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
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
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has
grown deep like the rivers.
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.
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.
tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street . . .
songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep going.”
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
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.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
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.
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.
© Copyright 2010 Ray Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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