Jazz and Blues

Hughes's Inspiration
Music and Poetry
Mark in the Genre

Jazz and blues music incorporates a unique style that is reminiscent of African American culture, and it is this foundation that drove Langston Hughes to base many of his early poems on the genre. Jazz music uses “repetitions, choruses, riffs, and scats,” and often invites the audience to engage with its melody and move with the rhythm (Davidas 268). When jazz and blues rhythms are combined with poetry, the end result is often termed a “Jazzpoem” (Ibid 267), in which the poem uses elements of jazz music to move its audience and invoke motion.


Much of Hughes’s inspiration for his jazz and blues poetry came from Harlem. To him, “Harlem…had become a national symbol of black unrest” and contained “a geography of broken promises” (Lowney 357). Harlem was Hughes’s home and a place he associated with his cultural identity. His experiences in Harlem are referenced throughout his poems, and he entitled many of his poems after the community. Hughes was “driven by an acute sense of beauty and tragedy” that was woven throughout history and evident in the area (See Equality)(Komunyakaa 1140).
Langston Hughes became aware of blues and jazz forms early in his life, and the emotion found throughout the music stirred Hughes into inventing a new genre of poetry. Komunyakaa stated that, “The short lines of the blues poems [created] a syncopated insistence and urgency. Art [had] to have tension. And it [was] the simultaneous laughter and crying that created the tension in Hughes’s blues poetry” (1140). In “Homesick Blues,” Hughes used this tension to evoke emotions in his audience:
Don’t know’s I’d mind his goin’
But he left me when the coal was low.
Don’t know’s I’d mind his goin’
But he left when the coal was low.
Now if a man loves a woman
That ain’t no time to go.
“Homesick Blues” not only used emotion and repetitions common in jazz music to move the audience, but it also referenced Hughes’s admiration of African American culture. According to Tkweme, “African American music, its beauty, cultural meanings, and creative representations of the people was absolutely central to Langston Hughes’s artistic project. His poetry and fiction return again and again to the figure of the black musician and scenes of music-making” (503).


Hughes’s early poems have a structure based in music, and they used musical elements from jazz and blues to honor the African American heritage. According to Davidas, his poems are “pervaded with lively and active repetitions,” and each poem “exhibits a slow tempo and rhythm which is a common trait to most styles of blues” (267). This is evident in Hughes’s poem, “The Weary Blues,” with which Hughes repeated lines such as “He did a lazy sway…” and “O Blues!” Lines within the poem also rhyme, and one can imagine a tempo to these rhythms that is slow and drifting. These elements can also be found in the jazz poem entitled, Blues Montage.” Lines within the music are often repeated along with the beats as was seen in "The Weary Blues," and the rhythm is unhurried.

Another important characteristic of Hughes’s jazz poetry is the use of dialect within the poem. In “Feet O’ Jesus,” he used “the everyday language, or dialect, of the African American people, and it [involved a] spiritual element present in jazz and blues music” (Davidas 269). African American dialect was also used in “Dream Boogie,” with lines like “Good morning, daddy!” / Ain’t you heard / The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred?” Through the use of dialect in these poems, Hughes was able to tie in African American culture and use jazz forms to symbolize the community.
The use of “jagged lyricism and modulation” is also evident in many of his poems, which “invites action/motion” (Komunyakaa 1141). This can be found in “Dream Variations,” in which Hughes wrote “To fling my arms wide / In the face of the sun, / Dance! Whirl! Whirl! / Till the quick day is done.” In the poem, Hughes emphasized quick motions that became slower with the approaching evenings and were suggestive of a musical rhythm. The poem also suggested the “possibility of a new black culture in literature, music, and the arts” (Ibid 1141). Through the structure of his poems and their rhythms, Hughes was able to express the spirit of the African American culture.


Langston Hughes will always be an important figure in the Jazz genre. The style of his poems often drew upon the African American culture prevalent in Harlem, and through his literature, he was able to celebrate his own cultural identity. He "[experimented with jazz and blues] more rewardingly than any other important poet of this century," and from his tinkering with words and music, he created a new genre of poetry (Taylor). Hughes is often referred to as the founder of jazz poetry since he was the “first African-American writer to make a conscious use of both jazz and blues music” in his poems (Davidas 268), and many of his works have become integrated into the works of others.

This video is a part of the Moving Poetry Series and features the works of Langston Hughes in the jazz poetry genre. His contributions to music and literature have become widely accepted as the foundation of the genre.

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