The Weary Blues describes the performance of a blues musician playing in a club on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The piece mimics the tone and form of Blues music and uses free verse and closely resembles spoken English. The poem was written by Langston Hughes in 1925 during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of time when African-American artists, musicians, and writers enjoyed appreciation and popular acceptance.
To begin, I will analyze the poem line by line, which you can read in full here. Then, I will comment on the piece’s structure. Finally, I will make note of the work’s historical context.
The Weary Blues Breakdown Analysis
The first line begins by describing the music as “drowsy” and “syncopated.” The former is musical term that means that the beats, accents or rhythm of a piece are intentionally misplaced. This specific aural landscape, coupled with the image of a man “rocking back and forth” as he croons creates an almost haunting image in the mind of the reader.
Another thing to note is that the first few lines establish a single, individual speaker. It’s likely the speaker is a member of the audience at this particular concert.
This group of lines continues to add definition to the scene created in the piece. The reader immediately learns the location of the poem’s setting, Lenox Avenue, long a haven for jazz and Blues.
The fifth line of the poem adds to the eerie feeling cultivated. The streets are not just lit by lights; they are lit by gaslights giving off a “pale dull pallor.” This is also another example of how musical terms, such as “dull” are used repeatedly to describe the night.
The repetition of “He did a sway. . .” is also noteworthy. The two lines are reminiscent of a musical refrain. They also imply a sense of continuous movement.
Next, as hands crawl across ivory keys, we learn more about the performer and performance. The second line is most likely a reference to segregation, which was, at the time, a reality around the United States. Black and white are allowed to mingle in the poem, making beautiful music.
“Weary Blues” seems to be the name of the song he’s singing, and as I mentioned, the man is playing the piano. Make special note, of that “poor piano.” The man is not just playing, but in keeping with the piece’s tone: he makes it “moan with melody.”
The imagery used in the next few lines is of special note. Like the “poor piano” from the previous line, everything in the poem seems to be well worn, bordering on decrepit. He has a “rickety stool.” The tune he plays is “raggy.”
“Musical fool” may be a reference to the jesters and court fools of the past. Perhaps it’s implying this man is from the lower rungs of society but entertaining the modern day lords and ladies of New York.
Finally, the blues man begins to sing. He sings to the speaker directly, to the reader directly. The way he sings, in colloquialisms, thickly accented, is indicative of a member of the poor working class.
The lyrics themselves are heartbreaking. If, as Blues often is, they are considered to be autobiographical, then the singer becomes more sympathetic.
As the song goes on, we learn more about the singer. His mournful voice matches his tragic words, and he seems to be living in the shadow of a deep depression.
Again, the repetition of the word “thump” is used to mimic the sound of music. In this case, the thumps are used to keep the beat.
The final four lines create a sense of encroaching darkness. First the stars go out, then the moon. Finally, the music fades. I imagine the musician trudging home through the dark and the quiet. Then, even he fades away, sleeping like the dead.
The final word, “dead” seems to be stressed. It’s possible that the poet is implying that the subject of this work died shortly after the piece ends.
It’s also interesting that speaker here, seems to become omniscient. He or she knows what the singer does after the set.
The Weary Blues Structure
As previously noted, the poem uses rhyme and rhythm in interesting ways. The composition mimics the shifting structures and patterns of Jazz music. The indented lines are emphasized both on the page and in the reader’s mind as if they are being sung. The poem is written in free verse, but it contains a number of rhyming couplets throughout. Use of the word “negro,” used at the time as a derogatory term, serves to stress the subject of the piece as an outsider and member of the lower class.
This poem is from the first collection of Langston Hughes’s poetry, titled ‘The Weary Blues’. Hughes was prolific writer. He wrote poetry, prose, and plays. He won a number of awards. He was also a social activist. He was born in Joplin, Missouri and traveled the world working as a seaman. He eventually settled in New York, which is where he died.