Blues Poetry – Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes

The Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes 

A Personal Appreciation By Ray Smith


I first came across the work of the American poet Langston Hughes by complete accident around about 1994. Although I’ve been a poet myself since my primary school days and a reader and collector of poetry books old and new for all of my life, I had never come across any of his work nor read his books or even heard any mention of his name. It turned out to be the best accident of my life.

I’m also an artist and it was around this same time that I was experimenting with paper collage as a medium. I’d produced one picture of jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday and also one of the ‘New Orleans Street Parade’ which always heralds the start of the Marsden Jazz Festival weekend in October each year. These collages are typically made from a mixture of photographs I’ve taken myself plus bits of leaflets and most of all, pieces of torn paper pages from the colour supplements. The finished work is sometimes augmented or embellished with ink, acrylic, watercolour or some other medium for effect.

At that time, I had all my friends and neighbours saving their weekend supplements for me and it was while I was leafing through a fresh batch of these colour supplements for suitable material that I came across a book review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. It opened my eyes and mind to his poetry and I resolved to track down his work in the second hand book shops. This was to prove a very difficult task as his books seemed non-existent and very hard to come by, but I eventually succeeded with one volume. This was just before the internet revolutionised the way we can all now research and obtain information and it’s much easier nowadays, of course, with almost all of his poetry and work being freely available online, together with his complete life story.

I went on to produce a collage that I titled ‘Night Time in Harlem’ which I then used to illustrate Langston Hughes’s poem ‘Harlem Night Club.’ I’ve since continued to use this device of illustrating poems of my own as well as other writers, along with the reverse action of writing a poem for and about a certain picture. Not all of these collages or paintings of mine are on the subject of Blues and Jazz, but I’ll illustrate some of Hughes’s poems with my own artwork and photographs as well as other selected material.

Note: this is a personal appreciation of the Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes including a brief biography for the general reader and therefore not a subjective appraisal of all his other work. I’ve listed his output for those who want to follow up his other fiction, plays, etc. and listed all my sources for this article.

Part 1 

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1st 1902 in Joplin Missouri. He was the great-great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, whose brother John Mercer Langston was the first Black American to be elected to public office. His parents divorced while he was still a small child and his mother took him to Lawrence, Kansas, where she’d grown up, while his father moved to Cuba and then Mexico. Langston and his mother start living in a state of poverty at the home of her mother, Mary Langston.

In 1907, following an attempted reconciliation in Mexico, Langston and his mother return to Lawrence. In the frequent absence of his mother, who was constantly moving around looking for work, he was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her new husband. The family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio, but it was in Lincoln that he started to write poetry. After graduation from Cleveland’s Central High School, he spent a year in Mexico with his father and a year at Columbia University. In fact, his tuition fees at Columbia were paid on the grounds that he studied engineering. After a while he dropped out of the degree course but continued to write poetry.

Langston Hughes’s first published poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, was in a 1921 issue of The Crisis magazine. This was to become one of his most famous poems, later appearing in Brownie’s Book and he included it in his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen it’s muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

In The Big Sea, the first volume of Hughes’s autobiography published in 1940, he describes the composition of this poem. “Now it was just sunset and we crossed the Mississippi, slowly, over a long bridge. I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think about what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past – how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage . . .Then I began to think about other rivers in our past – the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa – and the thought came to me: ‘I’ve known rivers,’ and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, which I called ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ ”

From 1922 until 1924 he held various jobs to in order feed and clothe himself. During these years he worked as an assistant cook, in a steam laundry and as a busboy. He was also a delivery boy for a florist and worked for a time on a vegetable farm on Staten Island. He was writing all the time and Langston’s father tried to discourage him from pursuing this career in favour of something ‘more practical.’

Langston Hughes in 1923

After visiting a Harlem cabaret in 1923, he wrote what is probably known as his most famous poem, ‘The Weary Blues’ and later that year he signed on as a seaman on a steamship trading up and down the west coast of Africa. He visited various ports in Senegal, the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Nigeria, the Congo, and Portuguese West Africa (later Angola). He was writing all the time and absorbing all these influences, which would emerge, sometimes years later, in his work.

