Langston Hughes: An Example of Musical Imagery and Symbolism in Poetry

Langston Hughes wrote poetry that demonstrates the environment of African Americans during the 1920’s. During this time Jim Crow laws were at its height throughout the Deep South. Blacks continued to face strong oppression and racism in employment, housing, and education, dramatically affecting the quality of life. Although faced with prejudice and disenfranchisement, many artists thrived. The 1920’s is the era of Jazz, the Blues, and the Harlem renaissance. Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington were jazz favorites, singers Bessie Smith and Dorothy Dandridge were at their peak. African Americans were using art as a way of self-expression, creating a musical genre that continues to influence artist today. Through music, artist interpreted the feelings of oppression and hopelessness they confronted in their life. This can also be seen in literature. The 1920’s is also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Allan Locke are just one of many African American writers involved in this literary movement. For Langston Hughes however, music greatly influenced his poetry. In many of his works, readers can recognize the musical over lays present throughout his pieces. Like famous jazz and blues singers of the time, Hughes used music –through poetry- as a way of self-expression.

Many of Hughes poems have musical themes. However, for this analysis three works specifically will be analyzed. These works include I, Too, The Weary Blues, and Song for a Dark Girl. Using these poems as an example, readers can observe how Hughes was able to include musical themes within his literary works. Hughes spent the prime of his life in Harlem, New York where music played an intricate role in the culture and style of the era.  As a result, jazz and blues often set the tone of his work. Many scholars call this, Jazz poetry. It is defined as, “an intertextual genre, entailing writing and reciting words that evoke the sounds, pacing, and lyrics of music”, (Huang, 2011). The musical suggestions in these works are strong. Analyzing these pieces, readers are able to observe how Hughes was able to delicately marry the two arts of music and poetry, without singing a song or playing an instrument.

“Hughes regarded the blues as well as jazz as one of the most influential African American arts”, (Han, 2011). Specifically, this can be seen in his poem, The Weary Blues. Although the reader cannot hear the song, the reader is able to feel the song. In addition, the reader is able to identify the sadness with the identity of African American people during this era. The synonyms for “sad” used throughout the poem, echoes a sense of loss or mourning. This is observed in the first line. Here the narrator is drawn to a, “drowsy syncopated tune” (Hughes 1). This automatically sets the pace of the rest of the poem. Other words that echo sadness and oppression are- “poor”, “moan”, “croon”, “sad”, “melancholy”, “frowning”, and “weary” (Hughes 1-17). These words can be associated with the style of music and title of the song, the Blues. The reader is able to feel the music also by the pace or movement of the poem. After the reader is introduced to the “tune” in the first line, the second line gives the reader the beat of the song. The singer is “rocking back and forth” to a “mellow croon”, before the narrator introduced to the “Negro” who is singing the tune on a “poor piano” (Hughes 1-3). The rocking back in forth suggests the movement of the song, giving it beat and melody, all in the first three lines.

I, Too is a poem that also has musical symbolism. The first line of the poem, the narrator makes a bold and obvious statement, “I, too sing America” (Hughes 1). This absolute phrase immediately grabs the attention of the reader. At this point, this is the only thing the reader knows of narrator- the narrator sings. Incidentally, the statement strongly mimics the patriotic song “America” which is also known as “My Country Tis of Thee”. The phrase mimics the third line of this song that says, “of thee I sing” (Smith 1832). It is possible that, “America” referred to in this poem is the anthem “America”. Not only is he letting the reader know that he sings, he is suggesting to the reader that he is also American. In one phrase and without going forth with the rest of the poem, Hughes has made a strong direct statement to the audience that he sings. However, the rest of the poem tells the audience about a “dark brother”. The poem has no couplets, no rhyme, and no strong tempo to suggest music. Despite this, the subject of the poem and the brief story it tells suggest musical symbolism. Like the lyrics of the Blues, Hughes poem tells a story. There are no words used in this piece that directly indicate sadness. However, the poem suggests the sadness of the blues without saying it. Most of the lines are stand alone. The longest line in the poem is line eight words long (line 3). This line is also the most important line of the poem. The eight-word line suggest oppression of the Black brother when he states, “they send me to eat in the kitchen” (Hughes 3). The other lines in the poem only consist of 2, 3 or 4 words. The isolation of the lines suggests the sadness and loneliness consistent with the Blues. Although these are positive statements, their position on the paper and comma after each statement indicates otherwise, “but I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong” (Hughes 5-7).

