In many ways, ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing’’ exemplifies the qualities that dominate the prose and poetry of Langston Hughes. The author is a major figure on the landscape of American poetry and may be the best-known on the landscape of African-American poetry. First published in Scribner's Magazine in May, 1934, and in the collection The Ways of White Folks that same year, ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing’’ combines Hughes's irony, his directness, and his use of dialect. It also conveys powerful messages about race relations, the beauty of blues and jazz, and the black artist's experiences in the white-dominated world of modern art. The story of a young black pianist, Oceola Jones, and her conflict with her self-appointed white patron, Dora Ellsworth, ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing’’ embodies Hughes's belief in the fortitude and dignity of black Americans.
The Blues I'm Playing Summary
‘‘The Blues I'm Playing’’ opens in the middle of the story that will follow. Oceola Jones, the young black pianist, is in Paris studying music at the expense of her white Manhattan patron, Dora Ellsworth. An exposition of Mrs. Ellsworth's character and background ensues: her deceased husband's wealth and their childlessness allow her to pursue life as a patron of the arts, supporting young artists. The narrator also informs us that some confusion underlines Mrs. Ellsworth's motivation as a patron: her choices in protegees seem to be as much driven by the beauty of the protegee as by the extent of his or her talent. By implication, then, we know that Oceola possesses beauty as well as talent, since about her ‘‘there had been no doubt.’’ The young pianist supports herself before meeting Mrs. Ellsworth by teaching piano, directing a church choir, and playing at house parties in Harlem. She comes to the attention of Mrs. Ellsworth via Ormand Hunter, a white music critic. He persuades the reluctant Oceola to play for Mrs. Ellsworth at her home. Even before Oceola has played, Mrs. Ellsworth begins "treating her as a protegee: that is, she began asking her a great many questions she would not dare ask anyone else at first meeting.’’ When Oceola plays for Mrs. Ellsworth, she includes, among classical selections, a rendition of St. Louis Blues. Through these two actions, the inquisitiveness and the musical selection, the author prepares the ground for the conflict that follows.
II: "The Period of Oceola"
Mrs. Ellsworth devotes herself to her new protegee, beginning what the narrator calls ‘‘the period of Oceola.’’ Oceola, however, keeps a certain emotional distance from the older woman, suspicious of Mrs. Ellsworth's desire to give her things "for art's sake." Her mistrust is exacerbated when Mrs. Ellsworth pries for information not just about Oceola's musical background, but about her personal life as well. Most significantly, Mrs. Ellsworth learns that Oceola lives with Pete Williams, a man who works as a train porter but plans to go to medical school. Pete will become central to the conflict between the women. Mrs. Ellsworth finishes the interview by overcoming Oceola's reluctance: she will give up her present work to devote herself to developing her talent, all at Mrs. Ellsworth's expense.
True to her word, Mrs. Ellsworth sends Oceola a check that same evening. Mrs. Ellsworth also begins occupying herself with the details of the young woman's private life. Concerned about Pete's presence, Mrs. Ellsworth asks Ormand Hunter to ask his maid, who attends church with Oceola, to glean information from the rumor mill. Deciding that she does not know enough about Oceola's environment, Mrs. Ellsworth orders a book by Carl Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven, generally considered the white curiosity seeker's tour of Harlem. Finally, after she has gone to bed, Mrs. Ellsworth's entertains herself by imagining Oceola in different dresses, with Hughes revealing the first hint of a repressed sexual fascination.
III: The Conflict Begins
Determined to remove Pete from Oceola's life and to remove Oceola from Harlem, Mrs. Ellsworth sets about a plan to take charge of her protegee. After another meeting at her home, Mrs. Ellsworth offers to drive Oceola to her apartment in order "to see the inside of this girl's life.’’ She invites herself up to Oceola's apartment, which she deems unacceptable, announcing that Oceola must move out of Harlem altogether and relocate to Greenwich Village—the current locus of the arts in New York City. Oceola, however, resists, stalling the move until that fall, when Pete will go away to a medical school...
(The entire section is 1529 words.)