Michael G. Cooke: On "The Weary Blues"

The paradoxes of self-veiling [an unassertive, undemanding adaptation to the environment. Its motive--to survive--is positive, but its vision limited] are sharply etched in the title piece of Langston Hughes's first volume of poems, The Weary Blues. The blues singer in the poem transcends "his rickety stool," which seems to represent his life condition and not just the appurtenances of the joint: "He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool." We can reasonably infer that nothing in his life conveys the concentration and depth of his music. He collapses after he plays, and it almost seems that he must alternate between comatoseness and music. His life, then, deeply veils what his music expresses.

But how much certainty do we have concerning what his music expresses? The manner of playing ("like a musical fool") and thematter involved do not chime together. Where his play is vivid, sure, superior, what he sings is all depression and defeat:

. . . .

His stamina as a singer ("far into the night he crooned that tune") does little to offset the intensification of woe in the song, and woe finally seems to have undone him when he "stopped playing and went to bed," for "he slept like a rock or a man that's dead." He has played himself out, and it is impossible to tell whether his woe or his playing has contributed more to his undoing. The blues may give us more than the life, but it gives us meanings veiled in paradox.

But the poem contains a complex reversal. The blues singer's apparent self-exhaustion (for his state is a product of his will, his soul) is counterbalanced by the fact that he has played himself into the heart and mind of the speaker in "The Weary Blues." This effect is less obvious here than in Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," a strangely analogous poem, but the speaker's attachment comes out in two ways. First, more than the coming of daylight is indicated in the line "The stars went out and so did the moon"; we may understand also that the speaker is possessed by the singer's woe, and his art, and so loses a sense of the world beyond. And second, the speaker is telling as much about himself as about the singer when he says:

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.

Has the speaker followed the singer home in fascination, in obsession? And in whose head does the echo of the weary blues play? The singer's, yes, but not his alone. The speaker is also bearing "that music," as Wordsworth says, in his heart. Not even the speaker's empathy with the blues singer, though, can enable us to penetrate the latter's veil of sleep, a veil as opaque as rock and as deep as death.

It is an accident that offsets the singer's repetitious self-veilings. Clearly he goes through his routine, his ritual, every night, and as clearly a Langston Hughes does does not often happen by.

From Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. Copyright © 1984 by Michael Cooke.


Title Michael G. Cooke: On "The Weary Blues" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael G. Cooke Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy
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