Langston Hughes: The weary blues

Langston Hughes was a poet of African descent. He also participated in social events and wrote novels, plays, and columns. During the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, he was a well-known literal character. Hughes' poetry served as a vehicle for cultural resistance. Freedom of expression in all genres of literature was one of the poet's legacies. As he was generally known, the creator of the black literary tradition focused on popular lyrical poems as well as political work that focused on the lives of Black People. He was the first poet to produce blues poems. Most of Hughes’ poetry such as “The Weary Blues” was characterized by jazz and Black folk’s rhythms which were contrary to other works in Black culture at the time that featured oral and improvisational traditions.

Blues in music and poetry express themes of great pain and they feature sorrowful, melancholic lyrics. The Weary Blues represents black people’s experiences and their love for music. Hughes wrote the poem after a visit to a cabaret in Harlem in 1925. The poem was published together with a collection of poetry by the same name in 1926. The Weary Blues won a prestigious literary contest whose main sponsor was Opportunity magazine. Hughes had just moved to Harlem and he was just joining the literary and artistic scene. The Weary Blues is a poem about a singer who performs on Lenox Avenue under a gas lamp. The singer is worn down by his singing of the blues. Hughes was inspired to write the poem by the first blues song he ever had. In the poem, Hughes uses repetition and alliteration. He wrote the poem in free verse characterized by an irregular rhyme scheme and it closely resembles a spoken word piece. Hughes got inspiration for his poems from the music he had heard as a child. The blues were convenient for Hughes because they expressed emotions

The poem has two voices which include that of the narrator who provides an outside perspective and that of the weary singer. The narrator describes a Negro blues singer whom he observes singing in Harlem, New York. He also informs us that the singer is weary and the setting is late into the night. Nonetheless, the singer has enough energy and stamina to sing further into the night. He has a melancholic tone and from the way he plays he expresses sadness. In blues, the major themes are melancholy and misery. The narrator continues to inform the reader of the singer’s misery as he is lonely, displeased, and unsure of his current situation as well as his future. Music for the singer is an escape from his pent-up emotional burden.

The poem is a representation of collective consciousness of the black people of the time. The Negro singer is in control of the piano which was a white man’s instrument. Hughes uses droning to express the fact that the singer delivered music for his livelihood. He uses the term syncopated in significance with the Harlem Renaissance. The singer swings in resonation of the powerful music which was a characteristic of the rich African American culture of the period. His lack ebony fingers were a further representation of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the Night. The piano moans like a black man’s soul. The stool of the poem has a rickety feel accompanied y an insecure base. Hughes makes an exploration of being black in America during the Harlem Renaissance. It is more of a celebration of the American Black consciousness.

People of different races experienced the blues differently during the Harlem Renaissance. The poem is set in Harlem which was mostly populated by African Americans. Hughes chooses to use, ‘down Lenox Avenue’ instead of ‘up Lenox Avenue’ which triggers the reader to think about the race of the narrator. In the 1920s, most African Americans lived in Harlem while many whites lived the south of Harlem. Some of the elite whites were interested in the changing black culture and especially in Harlem nightlife and the many artistic works. If the narrator had been white, he would have thought of ‘up Lenox Avenue.’ Thus one can assume that the narrator was not white because of his choice of words. Blues musicians have originated from all races. Nonetheless, Jazz and blues music originated from African American who wanted to create a mode of expression that was a response to the social conditions they faced. Hughes mentions how the singer’s ebony fingers were set on each ivory key to indicate how the black community had made use of the white people instruments to create their own artistic expressions. Further, the word ‘down’ in the context of the poem might refer to the fact that in Harlem, the buildings housed businesses on the ground floor and people lived on the floors above.

The setting of the poem leaves the reader in suspense because it does not give the reader too much information. The reader realizes that the narrator was in a bar further into the reading. As the narrator proceeds, the reader discovers that he saw the singer a few nights ago in a smoky dive bar. The bar cannot afford electric light and so it uses a gas light. During the 1920s, the popular bars had flashing lights and large signs in the front but the one that the singer is playing in uses a gas light. The poem was written in a period where it was illegal to sell and make alcohol. Therefore, people might only have discovered it because of the music. The next setting in the poem is when the singer goes to bed and the narrator creates an image of him asleep.

In the poem, goes against the rules of grammar to create a mental picture of the events of the fateful evening. Hughes has used dangling modifiers in the poem to link the singer to the audience. The music has an effect on the performer and the audience. The performer moves to his own music as his audience listen keenly to his melancholic melody. The effect of the blues was not only felt by the singer but also the rest of the community. The narrator sets the mood to narrate the events he witnessed but he is careful not to get excited about how much he liked it. During the 1920s, most artists played in shady bars and ardent lover of the music knew just where they would hear great music.

