Langston Hughes and The Weary Blues

While Langston Hughes was not a Jazz musician, he is known as a leader of the Jazz poetry genre. His poetic forms, remembered for their spirit, contain many stylistic devices also characteristic of music, especially the blues. This fully American music stemmed from the mixing of cultures, from the two traditions from which Langston Hughes was birthed. His work represents a culmination of the African-American, post-World War I, and Jazz traditions. But, for the sake of length in this post, we’ll just look at the African-American and blues traditions.

The African-American slave tradition tore people from their homes and introduced them to new living conditions and to new music. Earlier slave music is notably rhythmic, and this lends itself easily to poetry. The rhythms came from the work being done, monotonous tasks such as hammering or pushing weights, and this combined with a new vernacular of African shouts and hollers with the English of America. It created something personal, for each slave on each plantation had their own story to sing about.

The beauty of this tradition is that even though every slave had their own story, they chose to combine them to create a community of song. The “freedom song” then began to contain repeated lines that a leader could sing and the group could finish.

A visual way of thinking about it is with letters. AAB is a typical call and response form that is used throughout all of history. In it, a leader sings a line (A), the people repeat that line (A again), and then the leader creates a new line (B) that could be a call to action or a transition into the next verse.

This call and response form created standards for their music while still allowing the singers to continually create new lines. Jazz, however, is not a sole child of slave songs and spirituals.

Jazz is a music birthed of freedom.

The blues fully developed as a form when slaves were freed, and they spread around America in attempts to locate their lost relatives and a better life. In the process, they shared their life stories with those who would listen. Langston Hughes travelled widely and discovered new and interesting people who all influenced his work. The early blues structure based itself off of the early English ballad, which was perfect for the sharing of stories, and that evolved into the now-traditional twelve-bar AAB blues form.

In the case of “The Weary Blues,” Langston Hughes reinforces the AAB traditional blues but does so without actually repeating text. While the lines of the narrator do not repeat, the number of syllables for each line does repeat and then varies on the third line. The poem begins with two lines of ten syllables each: “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,” followed by one line of six syllables: “I heard a Negro play.” The meter in these lines, however, does not remain constant, which signifies Hughes employment of the traditional African sense of rhythm.

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Hughes uses the same technique in most of the lines of the narrator, such as “With his ebony hands on each ivory key. / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues!” In limiting himself to maintaining two lines of the same number of syllables, Hughes allows himself to improvise within a framework, to redefine meter within a specific structure, which makes it effective, for it is deliberate. “The Weary Blues,” however, does contain lines with syllables that do not seem to correspond to any other line and seem not to serve a purpose. These unmatched lines represent the blues spirit in its attempt at improvising around rhythm. Since dissonance and disjoint rhythms characterize Jazz, the representation of Jazz in the meter of specific lines displays the understanding of blues rhythm that Langston Hughes must have possessed.

While Langston Hughes was not a musician himself, he yearned to be, and to fulfill his dreams of music, he read his poetry to audiences with live accompaniment. He collaborated with famous Jazz legends like W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Louis Armstrong, some of whom may have inspired his “The Weary Blues.”

This post is based on a project I did back when I was still in university. There is so much more to unpack in this poem like improvisation, modernism, and even more about rhythm, so I hope to revisit this poem in the future.

What are your thoughts on the blues, Jazz, or Jazz poetry? Share in the comments below!

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That Star-Spangled Banner

Today, we Americans remember those who have fought for the ideals of our nation. Although national pride isn’t as rampant as it once was, the flag still inspires feelings of awe and gratitude in many citizens, and it’s something that all Americans have looked upon at least once in their lives.

The National Anthem, based on the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by Francis Scott Key summarizes the feelings of hope that Star-Spangled Banner gave him as he watched helplessly from captivity.

While Americans traditionally only sing the first stanza, the other three stanzas describe the long night Key witnessed and end with a call to action.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The first stanza is explosive, sounding as if Key watches fireworks all night, but these threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. It’s fitting, then, that Independence Day celebrations often include massive fireworks displays accompanied by this anthem.