On a second voyage in 1924, this time to Europe, he jumped ship and settled in Paris. He worked for a few months in the kitchen of Le Grand Duc, a nightclub in Montmartre managed by an American and featuring jazz music. His poetry now starts to be influenced by jazz rhythms as well as the African music he absorbed on his visits there.

In November, 1924, Langston Hughes moved to Harlem, in New York. Whether abroad on his travels, or at home in the US, Hughes loved to sit in the clubs listening to blues, jazz and writing poetry. A ‘new rhythm’ started to emerge in his writing and upon moving to Washington, D.C. in 1925, his time spent in blues and jazz clubs increased even further.

“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street . . .

(these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep going.”

At the same time, Hughes accepted a job with Dr Carter G. Woodson, editor of the Journal of Negro Life and History and later the founder of Black History Week in 1926. He returned to his beloved Harlem later that year, during a period that was often referred to as the ‘Harlem Renaissance.’ It was also in 1926 that his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues was published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Front cover of the 1926 edition

The Weary Blues

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 pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
“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.”
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.

Here we can see that Hughes is describing an evening of listening to a blues pianist and singer in Harlem. With its diction, its repetition of lines and the inclusion of blues lyrics, the poem evokes the mournful tone and tempo of blues music and gives its reader an insight into the mind of the blues musician in the poem. He employed the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues that he heard in the country, the city, the field, the alley and the stage. When he used the musical structures of the blues to write his poetry he most often relied on the twelve-bar blues which is the predominant structure, though there are others that predate, coexist with, or derive from it. These are often called blues in the classic form and about half of his blues poems fit this structure.

From its roots in the rural South, the country blues moved to the city and took Langston Hughes with it. Rural jazz and blues musicians were travelling up the Mississippi to the cities along its banks for work and taking the music with them. He remembered hearing the blues performed for the first time when he was about six years old in Kansas City while living with his grandmother. Besides having both a love of this music and the common black folk it was created by and for, one of the reasons that Hughes began to draw on the blues tradition for writing his poetry is that he hoped to capitalize on the blues and jazz craze. Though the markets for music and poetry were quite different, he thought he could somehow merge the two.

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.

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.

Part 4

In 1930, funded by Mrs Mason, Langston Hughes went to Cuba and met many writers and artists there. His blues poems influenced one poet, Nicolás Guillén, to write ‘Motivos de Son’ (1930), hailed as the first ‘Negro’ poems in Cuba. Here are two poems from that period.

Cabaret in the 1930s.

Black Dancers

Who have nothing to lose
Must sing and dance
Before the riches
Of the world

Who have nothing to lose
Must laugh and dance
Lest our laughter
Goes from

Hughes has touched here upon the everlasting soul and dilemma of the professional entertainer. Whatever personal tragedy may have occurred in their life, the show must go on with a smile and a professional performance. Only backstage when the show is over will that sorrow be finally shown.

Havana Dreams

The dream is a cocktail at Sloppy Joe’s –
(Maybe – nobody knows.)

The dream is the road to Batabano.
(But nobody knows if that is so.)

Perhaps the dream is only her face –
Perhaps it’s a fan of silver lace –
Or maybe the dream’s a Vedado rose –
(Quien sabe? Who really knows?)

Langston Hughes choice of words in this dream poem is tremendously lyrical. They flow just as much as the dream he’s describing and fit to perfection the images he creates.

Also in 1930, Langston Hughes’s first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy whose family must deal with a variety of struggles imposed upon them due to their race and class in society in addition to relating to one another. Hughes’s first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. These stories provided a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. Overall, these stories are marked by a general pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.

Front cover 1934 edition

Following the death of his father, Hughes travelled to Mexico late in 1934. He stayed for six months translating short stories by various young Mexican writers, as well as continually writing himself. This is one from that time.

Mexican Market Woman

This ancient hag
Who sits upon the ground
Selling her scanty wares
Day in, day round,
Has known high wind-swept mountains,
And the sun has made
Her skin so brown.

This is a fine piece of observational writing that tells a story in just seven short lines and creates wonderful sun-baked images.

By 1936, Hughes was back in New York after his play ‘Mulatto’ opened on Broadway. He continued to travel around the country, basing his poetry and stories on observations as he went.

