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The Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes
A Personal Appreciation By
Ray Smith

Part 2 

Langston Hughes received a scholarship to Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, where he gained a BA degree in 1929. In his writings from the 1930s, Hughes was unashamedly black when blackness was most definitely out of favour and he didn’t stray far from the themes of ‘black is beautiful’ as he explored the black human condition in a variety of depths. His main concern was the uplift of his people, of whom he judged himself an adequate appreciator, and whose strengths, resilience, courage and humour he wanted to record as part of the American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction generally dealt with insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter and music. Here’s another example from The Weary Blues collection.

Night Time in Harlem
Paper collage & watercolour artwork by Ray Smith 1997

Harlem Night Club

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.
Jazz-band, jazz-band,--
Play, plAY, PLAY!
Tomorrow....who knows?
Dance today!

White girls’ eyes
Call gay black boys.
Black boys’ lips
Grin jungle joys.
Dark brown girls
In blond men’s arms.
Jazz-band, jazz-band,--
Sing Eve’s charm!

White ones, brown ones,
What do you know
About tomorrow
Where all paths go?

Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,--
Play, plAY, PLAY!
Tomorrow....is darkness.
Joy today!

This poem portrays Hughes’s Harlem as a place bursting with vitality and full of life. Everything revolves around the blues and jazz clubs and all the rest of the hectic nightlife, as can be seen in the poem where everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin, is enjoying themselves. Nevertheless, not everything looks bright as the last two lines at the end of the poem remind us about the coming reality of tomorrow.  

Langston Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism devoid of self-hate that would unite people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encourage pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. He was one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists. Hughes was not only a role model with his calls for black racial pride instead of assimilation, but the most important technical influence in his emphasis on folk and jazz rhythms as the basis of his poetry of racial pride, struggle, joy, laughter, and music. A constant theme throughout his work is pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture.

An example of Hughes’s thinking is this theatre poster of a Harlem play from 1938.

Hughes is quoted as saying, “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind.” Therefore, in his work he confronted racial stereotypes, protested social conditions and expanded African America’s image of itself; a ‘people’s poet’ who sought to re-educate both audience and artist by lifting the theory of the black artistic culture into reality.

Here’s a blues poem from his Harlem period.

Billie Holiday
Paper collage, ink and gouache artwork by Ray Smith 1994

Blues Fantasy

Hey! Hey!
That’s what the
Blues singers say.
Singing minor melodies
They laugh,
Hey! Hey!

My man’s done left me,
Chile, he’s gone away.
My good man’s left me,
Babe, he’s gone away.
Now the cryin’ blues
Haunts me night and day.

Trouble, pain.
Sun’s gonna shine

I got a railroad ticket,
Pack my trunk and ride.

Sing ‘em sister!

Got a railroad ticket,
Pack my trunk and ride.
And when I get on the train
I’ll cast my blues aside.

Laugh a loud,
Hey! Hey!

The train is an important image and theme in the blues and it’s usually taking a lover away, bringing a lover back, going back home, or escaping constant oppression. Here, Hughes has expressed sorrow in the loss of a lover yet a glimpse of hope shines through with ‘I’ll cast my blues aside’ and then joy in the last stanza. Another poem of Hughes’s that has this same imagery is ‘Dream Boogie: Variation.’ 

Dream Boogie: Variation 

                             Tinkling treble,
                             Rolling bass,
                             High noon teeth
                             In a midnight face,
                             Great long fingers
                             On great big hands,
                             Screaming pedals
                             Where his twelve shoe lands,
                             Looks like his eyes
                             Are teasing pain,
                             A few minutes late
                             For the Freedom Train.

Here Hughes is making a wonderful analogy between the music made by the blues pianist and the ‘music’ that a steam train engine makes. 

The relationships between the men and women he encountered in Harlem also provided Hughes with a rich vein of human emotion and experience within which he wove his jazz and blues poems to good effect. These poems portray eternal scenes of love, betrayal, social upheaval and discrimination, together with alcohol, drugs, violence and even murder, all set against a background of pulsing jazz and blues music. Here’s an early Langston Hughes poem on these themes.

