Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: “The Weary Blues,” “The Blues Don’t Change,” and “Slow Drag Blues”
This continues the series of columns that highlights a much-loved poem and other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week features “The Weary Blues,” crafted by Langston Hughes. The two related poems are “The Blues Don’t Change” by Al Young and “Slow Drag Blues” by Kevin Young. (While they share the same surname and were both Stegner Fellows, Al and Kevin are unrelated).
The Poetry Foundation states that Langston Hughes was first recognized as an important literary figure during the 1920s, a period known as the “Harlem Renaissance” because of the number of emerging black writers. Du Bose Heyward wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in 1926: “Langston Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life. . . . It is, however, as an individual poet, not as a member of a new and interesting literary group, or as a spokesman for a race that Langston Hughes must stand or fall. . . . Always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense, Langston Hughes has given us a ‘first book’ that marks the opening of a career well worth watching.”
. . . Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations. Although Hughes had trouble with both black and white critics, he was the first black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures. Part of the reason he was able to do this was the phenomenal acceptance and love he received from average black people. A reviewer for Black World noted in 1970: “Those whose prerogative it is to determine the rank of writers have never rated him highly, but if the weight of public response is any gauge then Langston Hughes stands at the apex of literary relevance among Black people. The poet occupies such a position in the memory of his people precisely because he recognized that ‘we possess within ourselves a great reservoir of physical and spiritual strength,’ and because he used his artistry to reflect this back to the people. He used his poetry and prose to illustrate that ‘there is no lack within the Negro people of beauty, strength and power,’ and he chose to do so on their own level, on their own terms.”
I’ve been attracted to Langston Hughes’s poetry for many years. He’s influenced me toward a directness and candor.
by Langston Hughes
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 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.
Press to hear: Langston Hughes reads The Weary Blues
* * *
The first poem I found that resonates with Hughes’s poem is Al Young’s “The Blues Don’t Change,” written in 1989. Rather than use a persona (an unnamed character with the Weary Blues), Al Young’s poem is self-referential and refers to the blues in the second person, “you.”
The Blues Don’t Change
By Al Young
“Now I’ll tell you about the
Blues. All Negroes like Blues.
Why? Because they was born with
the Blues. And now everybody
have the Blues. Sometimes they
don’t know what it is.”
And I was born with you, wasn’t I, Blues?
Wombed with you, wounded, reared and forwarded
from address to address, stamped, stomped
and returned to sender by nobody else but you,
Blue Rider, writing me off every chance you
got, you mean old grudgeful-hearted, table-
turning demon, you, you sexy soul-sucking gem.
Blue diamond in the rough, you are forever.
You can’t be outfoxed don’t care how they cut
and smuggle and shine you on, you’re like a
shadow, too dumb and stubborn and necessary
to let them turn you into what you ain’t
with color or theory or powder or paint.
That’s how you can stay in style without sticking
and not getting stuck. You know how to sting
where I can’t scratch, and you move from frying
pan to skillet the same way you move people
to go to wiggling their bodies, juggling their
limbs, loosening that goose, upping their voices,
opening their pores, rolling their hips and lips.
They can shake their boodies but they can’t shake you.
* * *
One of Kevin Young’s greatest influences was Langston Hughes–he’s written about him and stated, “One never grows weary of “The Weary Blues.” His poem here is newer yet, published in the New Yorker in 2008, with still more modern rhythms, possibly even more self-reverential than Al’s poem.
Slow Drag Blues
By Kevin Young
I don’t believe in sex
My wife does, just
not with me.
I plead the Fifth
of whiskey. I am close
to perfecting a theory
Grief a dog
that keeps dogging me—
I say. It’s me
he’s teaching to beg—
my next anniversary
is newspaper, yesterday’s—
lining my cage—
Tomorrow the day
I hope to learn to stay.
I couldn’t find a video of Kevin reading this poem but found this of “Aunties,” which, very much influenced by Hughes, has kind of become his anthem: Kevin Young reads “Aunties”