Share-croppers 1940s


Just a herd of Negroes
Driven to the field,
Plowing, planting, hoeing,
To make the cotton yield.

When the cotton’s picked
And the work is done
Boss man takes the money
And we get none,

Leaves us hungry, ragged
As we were before.
Year by year goes by
And we are nothing more

Than a herd of Negroes
Driven to the field –
Plowing life away
To make the cotton yield.

Hughes in this poem highlights the lot of the black share-croppers but many poor white families were involved in this trade too. It was a widespread practice throughout the southern states of America and he describes it perfectly.

Langston Hughes travelled to Europe in 1937 to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore ‘Afro-American’ and other black newspapers. He addressed the Writers’ Congress in Paris, representing the League of American Writers and was later trapped for three months in the besieged city of Madrid. He returned to the U.S. early in 1938 and founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre whose first production was his play ‘Don’t You Want To Be Free?’ which ran for thirty-eight performances. Here’s one of the longest poems by Langston Hughes, written back in his beloved Harlem.

Nightclub Singer and Pianist

Death in Harlem

Arabella Johnson and the Texas Kid
Went bustin into Dixie’s bout one a. m.
The night was young –
But for a wise night-bird
The pickin’s weren’t bad on a 133rd.
The pickin’s weren’t bad –
His roll wasn’t slim –
And Arabella Johnson had her
Hands on him.

At a big piano a little dark girl
Was playin jazz for a midnight world.
Whip it, Miss Lucy!
Aw, pick that rag!
The Texas Kid’s on a
High-steppin jag.
A dumb little jigaboo from
Somewhere South.
A row of gold in his upper mouth.
A roll of bills in his left-hand pocket.
Do it Arabella!
Honey baby, sock it!

Dancin close, and dancin sweet
Down in a cellar back from the street,
In Dixie’s place on 133rd
When the night is young –
For an old night-bird.
Aw, pick it, Miss Lucy!
Jazz it slow!
It’s good like that when you
Bass so low!

Folks at the tables drink and grin.
(Dixie makes his money on two-bit gin.)
Couples on the floor rock and shake.
(Dixie rents rooms at a buck a break.)
Loungers at the bar laugh out loud.
Everybody’s happy. It’s a spendin crowd –
Big time sports and girls who know
Dixie’s ain’t no place for a gang that’s slow.
Rock it, Arabella,
Babe, you sho can go!
She says to the waiter,
Gin rickeys for two.
Says to Texas,
How’d a dance strike you?
Says to Lucy,
Play a long time, gal!
Says to the world,
Here’s my sugar-daddy pal.
Whispers to Texas,
Boy, you’re sweet!
She gurgles to Texas,
What you like to eat?
Spaghetti and gin, music and smoke,
And a woman cross the table when a man ain’t broke –
When a man’s won a fight in a big man’s town –
Aw, plunk it, Miss Lucy,
Cause we dancin down!
A party of whites from Fifth Avenue
Came tippin into Dixie’s to get a view.
Came tippin into Dixie’s with smiles on their faces,
Knowin they can buy a dozen colored faces,
Dixie grinned. Dixie bowed.
Dixie rubbed his hands and laughed out loud –
While a tall white woman
In an ermine cape
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of rape,
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of a rope,
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of flame,
And thought of something
Without a name.
Aw, play it, Miss Lucy!
Ain’t you shame?
Lucy was a-bassin it, boom, boom, boom,
When Arabella went to the LADIES’ ROOM.
She left the Texas Kid settin by himself
All unsuspecting of the chippie on his left –
Her name was Bessie. She was brown and bold.
And she sat on her chair like a sweet jelly roll.
She cast her eyes on Texas, hollered,
Listen, boy,
While the music’s playin let’s
Spread some joy!

Now, Texas was a lover.
Bessie was, too.
They loved one another till
The music got through.
While Miss Lucy played it, boom, boom, boom,
And Arabella was busy in the LADIES’ ROOM.
When she come out
She looked across the place –
And there was Bessie
Settin in her place!
(It was just as if somebody
Kicked her in the face.)

