“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.