Blue Notes: Jazz History, Fiction, and Poetics
Medgar Evers College
Do not cite without permission of author.
Langston Hughes and the Fear of Black Music"
Hughes's 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"
is commonly taught as the definitive statement of jazz poetics-a poetics
that asserts the liberation of black poetry from Western Culture through
recovering authentic African American music and oral traditions. In particular,
Hughes's accomplishment in that essay and throughout the twenties is viewed
as the key to development of a poetics derived from music. It is exactly
the subordination, then, of poetry to music that is understood as enlivening
In this spirit, Arnold Rampersad writes about Langston Hughes's 1928 book, Fine Clothes to the Jew,
Hughes clearly showed that he had begun to see his own learned poetic art as inferior to that of "ordinary" blacks . At the heart of his sense of inferiority-which empowered rather than debilitated Hughes-was the knowledge that he (and other would-be poets) stood to a great extent outside the culture he worshipped. ("Fine Clothes"146-7)
As I have said, the assumption that African American poetics, to succeed in authentically representing the culture, must accept a subordination to folk forms and mass consciousness provides critical advantages for critics interpreting black culture. Steven Tracy, for example, in Langston Hughes and the Blues (1988) makes the case that Hughes's poetry exists in a shadow only lifted through knowledge of the blues tradition. His book epitomizes the tendency to tell the story of Hughes's development of the blues poem as a heroic discovery and appropriation of a new poetic form. Tracy assumes that African American poetry is fundamentally rooted in oral culture and that there is a march of progress across the twentieth century of black poetry re-finding and reclaiming its oral roots. The mission of the black poet, as Tracy represents Hughes's thought, is to bridge the gap between the folk mind and the mind of the educated African American intellectual. But that encounter is not an encounter between equals. He writes,
Hughes knew that he didn't need to make the folk his primary audience, though he certainly attempted to express aspects of the folk experience. He didn't need to interpret their lives for them because they already recognized their own beauty, and, because of their grounding in orality, they were already artists themselves. (46)
The black masses, Tracy argues, are already artists. They have no need for poetry because they already understand themselves perfectly through an oral tradition that Tracy equates with the blues. Art, in other words, is wasted on the black masses because it is superfluous. African American poetry, in Tracy's account of Hughes's thinking, is always the junior cousin of the oral tradition, trying to refine itself out of existence in order to provide the closest possible experience of the real, authentic, blues voice that antedates and supersedes it.
So while Rampersad is certainly right to say that Hughes saw jazz as empowering, it is equally clear that this prescription is intrinsically debilitating to poetry. In portraying the most accomplished expression of black culture as outside of poetry-outside, even, of his own culture-Hughes locates the very objective of his poetic project as beyond a poet's grasp. Music supplants, even renders superfluous, poetry's irreducible medium-language. I call this subordination of poetry to music "jazzaphobia," because jazz is at once an object of desire-the source of a purified inspiration-and a source of fear-because it represents the subordination of poetry to a signifying system alien to language.
Further, a jazzaphobic approach to culture devalues individual subjectivity in favor of a valorization of mass consciousness. For example, mass consciousness, as opposed to individual subjectivity, is the sole source of poetic value in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The word "individuality" in that essay as a result paradoxically refers to a collective identity. This becomes clear when Hughes measures the problem the black poet faces: "But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America-this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible" [emphasis added] (692). Hughes makes clear the "individuality" at issue here is a racial type, not the individual subjectivity of the poet. In writing, "They [the common people] furnish a wealth of distinctive material for any artist," Hughes does not refer to an individuality of the singular unique subjectivity, but rather to an individuality rooted in the common characteristics of a race. Mass culture has value, Hughes continues, exactly "because they [the common people] still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization" (693). To create "Negro art," then, and Hughes's own poetic project, is first and foremost a matter of finding a distinction between social identities, between the "mold of American standardization," and what he understands as the "racial individuality" that is black identity. Individuality here must remain plural: "they" hold "their" individuality. The conflict, then, is one that can't be solved within the singular subject.
For Hughes, then, music solves a basic problem in Harlem Renaissance aesthetics-how to link the elite artist to mass culture, which authorizes the poet's production and aesthetics. This hierarchy can also be seen as a reaction to Du Bois's ideal of the "talented tenth," in that jazz poetry is a reaction to an older generation's ideal of cultural progress in favor of the young avant-garde. Accepting as a premise that writing is an inadequate stand-in for music, of course, presents a grave problem for the poet-whose medium is in modern culture inextricably linked to the written word. The moment where jazz and poetry meet, therefore, is a moment of extreme anxiety in Hughes's work. While jazz, as "the Negro Artist" claims, may represent what he calls an "inherent expression," that all powerful expression cannot be made available through writing.
Unsurprisingly, this anxiety is particularly evident when a poem attempts to directly represent music. For example, in the poem "Ma Man," first published in 1926 and later included in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Hughes represents the moment when poem and music coincide as both a moment of the highest inspiration, and simultaneously as a moment when the written text fragments. The poem reads,
He kin play a banjo.