Arabella drew her pistol.
She uttered a cry,
Everybody dodged as
A ball passed by.
A shot rang out.
Bessie pulled a knife,
But Arabella had her gun.
Stand back folkses, let us
Have our fun.
And a shot rang out.
Some began to tremble and
Some began to scream.
Bessie stared at Bella
Like a woman in a dream
As the shots rang out.
A white lady fainted.
A black woman cried.
But Bessie took a bullet to her
Heart and died.
As the shots rang out.
A whole slew of people
Went rushin for the door
And left poor Bessie bleedin
In that cellar on the floor
When the shots rang out.
Then the place was empty,
No music didn’t play,
And whoever loved Bessie was
Far away.
Take me,
Jesus, take me
Home today!

Oh, they nabbed Arabella
And drove her off to jail
Just as the sky in the
East turned pale
And night like a reefer-man
Slipped away
And the sun came up and
It was day –
But the Texas Kid,
With lovin in his head,
Picked up another woman and
Went to bed.

Hughes here describes a typical Harlem nightclub scene with frightening accuracy, possibly from witnessing something similar at first hand. There were certainly gangsters involved in the club scene, both black and white, and similar acts of violence must have been almost a nightly occurrence. Hughes also describes a party of affluent white people visiting the club to ‘get a view’ and portrays a ‘tall white woman in an ermine cape’ displaying the stereotypical prejudices that were common at that time. And all through the story Miss Lucy is exhorted to pound out the music on the piano until finally when dawn breaks after all the mess, the Texas Kid ‘with lovin in his head’, cynically ‘picked up another woman . . . and went to bed.’

In 1939 Hughes went to Los Angeles and together with actor-singer Clarence Muse, wrote the script of the motion picture Way Down South, a vehicle for the boy singer Bobby Breen. The film had lots of musicians both black and white but to his dismay, progressive critics accuse Hughes of selling out to Hollywood. However, he manages to clear various debts and to work on his autobiography as well as his poetry.

Bix Beiderbecke
Chalk pastels by Ray Smith 1999

Hey-Hey Blues

I can HEY on water
Same as I can HEY-HEY on beer.
HEY on water
Same as I can HEY-HEY on beer.
But if you gimme good corn whisky
I can HEY-HEY-HEY – and cheer!

If you can whip de blues, boy
Then whip ‘em all night long.
Boy, if you can whip de blues,
Then whip ‘em all night long.
Just play ‘em, perfesser,
Till you don’t know right from wrong.

While you play ‘em,
I will sing ‘em too.
And while you play ‘em,
I’ll sing ‘em too.
I don’t care how you play ‘em
I’ll keep right up with you.

Cause I can HEY on water,
I said HEY-HEY on beer –
HEY on water
And HEY-HEY on beer –
But gimme good corn whisky
And I’ll HEY-HEY-HEY – and cheer!


Hughes here has the singer praising the effect that good corn whisky has on his vocal chords while acknowledging the ‘perfesser’ as a talented musician. The same effect works with today’s alcohol and pub singers!

Here’s another poem by Langston Hughes that makes an analogy between a train’s motion and making love.

Six-Bits Blues

Gimme six-bits’ worth o’ ticket
On a train that runs somewhere.
I say six-bits’ worth o’ ticket
On a train that runs somewhere.
I don’t care where it’s goin’
Just so it goes away from here.

Baby, gimme a little lovin’
But don’t make it too long.
A little lovin’, babe, but
Don’t make it too long.
Make it short and sweet, your lovin’,
So I can roll along.

I got to roll along!

And in this next poem, Hughes laments the mixed emotions that love can bring.

Love Again Blues

My life ain’t nothin’
But a lot o’ Gawd-knows-what.
I say my life ain’t nothin’
But a lot o’ Gawd-knows-what.
Just one thing after ‘nother
Added to de trouble that I got.

When I got you I
Thought I had an angel-chile.
When I got you
I thought I had an angel-chile.
You turned out to be a devil
That mighty nigh on drove me wild!

Tell me, tell me,
What makes love such an ache and pain?
Tell me what makes
Love such an ache and pain?
It takes you and it breaks you –
But you got to love again.

In 1940, Hughes spent several months in Chicago working on a musical review for the Negro exposition but was poorly paid and his scripts ignored. His autobiography, The Big Sea, is published to mixed reviews and is in three sections that take him from his childhood to the age of twenty-nine.

