelf” most likely ends on the musical tonic denoting a feeling of finality and a sense of “home”.
Harlem was a home to Langston Hughes. He moved there in 1921 after graduation and after spending time with his father in Mexico who was non-existent for most of young Langston’s life. Originally, he went there to attend Columbia University to study mining engineering. His lawyer father urged him to go to school for that and he also provided the money to do so. However, Langston dropped out after two semesters. It wasn’t his passion. The music, dance, and literary discussions of Harlem had captivated his interests.
Langston Hughes traveled a lot throughout his lifetime. However, he always managed to return to Harlem. At age 21, he joined a crew ship that sailed for Africa and also landed in Holland, Spain, Italy, and France. Hughes also traveled to Haiti and the Soviet Union in his lifetime. But Harlem was his home. He knew it so well that he wrote the Manifesto for the Renaissance titled, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”.
“The Weary Blues” takes a turn as did the Harlem Renaissance. Eventually, the Great Depression, the invasion and commercialism of whites in the area, poverty, gang violence, and more inequality came crashing down on the burst of creativity. The poem reads, “Thump, thump, thump went his foot on the floor.” Musically, these thumps are a series of notes that could be played in rhythmic unison among the instrumentalists. They are simple and quick. They break the momentum of the poem and transition it back into a depressed state. The singer continues in a typical I, IV, V chord blues pattern, “I got the Weary Blues And I can’t be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues And can’t be satisfied— I ain’t happy no mo’ And I wish that I had died.” Ah yes, the droning, drowsy, swaying and moaning continues. The song returns to the familiar and ends with “While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.” The song ends on the tonic of its scale.
Finally, after studying and analyzing the life and works of Langston Hughes, I see the “The Weary Blues” as being intensely symbolic. In it, Hughes expresses well the dichotomies in jazz by using carefully crafted and opposing onomatopoeia. These poles explain, ultimately, the plight of the African-American artist. They also explain the intensity, hope, and community that he so loved about Harlem music and nightlife. This poem has been interpreted on a literal and musical level. I have also attempted to interpret this poem from the eyes of African Americans as well as from the eyes of Langston Hughes.
However, being one of the greatest writers ever, he is able to explain in a few words what I have been attempting to say all along,
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile”.
– from “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” written by Langston Hughes (1926)
Syncopation and improvisation are the two main aspects of jazz. I now understand why Langston Hughes insisted on combining syncopation and words of onomatopoeia in “The Weary Blues” as well as many other poems. Jazz is overcoming music. It is one of the most advanced forms of music. It defies gravity and is full of joy. It contains elements of surprise and momentum in the midst of familiar and repetitive beats. Perhaps, in my own words, this is his subtle message in combining jazz with his poetry:
EVEN WHEN THINGS DO NOT CHANGE, IMPROVISE ANYHOW! CREATE SOMETHING UNIQUE. PLAY YOUR OWN TUNE PROUDLY! RISE ABOVE THE GRAVITY OF DEPRESSING AND REPETITIVE CIRCUMSTANCES AND OVERCOME!
The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes
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 . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
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–
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied–
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
Feather, Leonard. “Weary Blues Langston Hughes”. Audio recordings of poems with music.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. (1926). The Nation.
Hughes, Langston “Langston Hughes 1902-1967.” (with poems written by Langston Hughes). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. (2004). 1288-1338.
National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar of Kenyon College. (1998)
Nichols, K. Pittsburg State University. “Jazz age culture”. (2003).
PBS. “Langston Hughes: A Biography.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/americancollection/cora/ei_hughesbiography.htm
Photos taken from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/446630488016755716/?lp=true