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The Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes
A Personal Appreciation By
Ray Smith

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.  

© Copyright 1999 Ray Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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. 

Front cover 1993 edition.

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.

Part 5 coming soon

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