Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Weary Blues” is about a piano player Hughes knew in Harlem. According to critic Edward J. Mullen, Hughes called “The Weary Blues” his “lucky poem” because it placed first in a literary contest sponsored by the National Urban League in 1925. Unlike “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” however, “The Weary Blues” received greatly mixed reviews from both black and white critics. It was called everything from a masterpiece to doggerel.
The work blends jazz, blues, and poetry into powerful lyric poetry. The narrator’s voice begins the poem:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,I heard a Negro play.
In these lines, the musical quality of the poem is already evident. Several of the poem’s repeated lines, such as “He did a lazy sway” and “I got the Weary Blues,” then capture the motion and rhythm of the music. Other refrains, such as “O Blues!” and “Sweet Blues,” create the crooning of the blues. Hughes also uses onomatopoeia in the thumps of the man’s foot on the floor.
Hughes concludes the image by extinguishing the performance, the stars, and the moon but showing that the blues remain an integral part of the man:
The stars went out and so did the moon.The singer stopped playing and went to bedWhile the Weary Blues echoed through his head.He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
This final image, so different from that in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” probably accounts for the mixed reviews of the poem.
Critics who like “The Weary Blues” compare Hughes’s poem to the poetry of Carl Sandburg. DuBose Heyward, for example, says their poetry shares a “freer, subtler syncopation” than that of Vachel Lindsay. Other critics see elements of ballads and spirituals in “The Weary Blues.” Oddly enough, several early critics praise “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for the same qualities they condemn in “The Weary Blues.” In response, later critics have suggested that these critical comments were biased by the themes of the poems. While “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is upbeat and affirming of black heritage, “The Weary Blues” affirms a specific heritage, one distinctly not middle class, not classical.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes’s first published volume of poetry, is grounded in a blues aesthetic. Hughes, one of the younger writers of the Harlem Renaissance, had begun publishing his verse in such journals as The Crisis, Opportunity, and Survey Graphic, and his landmark poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in The Crisis in 1921. His work, as well as that of fellow Harlem Renaissance poets such as Countée Cullen, Claude McKay, and Gwendolyn Bennett, was also published in the short-lived journal Fire!! (1926), edited by Wallace Thurman. The Weary Blues, which contains an introduction by the respected writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, was published during the height of the Jazz Age, when the blues recordings of Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith were in vogue.
Jazz and blues themes underlie Hughes’s presentation of Harlem nightlife. Jazz, which provided a stimulus for poets such as Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, was more than an incidental subject for Hughes. Although the aab rhyme pattern of traditional blues songs is not pronounced in The Weary Blues, Hughes structured a number of his poems on blueslike formats, and he used vernacular to replicate the vocal patterns of black speech.
The collection of poems treats a primary blues theme, that of the problems encountered in personal relationships. At the time the work first appeared, many critics did not appreciate the blues elements that Hughes explored because they thought these elements represented an area of African American life that was not socially uplifting. The Weary Blues shows Hughes’s determination to present the many sides of African American life. The poems address romantic love, African heritage, and the social aspects of race and color. In doing so, they raise the experiences of the common people to the level of art. The poems distill Hughes’s own experiences in locations as varied as Mexico, West Africa, and Harlem.
The collection contains seven sections: “The Weary Blues,” “Dream Variations,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Black Pierrot,” “Water-Front Streets,” “Shadows in the Sun,” and “Our Land.” Each section is named for the first poem of the group. The book opens with “Proem,” in which Hughes defines “Negro” with references to African heritage, slavery, musical contributions, and oppression.
The “Weary Blues” section consists of fifteen poems that depict Harlem nightlife through images of cabarets, performing artists, and personal relationships. Structured in free-verse form, the single poem “The Weary Blues” contains a blues lyric from an actual blues composition. The poem depicts the jazz life through the observations of a persona sensitive to the conditions of performance, who comments:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, I heard a Negro play.Down on Lenox Avenue the other nightBy the pale dull pallor of an old gas light.
In these lines, syncopation, the defining rhythmic quality of jazz, is characterized by the word “rocking.” The nightclub is the setting in which musicians labor to the point of weariness, and the act of performance is equated with race in the image of “ebony hands.” The observer also notes “the sad raggy tune,” a reference to ragtime and to the sadness and despair implicit in the blues performance.
“Jazzonia,” the second poem in this section, describes an uptown nightclub where jazz artists are accompanied by a sensuous dancer whose movements imply seduction, which is signified by “Eve” or “Cleopatra.” Another poem depicting dance, “Negro Dancers,” contains black vernacular and representations of jazz rhythms in syllables that suggest future motifs of bebop. The closing line of the poem, “Two mo’ ways to do de Charleston!,” refers to the highly popular dance style associated with James P. Johnson.
In “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.),” the lyrics to a popular song—“Everybody loves my baby but my baby don’t love nobody but me”—are used...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)