According to the writer Ralph Ellison, the Blues is an “impulse to keep painful detail and episodes of a brutal existence alive in one’s aching consciousness” with the goal of “[transcending] it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism (qtd. from Blues 85).” The Blues are typically identified from the usual form of American music in that it employs a distinctive percussive beat replete with repetition, as opposed to the mellifluous tones and smooth vocals utilized by their white counterparts.
Langston Hughes’ celebrated poem, “The Weary Blues,” encapsulates this sentiment by depicting an evening of a Blues performance in Harlem. It offers a look into the other side of the fence, the side where the Blues singer sways “to and fro on his rickety stool,” the side where klieg lights and big paychecks are non-existent. Yet, though the performance lacks the glitz and glamour of fame, it is nevertheless as hypnotic and as stirring as one performed on the big stages.
The work as a whole is reminiscent of the same patterns of Blues music. There is the repetition of the lines, “He did a lazy way…,” which imitates the same pattern used by typical Blues music, a repetition of two lines followed by a third line that comments on the first two. There is also the reference to “crooning,” a style of singing that lends itself naturally to the Blues. Even the jagged structure of the words, with the accents being likened to beats, contributes to the poem’s Blue-sy feel. And though the musician is playing his piece on the distinctly-American piano, his playing radically transforms this instrument into an extension of his own blues: “With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody (own emphasis).” Finally, the gloomy mood of the whole poem is one indicative of the Blues: the playing of the “sad raggy tune,” the “deep song voice with a melancholy tone,” and “the old piano [moaning].” Through these present elements, “The Weary Blues” is able to evoke the very same emotions that true Blues music brings to its listeners.
In this poem, the relationship established between the singer and the listener/audience is unmistakable:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
In these lines, it is not made clear by Hughes who is droning or who is rocking. Yet, the answer is not as important as the implication of the lines – that the ambiguity presented implies that both Negro and “I” are connected. Music has this ability to connect together disparate individuals, ensuring that the musician is never alone when he is playing: the listener is always an active participant.
The end of the poem also echoes this same undeniable relation between musician and listener:
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
The listener is fascinated enough with the musician that he/she follows him home, looking on as he sleeps, and knowing even what goes on inside his head. It implies that the connection, once established, is hard to cut. The singer continues singing to him, though perhaps it is his soul that is now vibrating with the player’s song.
By intersecting the Blues tradition with poetry, Hughes is able to delineate the fundamental relation between music and poetry: that both are permeated by a lyricism that resonates both in the writer/musician and the listener/reader.