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The Influence of Musical Folk Traditions in the Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was one of the first black men to express the spirit of blues and jazz into words. An African American Hughes became a well known poet, novelist, journalist, and playwright. Because his father emigrated to Mexico and his mother was often away, Hughes was brought up in Lawrence, Kansas, by his grandmother Mary Langston. Her second husband (Hughes’s grandfather) was a fierce abolitionist. She helped Hughes to see the cause of social justice. As a lonely child Hughes turned to reading and writing, publishing his first poems while in high school in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1921 he entered Columbia University, but left after an unhappy year. Even as he worked as a delivery man, a messmate on ships to Africa and Europe, a busboy, and a dishwasher, his poetry appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis (NAACP) and Opportunity (National Urban League). 1 As a poet, Hughes was the first person to combine the traditional poetry with black artistic forms, especially blues and jazz. As a leader in the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and thirties Hughes became the movements best known poet. He published two poetry collections, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

Mainly because of the depression Hughes became a socialist in the 1930s. He never joined the Communist party, but he wrote many radical poems and essays in magazines like New Masses and International Literature and spent a year in the Soviet Union. In 1939 Hughes moved away from the political scene. During the war he supported the Allies with patriotic songs and sketches and published a collection of poems Shakespeare in Harlem (1942). He attacked segregation, especially in his column in the black weekly Chicago Defender, where he created a comic but keen black urban Every man, Jesse B. Semple. 3

In 1947, as lyricist with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice on the Broadway opera Street Scene, Hughes received great success. Hughes bought a house in Harlem, where he spent the rest of his life. Hughes still feared for the future of urban blacks. His point of view became immense and included another book of poetry, almost a dozen children’s books, several opera libretti, four books translated from French and Spanish, two collections of stories, another novel, a history of the NAACP and another volume of autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander (1956).

He also continued his work in the theater, pioneering in the gospel musical play. Blues began in the south and slowly made its way into the great cities of the North. As the great migration began people took what they knew in south to the north. This included music. Langston Hughes living in Harlem was caught up in the new rhythm of music and based many of his poems on it. As a boy he remembers hearing the blues perfomed in Kansas City.

Hughes was fascinated with black music, tried his hand at writing lyrics, and was taken with the possibilities of performing music and poetry together 4 Besides having both a love of this music and the common black folk it was created by nd for, one of the reasons that Hughes began to draw on the blues tradition for writing his poetry is that he hoped to capitalize on the blues craze. 5Though the markets for music and poetry were quite different, he thought he could somehow merge the two. Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

He borrowed extensively from blues and Jazz in his work, and in doing so, set the foundations for a new tradition of black literacy influences by Black music. 6 Langston Hughes employed the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues that e heard in the country, the city, the field, the alley and the stage. When he used the musical and stanzaic structures of the blues to write his poetry he most often relied on the twelve-bar blues which is the widely used structure. These are often called blues in the classic form and about half of his blues poems fit this structure.

I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on seventh street7 In 1926 Hughes published his first book of poems called The Weary Blues. This collection of poems contains many that involve the sounds and rhythms of the blues. The first oem in the collection is called The Weary Blues. The title of the poem basically tells the reader what the poem is all about. The description in the poem is very well. It almost feels like you are watching this man playing blues on his piano. The poem contains refrain in may of its stanzas.

Although the refrain in this poem changes throughout, many words are repeated atleast twice. For example, By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway he did a lazy sway To the tune of those weary blues11 . In this beautiful poem, Hughes delineates a distance between the narrator of a poem and the lues man playing as if to make known to the world the distance between the poet and his people. Not having been born in the South or having relations who were slaves, Hughes often considered himself an outsider when writing about slave experiences.

He was a poet who was not exactly Rooted in the experience. 8 Poems like The Weary Bluest are most successful because they transcend the absence of actual music by capturing the spirit of the blues song in its cadence of lines, and extend the limits of oral tradition by changing or modifying the existing structures or themes of the blues. The range f Langston Hughess knowledge of the blues tradition and his attempts to utilize aspects of the oral blues tradition in his work demonstrate his creative genius in recognizing the blues as a truly great folk art itself.

The poem As I grew older is concerned with growing up. It explains how as a child a person may have many dreams. But as they get older certain things get in the way of those dreams. In this poem it is the color of the dreamers skin that interferes and casts a shadow on his dream. The poem also depends on an interplay between brightness and darkness. This is used to ymbolize the subjects that interfere between a dream the speaker has. Hughes also used Metaphors in this poem. For instance when he implies about the wall.

This wall is like the problems that come between someone and there dream. As the speaker begins to break through the wall he is cast apon with rays of light. So the poem is implying that you should not let anything get in the way of your dreams. One of Hughes most famous and one of his first poems is The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The poem is a virtual thirteen lines of the history of African people. The rhythmic chant of the ine, “I’ve known rivers”, serves to emphasize the worldly experience Hughes felt was embodied in the soul of every African-American.

Lines five through eight are a miniature primer on the high points of African history, “I bathed in the Euphrates . . . I built my hut near the Congo . . . I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids . . . ” The three line gap following these lines is Hughes’ representation of the void left in the history of his people by the spectrum of slavery. 10 The Poem Harlem Night Club tells the story of how when together in the night clubs in Harlem blacks and whites get along. They dance together and sing together but as tomorrow comes no one knows what paths they will go.

It is as if the night acts as a disguise. It hides the color of the skin. And when tomorrow comes with the bright sun revealing the true person they shy away from each other because their identity has been revealed. Both Blacks and Whites have enjoyed Langston Hughes poetry for many years. Not only did was he the first man to express the rhythm of blues in to words but he told the story of how it was to be a black person in his time. He used his Poetry in sense to speak out against racism.

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