The Weary Blues

Langston Hughes

(1923)

1          Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
2          Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
3              I heard a Negro play.
4          Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
5          By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
6              He did a lazy sway ....
7              He did a lazy sway ....
8          To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
9          With his ebony hands on each ivory key
10        He made that poor piano moan with melody.
11            O Blues!
12        Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
13        He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
14            Sweet Blues!
15        Coming from a black man's soul.
16            O Blues!
17        In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
18        I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
19            "Ain't got nobody in all this world,
20            Ain't got nobody but ma self.
21             I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
22             And put ma troubles on the shelf."
23        Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
24        He played a few chords then he sang some more--
25            "I got the Weary Blues
26            And I can't be satisfied.
27            Got the Weary Blues
28            And can't be satisfied--
29            I ain't happy no mo'
30            And I wish that I had died."
31        And far into the night he crooned that tune.
32        The stars went out and so did the moon.
33        The singer stopped playing and went to bed
34        While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
35        He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

To Notice and Consider:

Summary:  The speaker of Langston Hughes's "The Weary Blues" describes an evening of listening to a blues musician in Harlem.  With its diction, its repetition of lines and its inclusion of blues lyrics, the poem evokes the mournful tone and tempo of blues music and gives readers an appreciation of the state of mind of the blues musician in the poem.

Relationship Between Speaker and Subject:
  Lines 1-3 create what grammarians call a "dangling modifier," a sentence logic problem wherein the clauses preceding the main subject and verb of the sentence ("Droning a drowsy syncopated tune," and "Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon," which precede "I heard") don't most logically refer to the subject of the sentence ("I").  Has Hughes simply made a grammatical error?  Probably not.  Rather, he's using his sentence structure there to show the relationship between the singer and the audience, the dual effect of the music on the performer and on the listener.  The singer is droning and swaying as he performs, but so is the audience as it listens, thus they become conflated grammatically in the sentence that describes their interaction. Here, then, Hughes suggests that the blues offer a sort of communal experience, that they express the feelings of not only the artist, but the whole community.

"Down on Lenox Avenue":
  Lenox Avenue is a main street in Harlem, which in terms of the geography of New York, is North, or uptown.  We might wonder why Hughes has written "down on Lenox Avenue" rather than "up on Lenox Avenue."  Let's think, then, about the identity of the speaker of the poem.  Because Harlem was home mainly to African Americans and the parts of New York City south of Harlem (referred to as "downtown") were populated mainly by whites, if the speaker were to perceive Lenox Avenue as "up" from his place of origin, we might assume that he is white.  During the 20s and 30s, writings by African-Americans about black identity and culture proliferated. This exceptionally fruitful period of extensive and brilliant literary production is referred to as a "renaissance." During the Harlem Renaissance, African American artists and musicians also gained recognition and currency in the white community; many wealthy whites, who generally lived downtown, took a strong interest in the cultural activity there, in Harlem nightlife and in its artistic productions.  Flocking northward to Harlem, where most African Americans lived, for the entertainment and introduction to new forms of music and art produced by African Americans there, white benefactors of these artists helped them to become known beyond their own community. But some of these patrons also threatened the autonomy and commercial viability of these emerging black artists, sometimes taking advantage of current racial attitudes and the discriminatory laws and social codes to exploit black musicians and artists for their own financial benefit.

So when Hughes's speaker says he was "down on Lenox Avenue" we can assume that he is not white.  Why does it matter whether we see this speaker as white or black?  Certainly, people of all races have experienced the blues (both the music and the feelings) and musicians of all colors have played blues music.  But jazz and blues music must be considered original to African Americans, borne out of "the irrestistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism" (Norton Anthology of African American Literature 929).  One can see this important idea in lines 9 and 16:  "With his ebony hands on each ivory key" and "Coming from a black man's soul."  The image of black hands on white keys suggests the way in which black musicians have taken an instrument of white Western culture and through it produced their own artistic expression.  Steven C. Tracy writes the following about this idea:   
All the singer seems to have is his moaning blues, the revelation of "a black man's soul," and those blues are what helps keep him alive. Part of that ability to sustain is apparently the way the blues help him keep his identity. Even in singing the blues, he is singing about his life, about the way that he and other blacks have to deal with white society. As his black hands touch the white keys, the accepted Western sound of the piano and the form of Western music are changed. The piano itself comes to life as an extension of the singer, and moans, transformed by the black tradition to a mirror of black sorrow that also reflects the transforming power and beauty of the black tradition. Finally, it is that tradition that helps keep the singer alive and gives him his identity, since when he is done and goes to bed he sleeps like an inanimate or de-animated object, with the blues echoing beyond his playing, beyond the daily cycles, and through both conscious and unconscious states. (Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.)

In this interpretation of blues music as an expression of black sorrow and struggle in the face of oppressive and discriminatory forces of the larger society, we can see a clear connection to the character of Sonny in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues.
 Sonny and his family have been worn down by many years of struggle against racism and discrimination; the story of Sonny's uncle's death and Sonny's father's lifelong struggle to come to terms with that death represent this struggle.

The word "down" might also refer to the architecture of Harlem, with its multi-storied apartment buildings looking down on the avenues, where the ground floors of buildings housed businesses and people lived in apartments on the upper floors.  "Down" might also refer to the emotional content of the music the speaker will describe.  Here we can see another connection to Sonny's Blues.  Remember when the narrator, standing at the subway in Harlem, says to Sonny's friend, "You come all the way down here just to tell me about Sonny?"  Also, notice the implicit opposition between the sorrows of the singer that bring him down and his desire to quit his "frownin" and "put [his] troubles [up] on the shelf." 


Raggy:
  Hughes uses the word "raggy" in line 13.  "Raggy" is not an actual word; perhaps we might interpret it as a combination of word "raggedy" meaning tattered or worn out and the word "ragtime" which refers to a style of jazz music characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment. When we thing of something that is "raggedy," we think of  rags, poverty and need. But we also think of the idea of patchwork, a fabric constructed out of scraps of cloth -- or rags -- sewn together to make a new whole out of disparate parts, such as a quilt.   Music can be patchwork, too, and if you listen to jazz, blues and folk music, you will hear different threads or trends patched together in the music. African American blues music itself is a patching together of different and disparate influences (see above Steven C. Tracy's ideas about the way African Americans made a "white" Western instrument speak of their particular emotions). 

Another African American art form, quilting, uses the same principle of patching to produce works of both practical and artistic value.  See Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" to understand the importance of the folk arts and quilting in the African American experience. 

Musical fool -- multiple meanings of the word "fool" -- fool as enthusiast, fool as mental defective, fool as entertainer.

Form:  irregularly rhyming.  Repetition of lines.  Note the interruption of the blues lyrics in the narrative of the poem.


Links:

Scholarly interpretations of "The Weary Blues" at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/weary.htm

"Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance"
-- From the Smithsonian Institution

Glossary:
Syncopated: a shift of accent in a musical composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed; when an expected rhythm is modified in an unexpected way. Syncopation in music might be analogous to situational irony in literature when something other than what would be expected or logical happens.

Lenox Avenue: a main street in Harlem, Manhattan.

 

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