IV. The Blues Tradition
Langston Hughes owed much to Dunbar, but he also drew upon jazz and blues as primary resources for most of his poetry, making excellent usage of blues structure, themes and visceral imagery. There are many different types of blues styles attributed to geographical locations and historical time periods. Researchers have determined that decided differences in environments have resulted in variances in style and mood. Blues researcher Sam Charters has pointed out that in rural, less populous Black areas like Texas allowed traditional elements like slave and work songs to be incorporated in songs sung by local blues performers. In this manner, all blues styles were based on the time, location, environment and the interaction of elements in that environment. As we examine the influence of the blues tradition on Hughes’s work, we will consider the types of blues that Hughes encountered in the various environments in which he lived, keeping In mind that his styles were often in transitional phases.
Hughes’s earliest musical Influences were likely to have occurred in his Lawrence, Kansas childhood days between 1902 and 1915. The songs in this area were strongly influenced by slave and field hollering songs. His next blues influence probably occurred in Harlem between 1922 and 1923 while he was attending Columbia University. Hughes was strongly drawn towards the vaudeville blues singers, especially female blues singers such as Mamie Smith, Ethyl Waters, and Bessie Smith. Hughes also named other sources for his knowledge of the blues in his first autobiography The Big Sea. He also credited famous blues performers like Leadbelly and The Delta Singers, both in person and on records.
Zora Neale Hurston was probably Hughes’s closest friend, a fellow writer who possessed a broad knowledge of black folklore. Hughes felt that Hurston was the most amusing of all Harlem Renaissance artists, due probably in no small part to her folk-knowledge and mother-wit. The close contact with these people and the knowledge of the work of the Lomaxes and John Wonk provided additional blues material for Hughes.”
As a result of these sources and prevailing attitudes, Hughes created his own blues poetry, drawing heavily on oral tradition for his structure, themes and imagery. Hughes carefully imitated various existing blues forms in his poems to render them in such a way as to identify with rhythms of typical blues songs of that period. Structurally, the traditional blues format was In stanza form with the same thought repeated three times, or - the more common pattern - with the first thought repeated twice, with the last word of the previous lines rhyming with the last word of the last line. The chord structure characteristically lasted twelve bars, performed in the key of C, and used three chords. These chords were C, F and G. Hughes attempted to capture the beat and rhythm of blues songs in his poetry.
“The Weary Blues” was a Langston Hughes poem that appeared to be influenced by vaudeville lyrics. In the poem, Hughes narrated the story of a Harlem pianist. Structurally, the poem had twelve-bar stanzas; the theme was based on a blues tradition, and rhymed couplets separated by refrains appeared throughout the poem. However, it was not the singer who described why he or she was blue, but it was the poet who was hearing the singer and trying to understand what the “Weary Blues” were and what they meant.In his poem, Hughes was not rooted in the experience, but rather he is an outside analytic voice striving to identify with the “Sweet Blues coming back from a black man’s soul!” One night in March, 1923, after a visit to a Harlem cabaret, Hughes wrote himself into the poem as follows:
Droning a drowsy, syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull parlor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
In this beautiful poem, Hughes delineates a distance between the narrator of a poem and the bluesman playing as if to make known to the world the distance between the poet and “his people”. Not having been born in the South or having relations who were slaves, Hughes often considered himself an outsider when writing about slave experiences. He was a poet who was not exactly Rooted in the experience”.
Poems like “The Weary Bluest are most successful because they transcend the absence of actual music by capturing the spirit of the blues song in its cadence of lines, and extend the limits of oral tradition by changing or modifying the existing structures or themes of the blues. The range of Langston Hughes’s knowledge of the blues tradition and his attempts to utilize aspects of the oral blues tradition in his work demonstrate his creative genius in recognizing the blues as a truly great folk art itself.