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

Part 3 

Another reason for Langston Hughes employing blues music in his poetry is because the ‘New Poetry’ movement working at the same time shared many similarities with the Harlem Renaissance poets and also with a group of poets called the Imagists which included Ezra Pound. The ‘New Poetry’ movement sought to humanize poetry by using fresher and more original language, while the Imagists in particular “sought to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not the metronome” (Tracy 219). Langston Hughes had been influenced by this movement that included music in its writing format. Vachel Lindsay, a poet of the Chicago Renaissance, was also very important in setting a poetic precedent for Hughes. He used music and dramatic performance to revive poetry within a Chicago movement that drew from Walt Whitman, a poet who sought to unshackle poetry from the iambic pentameter and who showed an interest in the common man in his poetry. The times were exactly right for him to use the blues.

The next poem I’ve chosen is written in what might be called a ‘Country Blues’ style.

Delta Blues poster 

Bound No’th Blues 

Goin’ down the road, Lawd,
Goin’ down the road.
Down the road, Lawd,
Way, way down the road.
Got to find somebody
To help me carry this load.
Road’s in front o’ me,
Nothin’ to do but walk.
Road’s in front of me,
Walk…an’ walk…an’ walk.
I’d like to meet a good friend
To come along an’ talk.

Hates to be lonely,
Lawd, I hates to be sad.
Says I hates to be lonely,
Hates to be lonely an’ sad,
But ever friend you finds seems
Like they try to do you bad.
Road, road, road, O!
Road, road…road…road, road!
Road, road, road, O!
On the no’thern road.
These Mississippi towns ain’t
Fit fer a hoppin’ toad.

We see here that this poem portrays the lonely journey from the laborious struggle of the South to the relatively affluent North by an African American searching for a better life, as sung by a blues singer. It’s a long, lonely road, he’s saying. All you need is someone to talk to on the way and to help bear the load. He’s also wary or superstitious about his friends who may do him harm. Superstition also comes up as a theme in Hughes’s Bad Luck Card, Gal’s Cry, For a Dying Lover and Blues on a Box.

Blues on a Box 

                        Play your guitar, boy,
                        Till yesterday’s
                        Black cat
                        Runs out tomorrow’s
                        Back door
                        And evil old
                        Hard luck
                        Ain’t no more!

Mini-poster, Octagon Theatre, Bolton 2005

Moving up the Mississippi river from the southern states, many blues and jazz musicians ended up in Chicago. The Blues went electric in Chicago, with a lot of people attributing that fact to McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters after he moved from Dockery’s Plantation in the Delta state of Mississippi. Langston Hughes recognised that fact and wrote several poems for and about Chicago. Here’s one of my favourites.

Chicago Blues    (moral: go slow)

Chicago is a town
That sure do run on wheels.
Runs so fast you don’t know
How good the ground feels. 

I got in town on Monday
Tuesday rolling drunk
Wednesday morning
I pawned my trunk. 

Thursday morning
Cutting aces high
My stock went up
Head in the sky. 

Friday riding
In a Cadillac,
She said, Daddy, you can ride
Long as you stay black. 

Saturday I said, Baby,
You been good to me –
But I’m no one woman man,
I need two or three. 

Sunday I was living
In a ten room flat
Monday I was back
Where I started at. 

Chicago is a town
That sure do run on wheels.
Runs so fast you don’t know
How good the ground feels.

Here we experience the country boy’s wide-eyed introduction into the big city and its big city ways. This must have been a common occurrence with the many new arrivals from the South until they eventually settled in with their friends and relatives. Chicago was also a very important meat processing centre and many jazz and blues musicians worked in that industry. Howling Wolf (real name Chester Arthur Burnett) worked in that industry on the ‘Killing Floor’ where the animals were slaughtered and later, after signing to Chess Records, he gave that name to a song he wrote and recorded.  

Langston Hughes met Charlotte Mason in 1927, a wealthy aged widow who became his patron for the next three years. In the summer, Hughes visited the South and travelled there for some time with Zora Neale Hurston, who is also taken up by Mrs Mason. Urged on by his patron (who insisted on being known as ‘Godmother’), Hughes completed his first novel in 1929. Funded by Mrs Mason, he visited Cuba and met many writers and artists there. His blues poems influence one poet, Nicolás Guillén, to write Motivos de Son, which were lauded as the first ‘Negro’ poetry in Cuba.

In his writings on all aspects of Black America, Langston Hughes left no stone unturned in his portrayal of their culture. Rent parties were a hugely popular way of socialising while at the same time raising the money to pay the landlord –hence the name. Here’s one from Hughes on the subject.

Film poster from 1946

Rent-Party Shout: For a Lady Dancer 

            Whip it to a jelly!
            Too bad Jim!
            Mamie’s got ma man –
            An’ I can’t find him.
            Shake that thing! O!
            Shake it slow!
            That man I love is
            Mean an’ low.
            Pistol an’ razor!
            Razor an’ gun!
            If I sees ma man he’d
            Better run –
            For I’ll shoot him in de shoulder,
            Else I’ll cut him down,
            Cause I knows I can find him
            When he’s in de ground –
            Then can’t no other women
            Have him layin’ round.
            So play it, Mr Nappy!
            Yo’ music’s fine!
            I’m gonna kill that
            Man o’ mine!

