The speaker of Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” describes an evening of listening to a blues musician in Harlem. With its diction, its repetition of lines and its inclusion of blues lyrics, the poem evokes the mournful tone and tempo of blues music and gives readers an appreciation of the state of mind of the blues musician in the poem.
Relationship Between Speaker and Subject: Lines 1-3 create what grammarians call a “dangling modifier,” a sentence logic problem wherein the clauses preceding the main subject and verb of the sentence (“Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,” and “Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,” which precede “I heard”) don’t most logically refer to the subject of the sentence (“I”). Has Hughes simply made a grammatical error? Probably not. Rather, he’s using his sentence structure there to show the relationship between the singer and the audience, the dual effect of the music on the performer and on the listener. The singer is droning and swaying as he performs, but so is the audience as it listens, thus they become conflated grammatically in the sentence that describes their interaction. Here, then, Hughes suggests that the blues offer a sort of communal experience, that they express the feelings of not only the artist, but the whole community.
“Down on Lenox Avenue”: Lenox Avenue is a main street in Harlem, which in terms of the geography of New York, is North, or uptown. We might wonder why Hughes has written “down on Lenox Avenue” rather than “up on Lenox Avenue.” Let’s think, then, about the identity of the speaker of the poem. Because Harlem was home mainly to African Americans and the parts of New York City south of Harlem (referred to as “downtown”) were populated mainly by whites, if the speaker were to perceive Lenox Avenue as “up” from his place of origin, we might assume that he is white. During the 20s and 30s, writings by African-Americans about black identity and culture proliferated. This exceptionally fruitful period of extensive and brilliant literary production is referred to as a “renaissance.” During the Harlem Renaissance, African American artists and musicians also gained recognition and currency in the white community; many wealthy whites, who generally lived downtown, took a strong interest in the cultural activity there, in Harlem nightlife and in its artistic productions. Flocking northward to Harlem, where most African Americans lived, for the entertainment and introduction to new forms of music and art produced by African Americans there, white benefactors of these artists helped them to become known beyond their own community. But some of these patrons also threatened the autonomy and commercial viability of these emerging black artists, sometimes taking advantage of current racial attitudes and the discriminatory laws and social codes to exploit black musicians and artists for their own financial benefit.
So when Hughes’s speaker says he was “down on Lenox Avenue” we can assume that he is not white. Why does it matter whether we see this speaker as white or black? Certainly, people of all races have experienced the blues (both the music and the feelings) and musicians of all colors have played blues music. But jazz and blues music must be considered original to African Americans, borne out of “the irrestistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism” (Norton Anthology of African American Literature 929). One can see this important idea in lines 9 and 16: “With his ebony hands on each ivory key” and “Coming from a black man’s soul.” The image of black hands on white keys suggests the way in which black musicians have taken an instrument of white Western culture and through it produced their own artistic expression. Steven C. Tracy writes the following about this idea:
All the singer seems to have is his moaning blues, the revelation of “a black man’s soul,” and those blues are what helps keep him alive. Part of that ability to sustain is apparently the way the blues help him keep his identity. Even in singing the blues, he is singing about his life, about the way that he and other blacks have to deal with white society. As his black hands touch the white keys, the accepted Western sound of the piano and the form of Western music are changed. The piano itself comes to life as an extension of the singer, and moans, transformed by the black tradition to a mirror of black sorrow that also reflects the transforming power and beauty of the black tradition. Finally, it is that tradition that helps keep the singer alive and gives him his identity, since when he is done and goes to bed he sleeps like an inanimate or de-animated object, with the blues echoing beyond his playing, beyond the daily cycles, and through both conscious and unconscious states. (Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.)
In this interpretation of blues music as an expression of black sorrow and struggle in the face of oppressive and discriminatory forces of the larger society, we can see a clear connection to the character of Sonny in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. Sonny and his family have been worn down by many years of struggle against racism and discrimination; the story of Sonny’s uncle’s death and Sonny’s father’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with that death represent this struggle.
The word “down” might also refer to the architecture of Harlem, with its multi-storied apartment buildings looking down on the avenues, where the ground floors of buildings housed businesses and people lived in apartments on the upper floors. “Down” might also refer to the emotional content of the music the speaker will describe. Here we can see another connection to Sonny’s Blues. Remember when the narrator, standing at the subway in Harlem, says to Sonny’s friend, “You come all the way down here just to tell me about Sonny?” Also, notice the implicit opposition between the sorrows of the singer that bring him down and his desire to quit his “frownin” and “put his troubles up on the shelf.”