On "The Weary Blues"
Steven C. Tracy
In The Big Sea Hughes reported that his "Weary Blues," which won him his first poetry prize, "included the first blues [he's] ever heard way back in Lawrence, Kansas, when [he] was a kid."
The blues verse in "The Weary Blues:"
I got de weary blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got de weary blues
And can't be satisfied.
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died.
is very close to the "Texas Worried Blues" recorded by songster Henry Thomas in 1928:
The worried blues
God, I'm feelin' bad.
I've got the worried blues
God, I'm feelin' bad.
I've got the worried blues
God, I'm feelin' bad.
In "The Weary Blues" Hughes dealt with the blues singer and his song in relation to the speaker of the poem. The poem gave its title to Hughes'' first volume, published in 1926.
. . .
Donald Dickinson saw the first verse of "The Weary Blues" as "an alliterative innovation in the style of Lindsay's 'The Congo.'" However, the verse, with its references to crooning, its strategic repetition of the "lazy sway" line, and its description of a blues performer and his playing, seems to derive partly from the vaudeville blues tradition as well. For example, Richard M. Jones's "Jazzin' Baby Blues," recorded in 1922 by Alberta Hunter and by Ethel Waters, and in 1923 by King Oliver and by Eva Taylor, discussed the way "that old piano man he sure can jazz 'em some":
Jazzin' baby blues are drivin' me insane
There's nothin' to them but that lonesome blue refrain.
But when that cornet and that flute begin to play,
Just make me get right up and throw myself away.
Just play those jazzin' baby
Blues for me all night and day.
Bessie Smith's recording of Fletcher Henderson's "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town" celebrated the clarinet playing of a man with no professional training:
Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town,
He's a clarinet hound!
He can't dance,
He can't sing,
But Lawdy, how he can play that thing!
He ain't seen no music, too.
He can't read a note.
But he's the playin'est fool
On that Memphis boat.
Hughes's poem, too, deals with the singer and his song, but Hughes presents the flip-side of the romantic vaudeville blues image of the wild and celebrated jazz player, good-timing his way through life. It is doubly significant that Hughes gave his volume the title of this poem and that it is the first poem (following "Proem") in the volume. It suggests that the entire volume begins with and is informed by the "weary blues," and the tradition with which one must come to grips.
The poem itself is a third-person description with some interpolated first-person, eight- and twelve-bar blues lyrics, giving it a sophisticated structure not unlike some vaudeville blues songs.
. . .
Clearly in this poem the blues unite the speaker and the performer in some way. There is an immediate implied relationship between the two because of the ambiguous syntax. The "droning" and "rocking" can refer either to the "I" or to the "Negro," immediately suggesting that the music invites, even requires, the participation of the speaker. Further, the words suggest that the speaker's poem is a "drowsy syncopated tune" as well, connecting speaker and performer even further by having them working in the same tradition. The performer remains anonymous, unlike Bessie Smith's Jazzbo Brown, because he is not a famous, celebrated performer; he is one of the main practitioners living the unglamorous life that is far more common than the kinds of lives the most successful blues stars lived. His "drowsy syncopated tune," which at once implies both rest and activity (a tune with shifting accents), signals the tension between the romantic image and the reality, and very likely influences the speaker to explore the source of the tension between the singer's stoicism and his resignation to his fate as expressed in his blues lyrics. Significantly, the eight-bar blues stanza, the one with no repeat line, is his hopeful stanza. Its presence as an eight-bar stanza works by passing more quickly, reinforcing both his loneliness and the fleeting nature of the kind of hope expressed. This is especially true since the singer's next stanza, a twelve-bar blues, uses the repeat line to emphasize his weariness and lack of satisfaction, and his wish to die.
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.
Another source of the melancholy aura of the poem is the lack of an actual connection between the performer and the speaker. They do not strike up a conversation, share a drink, or anything else. The speaker observes, helpless to do anything about the performer and his weariness save to write the poem and try to understand the performer's experiences and how they relate to his own. Ultimately he finds the man and his songs wistfully compelling; and he hears in his song the collective weary blues of blacks in America and tries to reconcile the sadness with the sweetness of the form and expression.
The poem is a fitting opening not only to this volume, but to all of Hughes's volumes. It combines traditional blues stanzas that emphasize the roots of African-American experience, touches of vaudeville blues as the roots were being "refined," pride in African-American creativity and forms of expression, and a sense of the weariness that ties together generations of African-Americans. With the words "Sweet Blues," Hughes strikes upon the central paradox with which the poem attempts to come to terms. It is one of his central themes.
From: Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Copyright ©1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Michael G. Cooke
The paradoxes of self-veiling [an unassertive, undemanding adaptation to the environment. Its motive--to survive--is positive, but its vision limited] are sharply etched in the title piece of Langston Hughes's first volume of poems, The Weary Blues. The blues singer in the poem transcends "his rickety stool," which seems to represent his life condition and not just the appurtenances of the joint: "He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool." We can reasonably infer that nothing in his life conveys the concentration and depth of his music. He collapses after he plays, and it almost seems that he must alternate between comatoseness and music. His life, then, deeply veils what his music expresses.
But how much certainty do we have concerning what his music expresses? The manner of playing ("like a musical fool") and thematter involved do not chime together. Where his play is vivid, sure, superior, what he sings is all depression and defeat:
. . . .