After two years spent mainly in California, Langston Hughes returned to New York. On behalf of the war effort, He worked on various projects for the Office of Civil Defence and, later, the Writers’ War Committee. He devoted much of his time to writing song lyrics but also wrote ‘Stalingrad: 1942,’ a militant poem inspired by the Soviet defence of the besieged city. In November of that year, Hughes started a weekly column ‘Here to Yonder’ in the Chicago Defender newspaper.

Here’s two poems on one of the eternal Blues themes of love and women.

In a Troubled Key

Do not sell me out, baby,
Please do not sell me out.
Do not sell me out, baby,
Do not sell me out.
I used to believe in you, baby,
Now I begins to doubt.

Still I can’t help lovin’ you,
Even though you do me wrong.
Says I can’t help lovin’ you
Though you do me wrong –
But my love might turn into a knife
Instead of to a song.

In this first example, Hughes has crafted a classic 12 bar blues on the doubt that’s creeping into the narrator’s mind after he can’t help loving her ‘even though you do me wrong.’ The doubt turns into a threat in the second verse with the last two lines of the stanza and, although said in a friendly way, the threat of the knife is still there. This would be a great slow acoustic slide guitar number and I’ve already tried it out myself with a tune I’ve put to these words.

Only Woman Blues

I want to tell you ‘bout that woman,
My used-to-be –
She was de meanest woman
I ever did see.
But she’s de only
Woman that could mistreat me!

She could make me holler like a sissie,
Bark like a dog.
She could chase me up a tree
And then cut down de log –
Cause she’s de only
Woman that could mistreat me.

She had long black hair,
Big black eyes,
Glory! Hallelujah!
Forgive them lies!
She’s de only
Woman’s gonna mistreat me.

I got het in Mississippi.
Took her to Alabam’.
When she left
I said, Go, hot damn!
You de last and only
Woman’s gonna mistreat me.

In this second example, the narrator describes his ‘used-to-be’ and bemoans his fate at the things she did to mistreat him so. Although he is in praise of her long, black hair and big black eyes with a ‘Glory! Hallelujah!’, by the last verse he’s glad to see the back of her when she leaves him, saying (and you can imagine this with a grateful sigh): ‘Go, hot damn! You de last and only Woman’s gonna mistreat me.’

Through the black publication Chicago Defender, Hughes in 1943 created Jesse B. Semple, often referred to and spelled Simple. This character was based on many conversations in a Harlem bar with a man he knew, and My Simple Minded Friend became a series of essays in the form of a dialogue throughout the 1940s. (In 1950, he authored a series of books on him).

Front cover 1961 edition

Here’s a poem touching on two more of the classic Blues themes of drinking and the supernatural.

Crowing Hen Blues

I was sitting on the hen-house steps
When the hen begins to crow.
Sitting on the hen-house steps
When the hen begins to crow.
I ain’t gonna set on
Them hen-house steps no mo’!

I had a cat I called him
Battling Tom McCann.
Had a black cat, I called him
Battling Tom McCann.
Last night that cat riz up and
Started talking like a man.

I said to baby,
Baby, what do you hear?
I said, Baby,
What on earth do you hear?
Baby said, I don’t hear nothin’
But your drunken snorin’, dear.

Ummmm-mmm-m-huh! I wish that
Domineck hen wouldn’t crow!
Oh-ooo-oo-o, Lawd! Nor that
Black cat talk no mo’!
But, woman, if you don’t like it,
Find someplace else to sleep and snore –
Cause I’m gonna drink my licker
Till they burn the licker store.

Maybe the supernatural element in this poem is due to the narrator’s drinking! It’s certainly an explanation for his black cat having ‘riz up and . . . Started talking like a man.’ His woman certainly couldn’t here anything apart from his own drunken snoring, because he then makes the decision to carry on drinking where he is on the hen-house steps and telling his woman to move if she doesn’t like it!

As a musician, this poem puts me in mind of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ and, in fact, can be sung to the very same tune. There’s no evidence of plagiarism on anybody’s part and, as so often happens with blues lyrics, coincidence plays a very large part due to the limitations yet the diversity of the 12 bar format.

Ray Smith
January 2011
© Copyright 2011 Ray Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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