The Weary Blues
|by Langston Hughes|
|First published in||1925|
|Publisher||Urban League magazine|
"The Weary Blues" is a poem by American poet Langston Hughes. Written in 1925, "The Weary Blues" was first published in the Urban League magazine, Opportunity. It was awarded the magazine's prize for best poem of the year. The poem was included in Hughes' first book, a collection of poems, also entitled The Weary Blues.
Langston Hughes was known as one of the most prominent and influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a rebirth movement of African Americans in the arts during the 1920s. He wrote about the world around him, giving a voice to African Americans during a time of segregation. Hughes was both a contributor and supporter of his fellow African-American writers. Collectively, they changed the way the world viewed African Americans because of their talents and ability to capture real life and turn it into art.
Hughes wrote of inequality ("I, Too, Sing America"), of resilience ("Mother to Son" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"), of pride ("My People"), of hope ("Freedom's Plow"), and of music ("The Trumpet Player" and "Juke Box Love Song"). He was the author of several novels, a memoir, song lyrics, children's books, plays, countless songs and more than 20 books.
"The Weary Blues" takes place at an old Harlem bar on Lenox Avenue. There is a piano player playing the blues. As he plays, the speaker observes his body movement and the tone of his voice. Throughout the poem, several literary devices are used to guide the reader through the mixture of emotions the blues player is feeling. The vivid imagery and use of language gives the reader a more personal glimpse into the life of the man playing the blues.
Theme and literary devices
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Throughout the poem there are several literary devices that help underline the theme and tone of the poem. One theme is the importance of music in everyday life. Music can be used to guide mixed emotions, express joy and happiness, describe personal issues or as a means to release anger and frustration. Hughes' "The Weary Blues" has been credited as one of the first poems to combine music and poetry.
Hughes highlights the elements of blues and jazz music throughout the entire poem. Words associated with music, melody and tune are used to describe the night, the blues and the piano player. The sound of the music is described as a "mellow croon" as the piano player sings the "tune o' those weary blues." The "raggy tune" and "melancholy tone" portray music that is sad, sobering, and grim.
The colloquial language of the poem captures the attention of the reader and guides them into a world that is accessible. The language, although hard to read, is not hard to understand. The diction used emphasizes the societal disposition of the musician and highlights his frustration. "Ain't got nobody but ma self. I's gwine quit my frownin'...I ain't happy no mo'."
The imagery of the poem is also significant. Words like "drowsy," "rocking," "pale dull pallor," "lazy sway," "rickety stool," and "raggy tune" suggest the feelings of melancholy. The mood is somber and depressing. Even the smallest elements of the poem and the setting are incompetent. The language is broken and improper. The piano is referred to as old and poor and the stool, which could be interpreted as the musician's foundation, is "rickety," unstable, and inadequate.
The repetition of several words and phrases emphasizes the mood and the seriousness of the musician's lyrics, thoughts, and actions. His sway is repetitive. The "lazy sway" and "rocking back and forth" implies continual movement, as if the musician is uneasy, uncomfortable in his current position. The repeated phrases, "I ain't got nobody" and "can't be satisfied" reveal the true feelings of the musician. In this most humbled position, he shares his pain and relinquishes his deepest feelings. The piano is personified twice throughout the poem; "he made that poor piano moan." The idea of a piano moaning implies that the music is so powerful that it has a direct influence on the instrument. The musician's burdens and pain literally affect the piano.
Hughes also includes references to the historical context within the time the poem was written. The piano player is called a "Negro." During this time, the word Negro was not a word of reverence, but of servitude and submission. This alone identifies the musician's status in society. The speaker notices the hands of the piano player on the piano keys. At a time when blacks and whites were segregated, Hughes allows these two to intertwine. The speaker notices "his ebony hands on each ivory key." Hughes uses the piano as a symbol of the forbidden relationship of blacks and whites. "With his ebony hands on each ivory key" evokes the duality of black and white. It is a powerful line that makes a political statement and a symbol of intolerance for segregation.
The overall flow of the poem resembles that of a musical song or lyrics. The rhyming of couplets and several lines throughout the poem allow the reader to read it fluently. Hughes intricately takes a poem about music and turns it into music. The words on each line allow the poem to flow fluidly into the next. And together, the words and the tone of the poem connect; they mirror the words and tone of the musician.
Music is the underlying theme of the poem. The poem itself is musical. It shows that music can represent any lifestyle or situation. The piano player makes music through actions and song. He sings the blues, sways back and forth, and he "played a few chords then sang some more and "thump[s]...his foot on the floor." It is as if the music is pouring out of him; through his vocal cords, his hands and his feet. All of his emotion turns into music and pours out into the air. His music is so powerful that the stars and the moon go out. It is as if his melancholic music made the stars and the moon in the sky, refuse to shine. And after the music has stopped playing, the musician can hear the "Weary Blues" echo through his head.
"The Weary Blues" is one of Hughes' most famous poems. Critics have claimed that the poem is a combination of blues and jazz with personal experiences. It embodies blues as a metaphor and form. It has also been coined as one of the first works of blues performance in literature. Throughout the poem, music is seen as not only a form of art and entertainment, but also as a way of life: people living the blues. Hughes' ability to incorporate poetry with music and history with art has given him the reputation as one of the leading black artists of the 20th century. "The Weary Blues" allows the reader to seek to unlock the mystery of the blues, for both the musician and themselves.
- Hughes, Langston. "(James) Langston Hughes." Gale Database Contemporary Authors (2003): Web. November 13, 2010.
- Knapp, James F. "Langston Hughes." The Norton Anthology of Poetry. www.wwnorton.com, n.d. Web. November 15, 2010.
- Wall, Cheryl A. (1997). "A Note On 'The Weary Blues'". Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry. 3: ii–vi.
- I, Too, Sing America. Langston Hughes. 1 (1902-1941). Magill Book Reviews. 1990.
- Rebecca Gross, "Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes", Art Works Blog, April 11, 2014, with 1958 clip of Langston Hughes reading "The Weary Blues"