When Langston Hughes published his early poem, “The Weary Blues,” back in 1925, he was innovating literature and language, it’s said, matching poetic form to musical form, and subject. According to poet Kevin Young, “Hughes was in fact the first to write poetry in the blues form,” and his 1926 collection “The Weary Blues represents the start of this newfound and profound blues and jazz aesthetic . . . using the form of the blues to represent washwomen, porters, rounders, fools, and heroes.” Not only that, “Hughes and other young writers often sought to scandalize as a form of sympathizing with those for whom life ‘ain’t been no crystal stair.'” While this poetry represented innovation, at the same time, it tapped into past musical expression and past suffering. The exploding popularity of blues and jazz at the time speaks to its power, along with other qualities. With blues, the poet could bare soul and suffering and bridge divides, building community through a shared sense of sorrow. Or with a subtle or sudden shift into jazz, the poet (like the musician) could riff and soar, transcending suffering, if only temporarily. Such is the experience in his poem “Trumpet Player,” where “trouble mellows to a golden note.” You can find a sound recording of the poet reciting “The Weary Blues” here, and a video recording here. A full album of his poetry reading, Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes, is available here.
The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes
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.
From Opportunity magazine, 1925. The featured photograph above shows the MuralsDC work The Wailin’ Mailman: A Portrait of Buck Hill, by artist Joe Pagac. Photo © Jonathan English.