Here’s another early Langston Hughes poem from The Weary Blues, his collection which I’ve chosen to focus on during this Black History Month. Given Hughes’ esteemed position as part of the Harlem Renaissance and the long career that followed, it may be hard to remember that this is a poem by a young man, less than 25 years old. Of course, as I reminded myself as I tried to write the best poetry I could as a young person: famous British poet John Keats died at 25 — so there’s no reason for our Afro-American poet to wait to write either.*
Though it was Langston Hughes’ first book, The Weary Blues doesn’t make much of a point of his youth. While the perennial youthful topics of wine, love, and song make their appearances in this collection’s poems, there’s little if anything I can recall that makes explicit pleading that the author is of a new generation with new perceptions. The way Hughes did signal that was in the way he deals with the “song” part of that triumvirate: Jazz and Blues were still considered disreputable musics of little substance. The decade of the last Twenties may have been called “The Jazz Age,” but that then novel music was mostly the music to dance, drink, and swive to.
So, when Hughes claims right from the start that “The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm” he’s making a fresh claim in 1926, that it’s not just some musical fad that’s passing through, a speeded-up frivolity. Even if white musicians and dancers were quick to latch onto the jaunty high-BPM rush of Jazz, Hughes is ready to claim that broken desires and pain were in there too.
Does he mean lovesick blues, or the Afro-American experience here when he makes that claim? Both I think. That’s a hella-reason why Afro-American forms pervade American music to this day: Americans as a whole have a long and strong dissatisfied streak. Plenty of musics sourced from around the world are good for dancing and signaling your erotic availability. Same for songs of utter sadness. But Afro-Americans figured out how to make sublime musics out of a combination of the oppressions and absurdities of life.
In his poem, Hughes twice makes the claim “The gods are laughing at us” — and despite the repetition of that line, he is ambiguous about what we should think of that. Are the gods the society that ignores, belittles, and oppresses? Or are the gods the wise eternals who know that we humans live short lives approaching half-knowledge, an absurdity that leaves laughing as wisdom?
I think at midnight — perhaps after some youthful partying that’s implied as preceding this poem — it’s a vibrating mixture of both. Overtones, undertones, Hughes says.
Overtones, undertones….Jazz in Hughes’ 1926 was still thought of as a way to shake your groove thing.
I often mention that my experience of the poems I use for texts here often changes in the process of making them into Parlando Project pieces. With this one, as I began to understand and express Hughes’ words I wanted to reply to the laughing gods in the original poem. So, I extended the original words with my own couplet: “Let them hear the laugh I return. / Let them understand the laugh I return.” Is that laugh and desire to the wise gods or the careless and oppressing system? Both. I’m far from 25, and that’s what I think reading and performing the young Hughes’ poem today.
Music in this piece is about as close as I can get to Jazz, though more of the Jazz of my youth than that of Hughes’ time. Yes, that fad was still going concern 40 years after Langston Hughes wrote his poem. I spent most of my time creating the piano part, which unlike a real pianist I have to compose by playing and selecting parts for each hand, but modern “virtual instruments” let me do stuff that Conlon Nancarrow had to hand-punch into player piano rolls to realize. I wanted a saxophone part too, but as I’ve already mentioned this winter, I can’t really get the articulations a good Jazz sax player relies on. My sax part sounded like an early student playing the most dismal society dance band number, and so I made the compromise I normally avoid and put in a short Gil Evans-ish horn section sample to enclose my sax part effectively.
You can hear Langston Hughes’ “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” and my extension to it with the player gadget below, if you see one — or this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.
*Lesser-known early 20th century Afro-American poet Anne Spencer made the same point eulogizing Paul Lawrence Dunbar with her short poem.