His stamina as a singer ("far into the night he crooned that tune") does little to offset the intensification of woe in the song, and woe finally seems to have undone him when he "stopped playing and went to bed," for "he slept like a rock or a man that's dead." He has played himself out, and it is impossible to tell whether his woe or his playing has contributed more to his undoing. The blues may give us more than the life, but it gives us meanings veiled in paradox.
But the poem contains a complex reversal. The blues singer's apparent self-exhaustion (for his state is a product of his will, his soul) is counterbalanced by the fact that he has played himself into the heart and mind of the speaker in "The Weary Blues." This effect is less obvious here than in Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," a strangely analogous poem, but the speaker's attachment comes out in two ways. First, more than the coming of daylight is indicated in the line "The stars went out and so did the moon"; we may understand also that the speaker is possessed by the singer's woe, and his art, and so loses a sense of the world beyond. And second, the speaker is telling as much about himself as about the singer when he says:
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.
Has the speaker followed the singer home in fascination, in obsession? And in whose head does the echo of the weary blues play? The singer's, yes, but not his alone. The speaker is also bearing "that music," as Wordsworth says, in his heart. Not even the speaker's empathy with the blues singer, though, can enable us to penetrate the latter's veil of sleep, a veil as opaque as rock and as deep as death.
It is an accident that offsets the singer's repetitious self-veilings. Clearly he goes through his routine, his ritual, every night, and as clearly a Langston Hughes does does not often happen by.
From Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. Copyright © 1984 by Michael Cooke.
Hughes's aesthetic works out a trope that brings internality and externality into a state of opposition. One sees an example of how this unfolds in "The Weary Blues." The speaker in the poem documents the experience of listening to a piano player in Harlem play the blues. Steven Tracy's compelling argument asserts that the piano player and speaker are united by the performance.
I would like to argue to the contrary however. In my view, the poem works out Hughes's apprehension, his feeling that his ability to understand the emotions that generated this form of artistic expression was not on a par with the expression itself This is indicated by the last line of the poem, where the speaker notes that the piano player "slept like a rock or a man that's dead." The key word here is "or," for it denotes the imprecision of the speaker's understanding. What the blues articulates is the simultaneous presence of the "tragic and comic aspects of the human conditions." Thus, the blues in the poem is not the conventional "either/or" condition configured within the Cartesian construct. Rather, the piano player, by metaphorizing loneliness has already chosen self-recovery. The poem's last line, then, ignores the blues performer's ability to articulate pain and likewise to subsume it. That the speaker and the piano player never meet, or as Tracy asserts, "strike up a conversation, share a drink, or anything else," suggests that the experience does not rupture the speaker's externality. He never enters that space whereby the piano player is speaking for him, giving utterance to his loneliness. Finally, at no point in time does the speaker in the poem insert himself into the lyrics.
What this implies is that "The Weary Blues" can also be read as an anti-Jazz Age poem. That is, a case can be made in which we need not equate the speaker in the poem with Hughes at all. While Hughes obviously had a strong desire to "link the lowly blues to formal poetry," locking him into the poem ignores its efficacy as cultural commentary. Given the increasing number of whites traveling to Harlem to be entertained in clubs like The Cotton Club, the poem can be seen as an attempt on Hughes's part to warn the community that African American expression was being appropriated by mainstream culture.
The poem's structure enables this reading, if only because the speaker "quotes" the lyrics, but never allows his own voice to give way to them. Moreover, the speaker is "Down on Lenox Avenue. . . " which also, interestingly enough, marks the location of the Cotton Club and thus implies travel from downtown Manhattan. The I/he dichotomy Hughes establishes never collapses, which means that we can read the exteriority of the speaker as that which pertains to someone being entertained, who will leave Harlem after the performance is over. In this respect, the "or" in the last line calls our attention to the slippage that occurs when an understanding of the blues is lacking. That the speaker utters the possibility that the piano player has killed himself illustrates his failure to realize that the blues is performed reflection and not a preface to suicidal behavior.
From "Dead Rocks and Sleeping Men: Aurality in the Aesthetic of Langston Hughes," in The Langston Hughes Review.
R. Baxter Miller
The performance in the title poem [. . . .] completes the ritualistic conversion from Black American suffering into epic communion. On 1 May 1925, during a banquet at an "elegant" Fifth Avenue restaurant in New York City, the poem won a prize from Opportunity magazine, where it subsequently appeared. The thirty-five-line lyric presents a singer and pianist who plays on Harlem's Lenox Avenue one night. Having performed well in the club, he goes to bed, as the song still sounds in his mind: "I got de weary blues / And I can't be satisfied." In the "dull pallor of an old gas light," his ebony hands have played on the ivory keys. During the "lazy sway" from the piano stool, he has patted the floor with his feet, struck a few chords, and then sung some more. Finally, he sleeps "like a rock or a man that's dead," the artistic spirit exhausted.
His performance clearly implies several dramatic actions. While one sets the dynamic playing--the Black self-affirmation against what fades--a second presents a vital remaking of the Black self-image. A third shows the transcendence through racial stereotype into lyrical style. From the dramatic situation of the player, both musical as well as performed, the poem imposes isolation and loneliness yet the refusal to accept them. The song marks a metonym for the human imagination. In a deftness often overlooked, Hughes uses anaphora to narrate an imperial self so as to sustain the blues stanza as countermelody and ironic understatement: "Ain't got nobody in all this world, / Ain't got nobody but ma self." What most complements the lyric skill is the dramatic movement of feeling. In narrative distancing his speakers achieve a double identification.
From The Art and Language of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1989 by The University Press of Kentucky.
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