In this poem Hughes touches on the constant dangers of these rent parties, where loud, hot music gets the attendees dancing, all stoked up with strong drink and probably drugs too. And with that perennial combination of ingredients, the inevitable always happens. Jealousies, rage and fights break out and sometimes even murder.

The social conditions in which the black community lived gave birth to a structure in which all women had a protector, and not necessarily a husband or boyfriend. But whoever the protector was, he went under the name of ‘Daddy’. It survives to this day in the soubriquet of ‘Sugar Daddy’. Here’s another Harlem period poem from Hughes, again told from the woman’s point of view. 

Hard Daddy 

            I went to ma daddy,
            Says Daddy I have got the blues,
            Went to my daddy,
            Says Daddy I have got the blues,
            Ma daddy says, Honey,
            Can’t you bring no better news? 

            I cried on his shoulder but
            He turned his back on me.
            Cried on his shoulder but
            He turned his back on me.
            He said a woman’s cryin’s
            Never gonna bother me. 

            I wish I had wings to
            Fly like the eagle flies.
            Wish I had wings to
            Fly like the eagle flies.
            I’d fly on ma man an’
            I’d scratch out both his eyes.

We can see here and pretty much feel the emotional response evoked by this woman’s ‘Hard Daddy’. This kind of scenario must have been a familiar sight in black communities throughout the country. One of the basic themes in the Blues and Langston Hughes has used the classic 12 bar format with the two repeated lines and a third line reprise to tell us an emotional drama.

Louis Armstrong.
Ink and coloured pencils by Ray Smith 1999

Here’s a wonderful Langston Hughes poem about a trumpet player in a typical Harlem club of the time. 

Trumpet Player 

                        The Negro
                        With the trumpet at his lips
                        Has dark moons of weariness
                        Beneath his eyes
                        Where the smoldering memory
                        Of slave ships
                        Blazed to the crack of whips
                        About his thighs. 

                        The Negro
                        With the trumpet at his lips
                        Has a head of vibrant hair
                        Tamed down,
                        Patent-leathered now
                        Until it gleams
                        Like jet –
                        Were jet a crown.

                        The music
                        From the trumpet at his lips
                        Is honey
                        Mixed with liquid fire.
                        The rhythm
                        From the trumpet at his lips
                        Is ecstasy
                        Distilled from old desire- 

                        That is longing for the moon
                        Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
                        In his eyes,
                        That is longing for the sea
                        Where the sea’s bar-glass
                        Sucker size. 

                        The Negro
                        With the trumpet at his lips
                        Whose jacket
                        Has a fine one-button roll,
                        Does not know
                        Upon what riff the music slips
                        Its hypodermic needle
                        To his soul – 

                        But softly
                        As the time comes from his throat
                        Mellows to a golden note. 

In this piece of word magic, Langston Hughes touches on the very being of a jazz and blues musician of the time. Jazz and blues music was developed on a set of chords or riffs of an original tune and these became the building blocks for the musicians. The best of the best were the ones who could endlessly improvise over a set of chords of the tune. The trumpet player portrayed here by Hughes is lost within the music that he makes and transcends the present to play, quite literally, the ‘music of the gods’. 

Langston Hughes translated the music, art, language and life of the black community as being the very life blood and soul of his beloved Harlem. He revelled in the night life and was continually inspired to write. Here are two examples from that club scene he loved so much.

Palmer Hayden undated

Juke Box Love Song 

            I could take the Harlem night
            and wrap around you,
            Take the neon lights and make a crown,
            Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
            Taxis, subways,
            And for your love song tone their rumble down.
            Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
            Make a drumbeat,
            Put it on a record, let it whirl,
            And while we listen to it play,
            Dance with you till day –
            Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl. 

Easy Boogie 

            Dance in the bass
            That steady beat
            Walking walking walking
            Like marching feet. 

            Down in the bass
            That easy roll,
            Rolling like I like it
            In my soul. 

            Riffs, smears, breaks.

            Hey, Lawdy, Mama!
            Do you hear what I said?
            Easy like I rock it
            In my bed. 

We see here in the first example the narrator wishing he could wrap all the colourful sights and sounds of Harlem around his girl, transfer them to a record on the juke box and then lose them both in their own very special dance. In other words, he wants them both to live and breathe and be the very essence of this night time Harlem he evokes so well. 

The second poem celebrates the work and music of the bass player. Often overlooked in favour of the front men with their showmanship and prowess on their chosen instrument, nevertheless the bass player along with the drummer and banjo or guitar player, were the essential engine room of every band. They were known as the rhythm section and indeed their job was to hold down that rhythm and keep the correct time signature. Hughes sees this in the first stanza with his ‘         steady beat, walking walking walking, like marching feet.’ In the second stanza he starts to feel the bass getting right inside him ‘rolling like I like it, in my soul’, then in the third and last stanza he makes a sexual innuendo with the rolling bass.

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

Click here for Part 4

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