The Weary Blues Summary
The poem begins with a speaker telling someone about a piano player he heard a couple nights ago. This musician was playing a slow blues song with all his body and soul. The speaker starts to really get into the sad music. Starting at line 19, we get the first verse to the song. This musician is singing about how, even though he's miserable, he's going to put his worries aside. The second verse is more of a bummer: nothing can cure his blues, and he wishes he was dead. The musician plays on late into the night; and when he finally goes to bed, he sleeps like a dead person or something else that can't think.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
- The speaker is leaving us in the dark here. Who is he? Where is he? Music is all there is, so far.
- Something or someone is "droning" music. Droning is that rumbling, low sound of a big engine. "Syncopated" is a musical term. It kind of means that the beat shifts the rhythm and creates a rocking back and forth feeling.
- And wouldn't you know it? Either the speaker or the singer is rocking "back and forth" now.
- Another word you might be new to is "croon." Crooning is this laid back and soulful style of singing. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra were all crooners back in the day.
I heard a Negro play.
- The speaker is listening to an African American musician.
- We still don't know where we are, and we don't know what instrument the musician is playing.
- Take a note here: "Negro" was the politically correct term back in the 1920s.
- So the speaker is listening to some laid back music and his poetry is laid back to help us feel it too.
- The indent, or enjambment, makes you take time to pause as your eye moves from the end of the line above to this one.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
- OK, we just jumped ahead in time. In the first three lines, we think we're there listening to the musician, but that was actually a couple of nights ago.
- Also, we just got a big tip into where speaker was that night: Lenox Avenue. Lenox Avenue shoots through the heart of Harlem in Manhattan, and it had the best bars and dance halls in the country around this time.
- Line 5 brings the reader back in by setting the mood with some soft lighting: gas lamps.
- "Pallor" isn't too different from "pale" or "dull." It suggests that the poor lighting of the scene is sucking some of the life out of the crowd.
He did a lazy sway....
He did a lazy sway....
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
- We've got those indents again. Take these lines slow and lazy. Repeating the lines gives a back and forth feeling, just like the singer is swaying back and forth.
- Also, this part is like a line that repeats in a blues song. This is similar to the refrain in a poem, but not exactly.
- Notice how Hughes dropped the "f" from the end of the word "of." He's trying to write like people talk.
- "The Weary Blues" is the name of the song that the musician is playing.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
- The musician is a pianist and he's playing all up and down the piano keyboard here. He's just wailing on the piano like Jimi Hendrix played guitar at Woodstock.
- "Ebony" means a few different things. Here it is describing the dark, lustrous color of the piano player's hands, but it also brings to mind the ebony wood that was used to make the black keys on a piano. Likewise, ivory (elephant's tusk) was used to make the white keys on the piano.
- It's almost like the piano player is melting into his instrument.
- In line 10, the musician makes the piano moan, just like it was alive with the music.
- It's not clear who is saying "O Blues!" It might be the speaker shouting out during the song, or the musician while performing for his audiences.
- Although this "O Blues!" is indented, it is not enjambment, because "O Blues!" doesn't carry the thought from the previous line.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
- "To and fro" is the same thing as back and forth, but the speaker has already described the singer in that way. He's just keeping it fresh.
- The "rickety stool" tells us that the piano player has just about swayed his chair apart from rocking out night after night. Also, crummy furniture fits into the dive bar atmosphere.
- You might have heard of ragtime music; it's usually syncopated piano music and it gave birth to jazz. "Raggy tune" could mean ragtime style, but it also makes us think of rags. Blues music is all about being down and out; so the rags and rickety stool tie the whole scene together.
- The musical fool is like the court jester. Shakespeare had a soft spot for the singing fool that entertained people with his own sadness.
Coming from a black man's soul.
- This is where the politics of the poem become a little clearer.
- The music (a.k.a. the blues) isn't coming from the gut or the throat, but straight out of the musician's soul.
- Here "soul" doesn't exactly mean a person's spirit. It's more like the source of creative self-expression and emotion. As in, James Brown is the "godfather of soul."
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
- These two lines sum up what we already know.
- The song and the voice are both very sad, and the speaker of the poem heard the singer a few days ago.
- Again, in case we forgot, the singer is an African American, and the piano is moaning like a person.
- The phrase "deep song voice" runs all three words together in the same way that the speaker's description is merging the musician and the music into one thing.
"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."
- This is the musician is singing a verse of "The Weary Blues." It's a pretty typical blues song: the singer is lonely and there's no one to help him out.
- But! He is going to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on.
- The grammar and spelling are supposed to mimic the way a real bluesman would sing. This mimicry is called "dialect."
- The standard English version of line 21 is "I am going to stop frowning," but who talks like that?
- It's all about being genuine and showing the world that even "flaws" are beautiful.
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
- The "[t]hump, thump, thump" is the piano player keeping the musical beat by stomping his foot on the ground.
- His whole body is getting into the music.
- Line 24 sums up one style of blues music, where the singer/musician plays some chords or notes on an instrument, stops playing, and sings a line of the song.
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied–
- We're back to the musician singing, but now he's doing the chorus. The chorus can sum everything up, then makes a big statement at the end.
- Sure, Lines 27-28 are a repetition of 25-26, but it's not exact.
- Dropping the Is in the repeated lines lets the singer draw out some syllables. It adds some punch and lets the musician show his chops.
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wished that I had died."
- Whoa, getting kind of bleak!
- This is the end of the chorus where we get the punch line, but this one is a real bummer.
- The singer wishes he wasn't alive in line 30, but just a couple of lines ago he was going to stop his frowning. What's up with this? Maybe singing the blues and showing emotions is how he "puts his problems on his shelf."
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 thorough his head.
- The musician has rocked out all night. In fact he's rocked out so hard that the stars are exhausted and go out like a lamp. One might say they've "run out of gas." (Ooh, a Physics pun!)
- The sun is coming up and the crowd is getting ready to stumble out into the early dawn.
- The singer comes home and passes out, but the music is such a part of him that it's stuck in his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
- This last line is a brain teaser.
- Sleeping like a rock is usually a good thing. Right? But sleeping like a dead man is a pretty dark image to associate with sleeping like a rock.
- It's not like we'd expect a bluesman to sleep like a baby.
- He said he wanted to die in the song, but this seems different. Maybe he is like a dead man, because he rests in peace.