Yet, the second verse stands in stark contrast. “On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep / Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes.” It’s dark and quiet, and perhaps that’s the most terrifying part. After the bombast that occurs only moments before, it feels as if the enemy is about to sneak up behind you.

Or worse. You lost.

But, light fills the darkness, and there the flag waves. To Key in that moment, it’s the most beautiful thing he’s seen.

With the light, sound also returns in the third stanza. In an almost mocking tone, Key asks where the enemy’s battle song went. He sings their song back to them and wonders why their words didn’t ring true. And there is that flag, waving now in triumph.

The very last stanza mirrors the first in patriotism, speaking of the ideals of his people and how they are free men. And then he ends with a call to action.

“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just” refers to the freedom to take up arms but only if the reason you’re doing so is morally right. This is both a command and a warning to future generations who would read this poem.

But of course, no matter what happens to us, that Star-Spangled Banner waves above and represents what we believe in. Sure, an entire nation can’t agree completely, but the idea is that it reminds the soldiers out there why they’re fighting, olympic athletes what they stand for, citizens what is given to them: home.

Below you can listen to all four stanzas being sung to the familiar tune.

Like many patriotic anthems and folk tunes of America’s history, the lyrics and music were written by different people. Thus, while Key wrote the poem, an English gentleman by the name of John Stafford Smith composed the music.

The original tune was actually the official song of a music club in London in the 18th century. Below is a picture of the first page.

The Anacreontic Song

As you can see, while the backbones of the American National Anthem are present here, it is sung much differently today. This is due to a long history of being published and sung at different gatherings. Aural traditions tend to bear multiple contrasting versions of original tunes.

In 1937, President Woodrow Wilson wanted one standard version of the song, so the help of Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, and John Philip Sousa were enlisted. This version is the one used today.

The way the current tune differs from the “Anacreonic Song” is most notably rhythmic. The original is very straight with very few dotted rhythms, but the modern version uses dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth (long-short, long-short) frequently. Historically, this rhythm expresses regality because of its association with the court, mainly due to the influence of the French Overture in Europe. Whatever the reason for switching to that rhythm, it gives the song a bouncy, triumphic feeling.

Like the flag itself, it gives hope to those who need it. Both remind Americans of what they treasure: their home.

And today, we Americans remember those who gave that to us. May we never forget the past, and may we fight but only “when our cause it is just.”

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Ravel: Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin

You made it to the weekend!

I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces as a fun way to start the weekend. The “Rigaudon” from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of the pieces that made me fall in love with piano, and it’s just a fun piece to both listen to and play (hopefully I’ll have a good quality recording before too long).

Ravel began work on Le Tombeau de Couperin while he worked as a nurse’s aid in World War I.  Each movement in the work is dedicated to a friend that he lost during the war, thus allowing them to live on eternally through song.  The Rigaudon form stems from a lively, French folkdance that gained popularity in the court of Louis XIII. In the ballet, it was performed with a lot of running and a lot of leaping, which you may also do when you listen to Ravel’s version.

In the future, I’ll do a little essay on Couperin himself and his influence on later keyboard composers (especially Ravel!), but for now, it’s the weekend. Just enjoy this fun one!

And happy practicing!

On “To Music, To Becalm His Fever”

Robert Herrick, a forgotten poet of the seventeenth century, leaves his legacy in song. Known as the “songwriter,” his work is among the easiest to set to music.

Blake R. Henson arranged one of Herrick’s most widely recognized poems, “To Music, To Becalm His Fever,” in a choral setting of tense chord clusters that resolve into freeing harmonies. They mimic the structure of the poem. Give it a listen and revel in the movement from tension to release.

The poem is written in three stanzas of eleven lines each, which may make it feel a little unbalanced. Perhaps that is the point. The words constantly move forward, never finding rest until the end. The lines shorten as the stanzas progress, in a pattern of 87874474443. They move in and out like waves, settling on the final, emphasized line. The effect on the audience is much greater when the rhyme-scheme of ababccdeeed is taken into account. The “d” rhyme, or “sever” in the first stanza, is almost forgotten until the last line rings out.

Read it aloud a few times, and you’ll feel the punch at the end.

