The Poem

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“The Weary Blues” is a lyric poem with two voices. The central narrative voice describes an African American (or Negro, in this 1923 poem), in Harlem, New York, who is observed singing and playing a blues number. The poem provides a sample of the blues as well as an observation of the blues tradition from an outside source. As the title of the poem indicates, and the narrator suggests (with “droning” and “drowsy”), the musician is literally weary; the setting is late at night. Although the singer is weary, as his physical action, “a lazy sway,” implies, he has enough stamina to sing “far into the night.” The tone of both the narrator and the singer, with his “melancholy tone” and his playing that comes “from a black man’s soul,” indicates depression or sadness. Blues singers themselves identify melancholy and misery as the major themes of the blues. The blues, however, serves as more than a method of complaint: The very act of writing or singing the blues provides an antidote to the pain the songs express.

As the poem progresses, the narrator describes the singer/player expressing his loneliness, displeasure, and uncertainty about his present and future. It is in his singing that his inner self, his melancholy “soul,” is revealed. In singing the blues, the Harlem man transforms or releases his pent-up emotional burden into musical expression. He receives solace after his trials and tribulations from singing his secular song, much as others have from singing religious songs such as spirituals.

The narrator describes the musician’s emotional condition as he performs; it takes a downward direction from producing a “mellow croon” to making “that old piano moan.” Balancing the downward movement of the musician’s “sad raggy tune,” however, is his ability to make “that poor piano moan with melody.” He finally makes the piano become his soul mate: “that old piano moan[s]” just as he is doing. The lamentation is turned into a cathartic release: To sing and play the blues is to escape the blues. This link between the instrument and the musician is comparable to the link between the narrator of the poem and the musician.

The piano player’s psychological state parallels the sound he produces on the piano. He is moaning or lamenting his existence: “I ain’t happy no mo’.” He wishes that he “had died.” Significantly, his statement is of a previous condition—he does not say that he wants to die. Such an ambiguous ending to his lament suggests a continued resilience as he turns his despair into song instead of suicide. This ability to overcome his emotional circumstances parallels his ability to sing and play while sitting on a “rickety stool” with an old piano in front of him. Despite his age and weariness, the singer/player has momentarily put his “troubles on the shelf.”

The poem’s descriptive and interpretive voice (“I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—”) is that of an observer who makes little attempt to explain, intellectually, the causes of the piano player’s condition. Rather, he or she describes the events impressionistically, as one would any musical concert. It is through this voice that the significance of the blues and the ambiguity of its meaning are projected. As Hughes writes in “Evenin’ Air Blues” (1927):

But if you was to ask meHow de blues they come to be,Says if you was to ask meHow de blues they come to be—You wouldn’t need to ask me:Just look at me and see!

As the persona describes the scene and the “syncopated tune,” he or she provides images...

(This entire section contains 860 words.)

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of instability or precariousness, such as “swaying,” “rocking,” and “rickety stool”; inversion, such as “ebony hands on each ivory key” and “dull pallor of an old gas light”; and ambiguity: “He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.” The precarious scene as described is a reversal of traditional imagery of whiteness (light) being superior to blackness (dark). The setting takes place at night rather than during the day, significantly continuing until “The stars went out and so did the moon.” The so-called raggy tune is regarded as “Sweet Blues!” suggestive of the narrator’s attitude toward the music, musician, and topic. The description of playing—the ebony hands (black) over the ivory keys (white)—further implies inversion, just as the singer sleeps during the day rather than during the night.

Although the mood of “The Weary Blues” is one of resignation, as sung by the singer, the persona’s narrative extends it to one of uncertainty: “He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.” Implied in the equivocal statement is the question of whether the singer, with “the Weary Blues echo[ing] through his head,” has resolved his melancholy and is able to sleep soundly, “like a rock,” or is sleeping like a man whose spirit is dead. The narrator’s description and commentary, like the blues, do not provide a resolution. Thus, singing and playing “The Weary Blues” can be seen as a means of either revitalizing oneself or resigning oneself to one’s condition.

Forms and Devices

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The poem utilizes the traditional musical structure of the blues and incorporates actual blues lyrics. In “Note on the Blues” (1927), Hughes states that “the Blues, unlike the Spirituals, have a strict poetic pattern: one long line repeated and a third line to rhyme with the first two. Sometimes the second line in repetition is slightly changed and sometimes, but very seldom, it is omitted.” The repeated line adds emphasis to the intensity of a thought or feeling:

“I got the Weary BluesAnd I can’t be satisfied.Got the Weary BluesAnd can’t be satisfied—I ain’t happy no mo’And I wish that I had died.”

In most blues lyrics and blues poems, the last word rhymes (or off-rhymes) with the last word of the first line, as “self” and “shelf” do. Rhyme is determined by the particular speech patterns of the singer or local community. Since this is a syncopated tune and poem, there is a shift in the regular meter, from iambic to trochaic. There also is a shortening of words (“mo’”), as well as the dropping of sounds or syllables from the middle of a word. Like singing the blues, in which a musician uses gesture and intonation to convey a particular impression, the formal poetic structure of this poem’s rhythm is best achieved by reading the poem aloud.

The language used by the narrative voice and the language of the blues present a formal pattern of contrast. The former is primarily educated and in standard American English. The latter, with negatives such as “ain’t got nobody” and nonstandard pronunciation and sound (“I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’”), reflects the urban, uneducated, working-class person. This contrast in language aids in the development of the themes, since the blues originally was regarded as a lowly art form, not suitable poetic material.

The interjection of exclamatory phrases such as “O Blues!” and “Sweet Blues!” is used to indicate the narrator’s acceptance of the art form and to emphasize that the poem is not merely about the blues singer but also about the singing of the blues as a means of overcoming the blues. Such exclamations in the blues, having evolved from “Negro” spirituals, also establish a literal musical link to the African American (and American) musical tradition.

Bibliography

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Cullen, Countee. Review of The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes. In Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. Questions the merit of Hughes’ jazz and blues poems, but praises his more traditional lyrical verse.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. One of the first full-length treatments of Hughes’ poetry. Discusses both jazz and blues themes and treats The Weary Blues in chapter 2, “Shadow of the Blues.”

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Examines Hughes’ poetry by focusing on the imaginative process. The Weary Blues is interpreted in chapter 3, “‘Deep like the Rivers,’ The Lyrical Imagination,” as a work that reveals a diversity of techniques.

Rampersad, Arnold. 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America. Vol. 1 in The Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A definitive biography of Hughes, which addresses the literary history of The Weary Blues in the context of Hughes’s relationship to literary figures of the 1920’s.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. A comprehensive treatment of blues influences in Hughes’s poetry. Includes a substantial definition of the structures of blues songs and corresponding patterns in Hughes’ poetry. Examines The Weary Blues in chapter 3, “Creating the Blues.”

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