Langston Hughes and the Blues.

Langston Hughes and the Blues.

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The Weary Blues is the title poem of Langston Hughes’ first published collection of poetry from 1926.

Hughes was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that emerged in New York after World War One.

Hughes immersed himself in the shady nightlife of the era which was centered around Lennox Avenue in Harlem. This was the height of Prohibition and the Depression. White folks traveled to Harlem ostensibly to hear authentic African American music, but in reality they came as tourists, to hang out in the environs of bootleggers and poor folks, and had little real interest in African American culture.

The major venue in Lennox Avenue was the Cotton Club, which featured African American performers, but African American were not admitted as patrons, hence the ‘real’ music, and the real culture migrated away from the big tourist venues and into small dive bars like the one Hughes writes about.

Syncopation is a feature of both Blues and Jazz music, and refers to the technique of intermittently ‘swinging’ off the beat.

A solid rhythm is established by the bass and drums, while the solo instruments like the trumpet, sax, or guitar, stress notes that are a little ahead or behind the beat.

The musician in Hughes’ poem is a solo pianist. He would have laid down a strong rhythm with his left hand on the bass notes, and syncopated with his right hand and his vocals.

Crooning means to sing in a soft humming manner. In later years the the use of the microphone meant that one vocalist could sing softly and still be audible over an entire orchestra playing at full volume, but the microphone would not have been in common use in Harlem in the 1920s, so in this case it refers to the pianist allowing the somewhat independent melodies of his right hand, left hand, and vocals to weave in and out one another in a magical blend.

In the poem Hughes weaves the performer’s lyrics in and out of the narrative.

The Weary Blues was the title of a popular blues song by Artie Matthews, and Langston Hughes may have taken his own title from the Matthews song, although Hughes’ blues musician isn’t singing the Matthews song.

This is the Weary Blues by Artie Matthews.

Well, I know that things won’t be the same
And I know that you’re the one to blame
When you broke my heart and made me cry
I am gonna bid my weary blues goodbye

Weary blues have made me cry
Well, these weary blues I’m gonna bid goodbye
I know, I won’t forget you but I’ll try
You know I am gonna bid my weary blues goodbye

Well, I know that things won’t be the same
And I know that you’re the one to blame
When you broke my heart and made me cry
I am gonna bid my weary blues goodbye

Weary blues have made me cry
Well, these weary blues I am gonna bid goodbye
I know, I won’t forget you but I’ll try
I am gonna bid my weary blues goodbye
I am gonna bid my weary blues goodbye 

How to Write a Blues Song.

Traditionally, Blues performers would improvise, which means they would make up the song while they were actually performing it. Consequently, vocalists would repeat the first line of each verse in order to give themselves time to think up a rhyming third line.

You can see this happening in Hughes’ poem:

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

This also brings up a difference between poetry and song.

Notice the meter here is very loose, and this would be because the rhythm would be established by the pianist’s left hand playing the bass notes, so there would be no need for an established meter in the lyrics.

In fact, it might be better not to have a meter in lyrics as this would give greater scope for syncopation.

Most of the folks who travelled uptown in the 1920’s to rub shoulders with African American artists (albeit from a distance) believed that syncopation and improvisation showed lack of expertise on behalf of the musicians.

In fact the opposite is true. Syncopation and Improvisation require immense technical musical knowledge, and virtuoso performing skills. These features reached their pinnacle in the BeBop jazz movement in the post World War Two era, and particularly in the music of Charlie Parker.

Blues songs loosely follow the pattern of ballads.

A ballad has a four line verse following this sequence:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3…

(and) 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3…

The paired syllables can either be iambs (with the stress on the even syllables) or spondees (with the stress on the odd syllables).

The caesura at the end of line 2 tends to bring in the first syllable of line 3 just ahead of the beat. Try reading the above sequence and see how it works. See how the “(and)” at the start of line is kind of squeezed in.

That is syncopation.

What to write about:

If the narrator of a confessional poem tends to be an anti-hero, turning his blame inwards, then the narrator of a blues tends to be more heroic, struggling against real, external problems like poverty, lost love, hunger, homelessness, the need to move on, violence, crime, overwork, and weariness with life.

Which is not to say that a blues can’t be confessional, and the songs often tell of characters who make matters worse for themselves with their own self-destructive tendencies.

It might be a broad generalization, but we could say that Jazz is about instrumental performance––even if the instrument is the human voice. When the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald sings ‘Polka-dots and Moonbeams’ we have no interest whatsoever in the lyrics, but every interest in the way she sings them.

Conversely Blues is about the narrative of the song, even if the narrative is suggested by the instrumental notes of a piano:

As Hughes tells us:

“He made that poor piano moan with melody…”

It’s as if the piano itself is singing.

Or as Tom Waits sings:

The piano has been drinking; not me.

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Robert Johnson.

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson had a tremendous desire to become a great blues musician. He was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was a deal with the devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.

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