To Music, To Becalm His Fever

Charm me asleep, and melt me so
With thy delicious numbers,
That, being ravish’d, hence I go
Away in easy slumbers.
Ease my sick head,
And make my bed,
Thou power that canst sever
From me this ill,
And quickly still,
Though thou not kill
My fever.

Thou sweetly canst convert the same
From a consuming fire
Into a gentle licking flame,
And make it thus expire.
Then make me weep
My pains asleep;
And give me such reposes
That I, poor I,
May think thereby
I live and die
‘Mongst roses.

Fall on me like the silent dew,
Or like those maiden showers
Which, by the peep of day, do strew
A baptism o’er the flowers.
Melt, melt my pains
With thy soft strains;
That, having ease me given,
With full delight
I leave this light,
And take my flight
For Heaven.

Not all music has to have notes. This poem is music all on its own, and maybe that’s why it’s so easily set to music. Henson’s title of the setting, “My Flight For Heaven” is a beautiful way to emphasize what seems to be the most important lines of the poem. It certainly feels that every word leads to those.

A Little Bit of Math and Magic

Music. It hovers around us every day. Some say that it is a fundamental part of being.

At its base, music is a collection of sounds in the air. (Some old-fashioners would say “organized sounds,” but we have John Cage to thank for a more inclusive definition.) Once the air molecules cease to vibrate, the music ceases. It wisps away as if it never happened, and all we have left is the memory of the sounds that came before.

It is the most present of all the arts.

Perhaps this is why it’s also one of the most stressful creative endeavors. Seriously, little kids have some serious guts to play in front of their peers, and even more to play for their parents. Great job, kids with musical extracurriculars! Expectations of excellence fill those environments, and I’m glad I started piano late enough to avoid much of that.

Even into college years, however, performing live music is terrifying. You’ve got one shot, one four-minute slot in a departmental recital, to prove your worth (while hopefully also creating something worth listening to). How you approach that moment can make or break you. And that’s why so many musicians have anxiety.

It’s the hours that turn to days, to weeks, to months, and to years of preparation that culminate into one moment. If you mess up, you think you didn’t practice enough. You should’ve slept less and practiced that one passage a billion times more. Sometimes that’s exactly what you should’ve done. Other times…not so much.

At some point in their musical careers, the pros learn to just let it happen. Those months and years of preparation are the best they can do. Freaking out in the moment does not help at all. So they let go. (To be clear, pros still have performance anxiety, but they approach it in a much more graceful way than I’ve yet figured out. If you’ve got that part down, then go you! Also, teach me!)

For a musician, the moment they walk onstage is comparable to stepping calmly (or not so calmly) off of a high-flying aircraft, no parachute in tow. They have two options: 1. Flap their arms like a crazy person trying to take flight and die in pile of tired anxiety, or 2. Accept it and make the most of the time between them and the ground.

This is where the magic comes in!

They don’t really have to die from walking onstage.

Musicians are silly. They always forget what happens when they choose option number two: they learn to fly. That ability is somewhere inside them, probably from all the practicing. Musicians are at their most vulnerable when they perform, and watching them find the magic and learn to fly is one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences known to humanity. It’s why we keep coming back.

So, while all the mathematics and theory on the music itself is equally important, most of us stick around to watch ordinary people learn to fly.

A Good Chord on a Bad Piano

Piano: the instrument that continues to sing to the soul of humanity since its birth in the fifteenth century. A symbol of Baroque perfection, the harpsichord evolved into the piano to find a place in every genre of music.

Classical, jazz, metal, rock, folk, pop, musical theatre, mainstream, or high-brow, the piano, in some capacity, is a part of just about every genre of music, whether it’s the traditional acoustic instrument or a synthesizer.

The piano very well may be the most versatile instrument, and we’re still listening to it after six-hundred years of musical growth.

Why?

The answer lies, partially, in why art is still a part of our culture today.

So what, exactly, is art?

Entire degree programs seek an answer to this question, and I am but a mere mortal. What I can do is look at one minuscule aspect of what art does.