The Weary Blues has a milliard of themes that were adamant during the period that includes race, language and communication, art and culture and the suffering of the black race. In the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, Africans Americans were caught up in the dilemma of trying to define them amidst a purely white culture. The blues presented a new and unique way for the black community to express themselves. The singer has his audience of which he prays to and the narrator tries to capture the imagination of the reader. The narrator merges with the singer’s song to create a vivid image in the mind of the reader. The narrator expresses to us that the singer is not just singing his song but expresses it in his body language as well. Blues were a form of the African Americans to express the pain they felt. The singer amalgamated the pain of his voice with the sound of the piano to express his agony and misery. The poem is an artistic expression of the black culture of the period.

There were always mixed reactions to Hughes’ from different literary circles. Many of his peers believed the Hughes represented the stereotypic image of the lower-class life of the African Americans. He was further accused of using vernacular dialect in portraying the streets of Harlem which served it bad light. Some of the members of the Civil rights movement felt that Hughes did not embrace the ideals of the movement. Steven C. Tracy is an Afro-American Studies professor and a blues artist. He also edits works that focus on African American culture. He has analyzed many Afro-American writers and musicians. Tracy believes that The Weary Blues almost similar to Texas Worried Blues. He believes that The Congo by Donald Dickinson greatly borrowed from the poem. He notes that Hughes poem is different in comparison with blue songs in that the narrator is in third person but it also includes portion where he speaks in first person. There is an ambiguous syntax that connects the speaker and the performer. Hughes has the singer and the narrator working in the same tradition. In the poem, the singer remains anonymous because he is not famous. The poem creates both rest and activity which connects the emotions of the performer and the reality. Hence the reader is driven to establish the cause of the performer’s demeanor and the resignation to his fate. Tracy believes that Hughes chose an eight-bar blues stanza so that it would be easier to express the loneliness of the performer and the hope expressed in the poem. The next twelve-bar blues enforce the notion as the narrator continues to emphasize on his weariness and his wish for death. His black man’s soul and his blues keep him alive because they help him express his identity.

Hughes creates a disconnection between the narrator and the performer to establish the melancholic aura of the poem. The two have no direct contact and all the narrator can do is compose a poem that helps him relate his experiences with his. Tracy believes that the Weary Blues was an appropriate poem to open Hughes’ volume. It is a combination of traditional blues stanzas which expressed the African American experience during the Harlem Renaissance. Tracy notices that Onwuchekwa Jemie was not accurate in concluding that most of Hughes work lacked traditional blues like most poetic work of the time because most of his work encompassed these characteristics (Tracy 147). He states that most of Hughes work was characterized by separateness and nonconformity which in itself was a form of social protest. Hughes main focus was on oral communication rather than written communication which explain why his poems lacked the letter motif. He used a variety of themes which he used conventionally or in overt ways. He was keen on making the blues legitimate and he therefore omitted some topics because he sorts for the acceptance of the oral tradition.

Herman Beavers contradicts with the beliefs of Tracy that the artist and the narrator of the poem are linked by the performance. According to Beavers, Hughes wanted to express the tragic nature of human conditions. The speaker does not include himself in the lyrics and it was not possible for him for him to articulate the pain of the performer. Beaver proposes that the poem could be classified into anti-Jazz Age poem. He insists that it was not necessary to incorporate Hughes into the poem because it takes away the racial commentary (Beavers 4). Therefore, the narrator could have been white given that whites travelled to Harlem to indulge into the active nightlife. He suggests that it might have been a white narrator who came to Harlem to be entertained only to take leave later. The Cotton club in Harlem was on Lenox Avenue which is an indicator that the narrator had travelled from down tow Manhattan to listen to some blues. The speaker does not understand the essence of the blues and he suggests that the performer has killed himself because he does not understand that the melancholic nature of the blues was what distinguished the genre from other artistic works.

There are difficulties in the combination of blues to poetry and Langston Hughes was the first poet to experience these inherent difficulties. Most of Hughes’ poems succeeded in overcoming the difficulties of blues poetry. As observed in The Weary Blues the poem manages to capture the quality of performed blues and still manages to remain effective as a poem. The poem utilizes the three-line “AAB” stanza which begins with a single line which is repeated with different changes. The line is rhymed in a line that answers the line. In the poem, the weary blues is used in different variations. The lines that follow are the repeat line and the response lines. During performances, the poet creates anticipation in the audience through the rhyme in the response line and the resolution creates even more anticipation through the repeat line.

Langston Hughes was one of the most innovative poets of his time. He introduced the blues genre in poetry in the Harlem Renaissance period. His work was different from that of his counterparts and they believed that he was not in support of the ideals of the civil rights movement. However, Hughes chose to express the experiences of the common black folk which led to his peers believing that he wanted to promote the stereotype ideologies about the black community. Nonetheless, these accusations did not deter his efforts as he continued to narrate the experiences of the common black man living in racially prejudiced community. One of his most notable poems is the weary blues that narrates the experiences of a black piano performer who had succumbed to his fate. The poem marked the beginning of many artistic works that have made an impact in literary and entertainment spheres.

Works Cited

Beavers, Herman. "Dead Rocks and Sleeping Men: Aurality in the Aesthetic of Langston Hughes." Langston Hughes Review11.1 (1992): 1-5.

Hughes, Langston. The weary blues. Knopf, 2015.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

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