Song for a Dark Girl is a poem that can be described as a marriage between satire and ballad. The title lets the reader know that it is a song, in addition to the rhyming couplets. The meter of the song is AABB, giving the poem a fast tempo and cheerful rhythm. However, all of this contradicts the topic of the song, a Black girl who was hung from a tree. The first line of every stanza provides a setting, “way down south in Dixie” (Hughes 1). From the title and the first line of the poem, the reader understands that the ending of the poem must be fatal. The south during the 1920’s for African Americans was oppressive, dominated by fear, racism, and segregation. Although the rhythm of this poem is up-tempo, he repeats that the event “break the heart of me” in the first and third stanza (Hughes 2). Throughout the poem, the narrator faces his oppressors, God, lynching, and the notion of love. Hughes was able to convey all of this in a matter of three, four line stanzas- and two of these lines are repeated. The song is meant to be happy, yet the story it tells is sad. The Song for a Dark Girl, with its satirical ballad, mimics the minstrel show popular during this era. In minstrel shows Whites painted themselves with black faces and reinforced stereotypes for comedy. This was funny and entertaining for Whites but oppressive and racist towards Blacks. Although the poem is consistent with a traditional song, the topic and historical significance demonstrates satire. Hughes was able to express the oppressive environment during this time through the up-beat rhythm of a song about the land of Dixie.

Musical symbolism can be seen in all three of these poems, I, Too, the Weary Blues, and Song for a Dark Girl. Incidentally, readers can recognize two of these poems as music from their title. The Weary Blues is a poem that puts the reader directly into the scene of the parlor, the music and the black piano player singing the Blues. Also, the movement of the poem mimics the sound of the blues. The narrator describes the “lazy sway” (Hughes 6-8). The movement of the poem works together with the movement of the music. “Lazy sway” is repeated (line 6-7) while the piano player, “sway to and fro” (line 12) and “thump thump thump” his foot on the floor (Hughes 20).

Movement can also be seen in the poem I, Too. When reading only the first line of every break in the poem, it reads- “I, too sing America” (1), “the darker brother” (2), “Tomorrow” (8), “Besides” (15), “I too am America” (18). The poem its self describes a man who must obey the people who do not treat him equally and discriminates against him. He cannot eat at the table when company is around, but “tomorrow” will sit at the table. When we connect this back to the anthem “America” the movement observed in the poem describes a narrator who is American because he sings this anthem. Identifying the movement of the song by only referring to the first line of every break (stanza) clearly demonstrates the musical symbolism found throughout the poem. It indicates that the people around him do not see him as American. Despite this, the narrator will always be American through the anthem of this song.

In the Song for a Dark Girl, Hughes took advantage of the “Old Dixie” song to talk about his lost love. With the help of the title and two repeating verses, he used a few words to describe a beautiful girl hung from a tree in the Deep South. The reader knows that she is beautiful because she was a “black young lover” and her death broke his heart (Hughes 3). The racial overtones can also be observed when he “asks the white Lord Jesus/what was the use of prayer” (Hughes 7-8). In this way, Hughes turned a happy song about the south into a ballad full of grief and lost love. The rhyming couplets and the first line immediately give the poem movement. The first line of the poem, “Way down south in Dixie” strongly resembles the southern anthem “Dixie”. The last line of this anthem states, “away, away, away, down south in Dixie Land” (Emmet 10). In addition to the rhyming couplets such as Dixie/me, lover/tree allows the reader to easily sing the Song for a Dark Girl.

When introduced to the literary works of Langston Hughes, readers can observe his ability to merge two genres of art, poetry and music. Furthermore, he was able to do this only using the art of language. The way that Hughes was able to marry these two genera demonstrates his talent and the legacy he left in American literature. Surrounded by the blues and jazz music of Harlem, Hughes created a new form of poetry. He “interpreted his feelings and has understanding of jazz in his lines of poetry and became known as one of the best jazz poets” (Yan i). Examining and analyzing his literary works, readers can find and identify music in literature without the use of sound. Art is a form of creativity and self-expression. Through the use of language, music, and art Langston Hughes was able to give readers an image of the life and time of African Americans during the 1920’s.

Works Cited

Emmett, D. “Dixie.” Scout Songs. Virtual Song Book. Web. 1 Dec 2012.  <http://www.scoutsongs.com/lyrics/dixie.html&gt;.

Hughes, L. Langston Hughes Poems. Paris, France: Hata Bidir, 2012. eBook. <http://www.poemhunter.com/i/ebooks/pdf/langston_hughes_2012_2.pdf&gt;.

Huang, H. “Hungarian journal for English and American Studies.” Hungarian journal for English and American Studies. 17.1 (2011): n. page. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://dragon.unideb.hu/~hjeas/vol171.html&gt;.

Smith, S. “America, (My Country Tis of Thee).” Scout Songs. Virtual Song Book. Web. 1 Dec <http://www.scoutsongs.com/lyrics/america.html&gt;.

Yan, H. “Variations Of Jazz: The Legacy And Influence Of Langston Hughes On Amiri Baraka’s Views Of African American Music And The Function Of The Arts.” Emporia State University. A Thesis Presented to The Department of English, Modern Languages, and Journalism, n.d. Web. 1 Dec 2012. <http://gradworks.umi.com/1495809.pdf&gt;.

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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