Oscar Wilde opens his arguably most popular work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a short treatise on art. One of his more popular quotes, “All art is quite useless,” closes this prologue. In the passage, he writes declarations that art possesses no morality; that it doesn’t try to prove anything, only express everything. It’s here that we find one action art takes: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Art mirrors us.

So, where in the piano do we find ourselves?

If you’re even vaguely aware of the news or current events, you’ll know just how flawed humanity is. We are selfish. We are hateful. We seek to love and fail that every day. Humanity is imperfect.

But guess what! So is the piano!

This video was floating around social media a while ago, but it’s still worth a watch. In a short physics lesson, the MinutePhysics team explains why a piano cannot be perfectly tuned. In short, it has to do with the ratios between the frequencies at which certain pitches, or notes, vibrate. Chords are comprised of different intervals of notes. An octave’s ratio is 1:2, a perfect fifth 3:2, and so on. The more complex the ratio, the “less pure” a sound. Because the piano contains so many notes, however, it makes keeping those ratios impossible, so most pianos (and other digital instruments) today use what’s known as The Equal Temperament System.

In Equal Temperament, the ratio of the octave (1:2) is the only one that remains the same. Every interval in between gets squeezed a tiny bit in order to fit the twelve chromatic notes in between each octave. The ratios of the equal temperament notes come out as exceptionally complex, so a major third (which should be 5:4, expressed as 1.25) has a ratio of 1.25992. It’s a little funky, right?

This means that you can play in any key (D major, F major, whatever you want) on the piano, and it will be equally out of tune with all other keys.

There’s something romantic about that imperfection.

Let’s go a step further: take an already imperfectly-tuned piano, neglect it for many years, and you’ll have the same instrument many people have in their homes (I’m hoping not a ton). Some horror films would be remiss without an abandoned piano, and there’s always at least one neglected piano in a music school. Yet, there’s something nostalgic about pianos in condemned buildings. It brings the dead atmosphere back to life in a way that only an imperfect instrument can.

A GOOD CHORD ON A BAD PIANO

The fissures in the studio grow large.
Transplantings from the Rivoli, no doubt.
Such latter-day disfigurements leave out
All mention of those older scars that merge
On any riddled surfaces about.

Disgusting to be sure. On days like these,
A good chord on a bad piano serves
As well as shimmering harp-runs for the nerves.
F minor, with the added sixth. The keys
Are like old yellow teeth; the pedal swerves;

The treble wires vibrate, break, and bend;
The padded mallets fly apart.
Both instrument and room have made a start.
Piano and scene are double to the end,
Like all the smashed-up baggage of the heart.

This poem, by Weldon Kees tells the story many of us feel.

When Kees refers to the “fissures in the studio,” he might be referring to his studio, or his own mind. In literature, the mind is oftentimes referred to as a studio or a room of some kind. Figurative or physical, the room ages and grows some cracks and scars. For imagery, he references Rivoli, which most likely refers to the Battle of Rivoli, a French victory over Austria that came at the cost of an Italian commune.

In the second stanza, Kees switches to the piano itself. On days when you feel broken, the “good chord on a bad piano serves / As well as shimmering harp-runs for the nerves.” Sometimes sparkly music just isn’t right for the soul. The F minor chord with an added sixth has a questioning but overarching melancholy tone. It asks, “What will come next?” It is both hopeful and hopeless.

The final stanza zooms out from the instrument to include the pianist. “Both instrument and room” could refer to the physical space, or to the heart and head of the pianist, or, most likely, both. The last lines leaves the reader to float off in thought: “Piano and scene are double to the end, / Like all the smashed-up baggage of the heart.” This is us.

I don’t mean to over-explain (and I certainly haven’t studied enough poetry, so I’m not even qualified to do so), but I did want to show the way I understand the longevity of the piano.

My first piano teacher shared this poem with me when I was complaining about the neglected piano at my grandmother’s house that I hated to play. While I didn’t appreciate the poem when he shared it with me, it stuck in my heart until the day I could hear the humanity in it.

Like Wilde so passionately put, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” When you’re feeling as if you can’t do anything right, as if you’re so very far from where your goals need you to be, play a good chord on a bad piano. The piano will be right there with you: beauty out of imperfection.