By 1923, the twenty-two-year-old Langston Hughes had traveled half the globe, dropped out of Columbia University, and written some pretty kickin' poems. But "The Weary Blues" is the first poem for which Langston Hughes got an award. Originally from the Midwest, Hughes's one year at Columbia brought him to Harlem, New York at just the right time for a hip, young poet with a sense for adventure. The Harlem Renaissance, a boom-time in African American art, literature, and music, was just getting started, and Hughes caught a wave of support and interest. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues (1926), won him all kinds of awards and money – enough money to go back to school and finish this time.
In-the-know people, especially those in Harlem, were blown away by "The Weary Blues." It was so different from the stuffy, rigid poetry that passed for the standard of excellence. Hughes played loose-and-free with his lines and rhythm (sort of like Walt Whitman did). In fact, the poem is like jazz or blues music. Later in his career, Langston Hughes recorded and performed poems like the "The Weary Blues" with a jazz band. Sure T.S. Eliot threw some of that jazz stuff into The Wasteland (1922); but Eliot's "music" was like listening to your grandparents' scratchy records, while Hughes's was more like a live jam session in a smoky, gin-soaked bar.
Has someone ever told you that the music you listen to "isn't music"? Well, that happened to a lot of African American artists and art fans in the 1920s. Sometimes people got down on African American artists because a white art critic didn't think that Africa had a tradition of Great Art. Other times people just thought art had a lot of rules, and you couldn't just go around breaking the rules. You can just hear the say, "Why it would be anarchy…art with no rules?!" Monocles would fall into champagne glasses all over America and Europe. But in the early 1900s, all the rules seemed to be changing – so why not in poetry too?
Langston Hughes and a lot of the other artists, poets, and musicians were mixing it up. African Americans in cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago were coming up with their own styles.
Jazz and urban blues music were getting a lot of attention. Sure there were rules in jazz and blues, but the rules were more of a skeleton or set of building blocks. So, like a blues musician, Hughes had a basic rhythm and varied it to fit the words or changing mood of his poems. Sometimes he spelled words to match way that real people talk. And as you will see, he even samples music like a DJ does. Yes, Langston Hughes was doing mash ups before Danger Mouse was a twinkle in his great-grandpa's eye.
Modern American Poetry
Good information on the musical tradition behind "The Weary Blues."
Library of Congress
A Huge amount of background on the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes at 100
This is a Yale website complete with photos, manuscripts, and audio.
Great background to The Weary Blues collection of poems.
Reading of "The Weary Blues"
This is a good example of a reading to music and a montage of the touristy era of Harlem.
Read by Langston Hughes
This is a more upbeat version of the poet reading his own poem.
Bio and more Poetry
This is a seven minute video biography with another, more upbeat version of Hughes reading "The Weary Blues" with piano accompaniment.
When the Weary Blues met Jazz
Poetry off the Shelf show on Hughes's collaboration with jazz musicians.
The Weary Blues
This is the cover of the first edition of Langston Hughes's first collection of poetry.
The Poet Himself
Here is a picture of a younger Langston Hughes.
The Big Sea
This is Hughes's autobiography that he first published in the 1940s.
Langston Hughes: A Biography
This is a more recent bio on the poet by Laurie F. Leach.
Langston Hughes & The Blues
Steven C. Tracey provides information on the influence of the blues tradition on Hughes.
A film based on The Big Sea, Hughes's autobiography.