Street Life, Harlem (1939-40)   William H. Johnson

Workin’ Man 

                   I works all day
                   Wid a pick an’ a shovel,
                   Comes home at night, -
                   It ain’t nothin’ but a hovel. 

                   I calls for my woman
                   When I opens de door.
                   She’s out in de street, -
                   Ain’t nothin’ but a ‘hore. 

                   I does her good
                   An’ I treats her fine,
                   But she don’t gimme lovin’
                   Cause she ain’t de right kind. 

                   I’m a hard workin’ man
                   An’ I sho’ pays double
                   Cause I tries to be good
                   An’ gits nothin’ but trouble. 

Written in the first person, Hughes’s alter ego laments the life he is now living in a ‘hovel’, betrayed by his woman who he suspects of walking the streets as a prostitute. He ‘treats her fine’ but she doesn’t give him any warmth or love even though he works hard until he eventually ends up ‘payin’ double’ by trying to lead a good life but suffering the consequences of his own and his woman’s actions. 

Here’s another example, with this poem showing the much darker side of Hughes’s beloved Harlem. 

Death of Do Dirty 

                   O, you can’t find a buddy
                   Any old time
                   ‘Ll help you out
                   When you ain’t got a dime. 

                   He was a friend of mine. 

                   They called him Do Dirty
                   Cause he was black
                   An’ had cut his gal
                   An’ shot a man in de back. 

                   Ma friend o’ mine. 

                   But when I was hungry,
                   Had nothin’ to eat,
                   He bought me corn bread
                   An’ a stew o’ meat. 

                   Good friend o’ mine. 

                   An’ when de cops got me
                   An’ pout me in jail
                   If Dirty had de money
                   He’d go ma bail.                  

                   O, friend o’ mine. 

                   That night he got kilt
                   I was standin’ in de street,
                   Somebody comes by
                   An’ says yo’ boy is getting’ beat. 

                   Ma friend o’ mine. 

                   But when I got there
                   An’ seen de ambulance
                   A guy was sayin’
                   He ain’t got a chance. 

                   Best friend o’ mine. 

                   An’ de ones that kilt him, -
                   Damn their souls, -
                   I’m gonna fill ‘em up full o’
                   Bullet holes. 

                   Ma friend o’ mine. 

In this poem we can see that Langston Hughes has placed the deep bond of a valued friendship transcending any other action or virtue. Powerful emotions have been stirred and vengeance sworn in the last stanza as he cries out ‘damn their souls.’

Harlem Musicians (1937)    Elizabeth Olds 

It was the music and its consequences in Harlem that still inspired Langston Hughes the most. This next poem is a heart-rending blues that wouldn’t have sounded out of place accompanied by a jazz or blues band back then or even today. In those Harlem days, all the jazz bands played blues and the blues musicians often doubled as jazz players to earn more money. 

Young Gal’s Blues 

                   I’m gonna walk to the graveyard
                   ‘Hind ma friend Miss Cora Lee.
                   Gonna walk to the graveyard
                   ‘Hind ma dear friend Cora Lee
                   Cause when I’m dead some
                   Body’ll have to walk behind me.
                   I’m goin’ to the po’ house
                   To see ma old Aunt Clew,
                   Goin’ to the po’ house
                   To see ma old Aunt Clew,
                   When I’m old an’ ugly
                   I’ll want to see somebody, too. 

                   The po’ house is lonely
                   An’ the grave is cold.
                   O, the po’ house is lonely,
                   The graveyard grave is cold.
                   But I’d rather be dead than
                   To be ugly an’ old.                  

                   When love is gone what
                   Can a young gal do?
                   When love is gone, O,
                   What can a young gal do?
                   Keep on a-lovin’ me, daddy,
                   Cause I don’t want to be blue. 

This poem reminds me very much of those blues ballads sung by the great Bessie Smith and that’s how I hear it as I read. Bessie too was able to wring every ounce of emotion, pathos and even anger out of her blues. In this example, the young gal in Hughes’s poem bemoans her own future fate in the funeral procession of her friend, Miss Cora Lee and in the inescapable fact of growing ugly and old like her Aunt Clew, while attempting to prevent losing her daddy’s love because she doesn’t want to be blue.

Ray Smith
© Copyright 2010 Ray Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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