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  • Literacy and AuthenticityThe Blues Poems of Langston Hughes
  • David Chinitz (bio)

While the adaptation of oral culture to literary ends is never uncomplicated, the accommodation of blues to poetry presents particular difficulties. “Blues,” writes folk musicologist Paul Oliver, “is for singing. It is not a form of folk song that stands up particularly well when written down” (8). A poet who wants to write blues can avoid this trap by poeticizing the form—but this is only to fall into another trap, for blues made literary read not like refined folk song but like bad poetry. For Oliver, there is no safe passage between this Scylla and Charybdis: the poetry of the blues eludes the self-conscious imitator inevitably (9–14). We need not concur with the absoluteness of this judgment to appreciate its force.

Langston Hughes was the first writer to grapple with the inherent difficulties of blues poetry, and he succeeded—not always, but often—in producing poems that manage to capture the quality of genuine blues in performance while remaining effective as poems. This essay will show how in inventing blues poetry Hughes solved the two closely related problems I have sketched: first, how to write blues lyrics in such a way that they work on the printed page, and second, how to exploit the blues form poetically without losing all sense of authenticity.

I

It is sometimes useful to define “blues poetry” in the broadest possible terms, as Onwuchekwa Jemie does, for example, in his introduction to Hughes’s work: “The blues poem . . . is one that, regardless of form, utilizes the themes, motifs, language, and imagery common to popular blues literature” (44). Such a definition usefully stresses how pervasively the blues influence Hughes’s art; in fact, Jemie is quite willing to classify much of Hughes’s prose as blues poetry. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am considering the category of blues poetry to include those lyrics that make use of blues imagery, formulae and rhythms, as well as a stanza that is at least closely related to the normative blues form. This reasonably narrow definition makes systematic analysis of Hughes’s blues poems fruitful, for within this class of poems a certain consistency of technique can be identified.

Blues use a number of stanzaic forms, but the three-line “AAB” stanza is so ubiquitous as to have become the standard from which all others are seen as deviating. [End Page 177] This form is generated by a single line which is first repeated, often with minor impromptu variations, and then rhymed in a line that elaborates on or answers it:

My gal’s got legs, yes, legs like a kangaroo.

My gal’s got legs, legs like a kangaroo.

If you don’t watch out she’ll hop all over you.

(qtd. in Hughes and Bontemps 395)

The second and third lines are often referred to as the repeat line and the response line. (In Hughes’s poetry, each line is halved so that the stanza is rendered in six lines rather than three; lines 3–4, in this case, function together as repeat lines and lines 5–6 as response lines.) In performance the blues stanza generates dramatic suspense as the audience anticipates the satisfying closure of rhyme and sense in the response line; this suspense gives the singer or lyricist opportunities for irony, surprise, humor, understatement and other effects. The repeat line heightens the suspense by delaying the resolution.

Hughes was attracted to the blues particularly by what the music represented to him: an expression of the resilience and tragedy of the African-American lower class. To some extent Hughes romanticized this social group, with which he always identified but to which he himself never really belonged. What Hughes called “just plain folks” are, in his portraiture, never merely “plain”: they are sensitive, passionate, and frequently wise, drawing unconvoluted wisdom from their very lack of sophistication. Most significantly, Hughes’s black proletariat is endowed with an inexhaustible energy that veils and relieves its suffering. It is this quality that is expressed with particular clarity in both jazz and the blues:

For sad as Blues may be, there’s almost...

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