Review of “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, and grew up to be, from the 1920s until his death in 1967, the foremost poet among African Americans. Hughes was primarily known for his portrayals of Black life in America.

He didn’t get along with his father, later writing: “My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro.” The effect of this on Hughes can be inferred by the ways in which many of Hughes’ poems insisted on the beauty of the African American identity.

In 1924 he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, which is now considered to be an American classic and is reproduced here in a new edition.

A Note at the end of the book avers that Hughes “founded jazz poetry.” This becomes clear to readers as they go through the poems and cannot fail to pick up on their musicality, beginning with the title piece, “The Weary Blues,” which starts:

“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 Wary Blues.”

This became one of Hughes’s most famous poems. Cheryl A. Wall, in her “Note on ‘The Weary Blues’” in Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry Vol. 3 (1997) called it “one of the earliest works of blues performance in literature.” She explained that the poem “defines the blues through metaphor and through its nuanced representation of a musician and a narrator.”


The book also contains another poem of Hughes’s that remains quite famous, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Amazingly enough, he wrote this poem at the age of eighteen.

As E.B. Lewis wrote in a different book illustrating this poem:

“Water has played a powerful role in the lives of black people. It has been the boon and bane of our existence. We have been born out of water, baptized by water, carried by, and even killed by water.”

Illustration by E.B.
White from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

The poem expresses all of that beautifully even in its opening stanza:

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

We encounter the image again in his one stanza poem, “Suicide’s Note”:

“The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.”

Short though it is, it reveals Hughes’s mastery of such literary devices as imagery and enjambment. [Enjambment is a poetic technique that entails the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped.]

National Portrait Gallery, Winold Reiss c. 1925

The darkest section of the book is undoubtedly the one entitled “Our Land,” in which the poems lament the promise of America versus the reality for people of color (he includes Native Americans in his accusatory verses). It ends however on an upbeat note, with another of his most famous poems, “I, Too, Sing America,” a reference to the famous Walt Whitman poem “I Sing the Body Electric”:

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.”

Evaluation: This stunning collection will astound, impress, and inspire readers. The publisher is to be thanked for making it available once again to the public. The poems are simultaneously both poetry and music, embodying passion, pain, hope, and despair into one slim volume of unforgettable works.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Mint Editions, an imprint of West Margin Press, 2022

About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Review of “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

  1. Mystica says:

    How sad to hate yourself based on ethnicity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.