While Langston Hughes was not a Jazz musician, he is known as a leader of the Jazz poetry genre. His poetic forms, remembered for their spirit, contain many stylistic devices also characteristic of music, especially the blues. This fully American music stemmed from the mixing of cultures, from the two traditions from which Langston Hughes was birthed. His work represents a culmination of the African-American, post-World War I, and Jazz traditions. But, for the sake of length in this post, we’ll just look at the African-American and blues traditions.
The African-American slave tradition tore people from their homes and introduced them to new living conditions and to new music. Earlier slave music is notably rhythmic, and this lends itself easily to poetry. The rhythms came from the work being done, monotonous tasks such as hammering or pushing weights, and this combined with a new vernacular of African shouts and hollers with the English of America. It created something personal, for each slave on each plantation had their own story to sing about.
The beauty of this tradition is that even though every slave had their own story, they chose to combine them to create a community of song. The “freedom song” then began to contain repeated lines that a leader could sing and the group could finish.
A visual way of thinking about it is with letters. AAB is a typical call and response form that is used throughout all of history. In it, a leader sings a line (A), the people repeat that line (A again), and then the leader creates a new line (B) that could be a call to action or a transition into the next verse.
This call and response form created standards for their music while still allowing the singers to continually create new lines. Jazz, however, is not a sole child of slave songs and spirituals.
Jazz is a music birthed of freedom.
The blues fully developed as a form when slaves were freed, and they spread around America in attempts to locate their lost relatives and a better life. In the process, they shared their life stories with those who would listen. Langston Hughes travelled widely and discovered new and interesting people who all influenced his work.
Hughes draws upon the story-telling tradition in “The Weary Blues” as the speaker of this poem appears to be discovering the blues for the first time. The poem begins with the simple action of listening “down on Lenox Avenue the other night,” with the nonchalance of the occasion of the setting causing it to appear that the speaker simply stumbles upon the music and discovers something vivid and stirring.1 It is altogether normal, in keeping with the community tradition and Langston Hughes’s tendency toward travel, to find new experience in an everyday situation. The telling of these everyday stories affected the structure of the songs in which they were told.
The early blues structure based itself off of the early English ballad, which was perfect for the sharing of stories, and that evolved into the now-traditional twelve-bar AAB blues form.
Traditional form dictates that twelve measures contain three sets of two lines of repeated text followed by a third, differing line. This hearkens back to the call and response singing of earlier times, which remains a part of tradition to this day, through the prevalence of the blues. Jazz began as the blues, and as Jazz poetry analyst Jeffrey Allen writes, “You can have the blues without Jazz, but no Jazz without the blues.”2 The blues are such a fundamental part of the genre of Jazz that one cannot imagine a Jazz world without blues.
Much of the power of the blues lies more in its language, however, than in its form. The blues embody the American vernacular engendered by the mixing of the African and American cultures, and it allows the poet and musician to tell his or her story in a dialect close to the heart, for it is the language surrounding the composer.2
In the case of “The Weary Blues,” Langston Hughes reinforces the AAB traditional blues but without actually repeating text. While the lines of the narrator do not repeat, the number of syllables for each line does repeat and then varies on the third line. The poem begins with two lines of ten syllables each: “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,” followed by one line of six syllables: “I heard a Negro play.” The meter in these lines, however, does not remain constant, which signifies Hughes employment of the traditional African sense of rhythm.
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.
Hughes uses the same technique in most of the lines of the narrator, such as “With his ebony hands on each ivory key. / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues!” In limiting himself to maintaining two lines of the same number of syllables, Hughes allows himself to improvise within a framework, to redefine meter within a specific structure, which makes it effective, for it is deliberate. “The Weary Blues,” however, does contain lines with syllables that do not seem to correspond to any other line and seem not to serve a purpose.
These unmatched lines represent the blues spirit in its attempt at improvising around rhythm. Since dissonance and disjoint rhythms characterize Jazz, the representation of Jazz in the meter of specific lines displays the understanding of blues rhythm that Langston Hughes must have possessed.
While Langston Hughes was not a musician himself, he yearned to be, and to fulfill his dreams of music, he read his poetry to audiences with live accompaniment. He collaborated with famous Jazz legends like W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Louis Armstrong, some of whom may have inspired his “The Weary Blues.”
What are your thoughts on the blues, Jazz, or Jazz poetry? Share in the comments below!
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- Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, Eighth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.
- Allen, Jeffrey Renard. “Distinguished Breakage”: The Jazz Poetry Of Sterling D. Plumpp.” Arkansas Review: A Journal Of Delta Studies 36.3 (2005): 198-202.