Hughes Langston The Weary Blues Essay

Cullen, Countee. Review of The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes. In Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. Questions the merit of Hughes’ jazz and blues poems, but praises his more traditional lyrical verse.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. One of the first full-length treatments of Hughes’ poetry. Discusses both jazz and blues themes and treats The Weary Blues in chapter 2, “Shadow of the Blues.”

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Examines Hughes’ poetry by focusing on the imaginative process. The Weary Blues is interpreted in chapter 3, “‘Deep like the Rivers,’ The Lyrical Imagination,” as a work that reveals a diversity of techniques.

Rampersad, Arnold. 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America. Vol. 1 in The Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A definitive biography of Hughes, which addresses the literary history of The Weary Blues in the context of Hughes’s relationship to literary figures of the 1920’s.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. A comprehensive treatment of blues influences in Hughes’s poetry. Includes a substantial definition of the structures of blues songs and corresponding patterns in Hughes’ poetry. Examines The Weary Blues in chapter 3, “Creating the Blues.”

Summary:

The speaker describes hearing a "Negro" play a "drowsy syncopated tune" while swaying back and forth on Lenox Avenue a few nights ago, under the light of a gas lamp. The "Negro" lazily sways to the Weary Blues, touching his ebony hands to the ivory keys and making his piano "moan with melody." In response, the speaker calls out, "O Blues!"

The "Negro" sways back and forth on his stool and plays the mournful tune like a "musical fool." The speaker calls out, "O Blues!" The "Negro" sings in his deep voice with its "melancholy tone" and the piano moans. His song is about having nobody in the world – nobody but himself – and his decision to quit frowning and put his troubles on a shelf.

The singer's foot thumps on the floor as he plays more chords and sings that he has the Weary Blues and cannot be satisfied; he is no longer happy and wishes he were dead. All night long he sings that song, until the stars and the moon are extinguished. He finally stops and goes to bed while the Weary Blues reverberate in his head. He sleeps deeply, as a rock or "a man that's dead."

Analysis:

“The Weary Blues” is one of Langston Hughes's “blues” poems. It appears in the collection of poetry by the same name, which was published in 1926 - not long after Hughes had moved to Harlem and immersed himself in the flourishing arts and culture scene there. Before the collection came out, "The Weary Blues" won the prestigious literary contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine, which was distributed by the Urban League. Hughes supposedly wrote "The Weary Blues," which is about a singer performing on Lenox Avenue, after visiting a cabaret in Harlem.

Hughes wrote "The Weary Blues" in free verse with an irregular rhyme scheme, mimicking the natural patterns of speech and music. The poet's blues poetry was influenced by the music he heard during his childhood. "The Blues" is a musical style invented and propagated by African Americans, which historians often label as the secular counterpart to old slave spirituals. Both genres of music express themes of deep pain, although blues songs often address a lost or wayward lover. Unlike the spirituals, which are sung by a group, blues songs are usually performed by individuals, which emphasizes the loneliness of the sorrowful, melancholic lyrics.

Hughes embraced blues music because it expressed the worries of the common man in a simple and direct manner. Blues songs feature heavy repetition, and singers often seem to be laughing and crying at the same time. The critic Edward Waldron writes about Hughes's blues poetry: "We confront many of the themes that he develops more fully in other works. Loneliness, despair, frustration, and a nameless sense of longing are all represented in the blues poetry."

"The Weary Blues" begins with the speaker coming across a "Negro" musician playing music one night on Lenox Avenue by an old gaslight. Arnold Rampersand writes:

The singer [expresses the] weariness, disappointment... mournfulness... the difficulties… [and] the stoic resilience of the African American society. Although the subject of the poem is a musician, there is little in terms of entertainment here; rather, the music is, as the title suggests, “weary” and disconsolate. This singer is no minstrel; he is a talented and deep man capable of immense stores of emotion. The blues are showcased as an art form that can express this deep emotion ably and beautifully.

Similarly, Hughes's verse is musical, as he repeats the line “He did a lazy sway.” The musician rocks back and forth on his stool while playing a mournful tune that comes from his soul. The speaker describes the musician's tone as “melancholy," which could also describe the poem itself, especially the ending. The musician thumps his feet on the floor over and over again, and Hughes echoes these beats by repeating the word "thump."

The musician plays until the night is at its darkest, at which time the singer goes to bed and sleeps like a man who is dead. These last lines are morbid but also represent the importance of the singer's music. Hughes suggests that the singer has achieved a catharsis through his music. Instead of turning to violence, suicide, drink, or some other desperate measure to numb to his pain, the singer is able to channel his anger, sadness, and weariness into his music.

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