Lordy, he kin plunk, plunk, plunk.
He kin play a banjo.
I mean plunk, plunk plunk, plunk.
He plays good when he's sober
An' better, better when he's drunk.
The repetition of lines two and four is a convention of the blues stanza form, but that repetition also becomes a conscious correction. The speaker clarifies herself in the fourth line, saying, "I mean." The second set of repetitions, then, is the one privileged. The speaker repeats these as if clarifying herself, implying that the fourth line comes closer to fully expressing her meaning. In fact, this is strange, because when spoken the repetition of "plunk" in the line "Lordy, he kin plunk, plunk, plunk" is much more rhythmic, and therefore one would think a better representation of music, than the repetition in "I mean plunk, plunk plunk, plunk," which defies any attempt to read it musically because it is interrupted by the ellipsis. The ellipsis, marking a point where the line falters, ruins whatever rhythm with which you were reading the first syllables.
But in the context of the jazzaphobic subordination of language to music, this second try at imitation of the banjo is the better representation of music exactly because it is impossible to read the words rhythmically. Music's ultimate presence, in this poem, is signified by the failure of words. The "special communication," identified with music, is represented by a gap between the words-the space marked by the ellipsis. In ellipsis, words fail, and other, outside, signification is deferred to, literally by the ink on the page which denotes a point where language falters. The burden of signification in this gap is shifted onto music. In other words, jazz offers both the seductive possibility of collective secrets revealed, and the silencing and bankruptcy of the medium (writing) through which the poet would turn those secrets into art. The disruptive presence of perfect expression is signified with a textual mark that indicates a lack of meaning-an ellipsis. By fixing music-with its powerful multiplicity of meanings-with graphic signs that denote the presence of music through the disruption of written meaning, "Ma Man" reveals the collision and intermixing of writing, the inexpressible, and nonsense. In the process, this ellipsis reveals that the special form of communication that music embodies is essentially anti-poetic. Music is at once the site of the greatest significance, and the site where poetry is emptied out of meaning.
Critically, however, although the jazzaphobic impulse might be always present in poetry that appeals to music for meaning, there are more and less productive uses to which this paradoxical experience might be put. James Baldwin, for example, explicitly condemns the reliance on meanings outside of language within Hughes's poetry in his notoriously scathing 1959 review of Hughes's Selected Poems, titled "Sermon and Blues." For Baldwin, the intersection of music and poetry in Hughes's work is merely a failure of Hughes's imagination. Baldwin refers to Hughes's use of black music and culture in the language of secret codes, at one point calling it "hieroglyphics." He criticizes Hughes for not "forc[ing]" these glyphs "into the realm of art where their meaning would become clear and overwhelming" ("Sermon," 86). John Hollander makes a similar point about the relationship between music and poetry in Vision and Resonance (1985). Hollander writes that "the music of poetry" is fundamentally a metaphor, and a metaphor that "yokes by violence together what have become dissimilar activities" (10). Both Hollander and Baldwin insist that a poem must employ a type of violence-"force"-in its appeal to music in order to make the poem meaningful. "'Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop!,'" Baldwin writes, quoting lines from Hughes's 1951 poem "Dream Boogie," "conveys much more on Lenox Avenue than it does in this book, which is not the way it ought to be" ("Sermon" 86). Hughes's poetry, according to Baldwin, falls short from doing anything with this language of secret signs. "Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop!," Baldwin argues, which in the context of Lenox Avenue is meaningful, flattens into nonsense in Hughes's poem. This poetry can only refer to these hidden meanings with an empty gesture, depending on the reader to decode them using a frame of reference outside and apart from the poem. The poetry itself, therefore, has the epistemological value of a road sign.
Baldwin's argument is that Hughes simply accepts the subordination of his poems to an outside source of meaning without protest or even awareness of the effect on a poem. Hughes, Baldwin claims, does not attempt to exploit the irony of this situation. In the appeal to language only meaningful on Lenox Avenue, Baldwin implies, there is no accommodation of the poem's inevitable failure to capture the significance it gestures at. There is only the hope that the audience will supply the missing context that turns "Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop!" into a poetically meaningful phrase.
But in this, Baldwin underestimates Hughes's poetic sophistication. My purpose here is to defend Hughes against both his critics and his friends. Hughes seems quite aware of the problem of a jazzaphobic hierarchy. This can be seen, I have been arguing, in the ellipsis in "Ma Man," but further, it is central in the book which Rampersad and others take as the epitome of Hughes's achievement in the jazz poem form. Because if Fine Clothes to the Jew, like "The Negro Artist," celebrates jazz as the source of the black poet's creativity, it also raises questions about how the poet can escape the consequences of the subordination of language to music that this implies. If Fine Clothes includes "Ma Man," a poem whose ellipses I have used as an example of graphical subordination of poetry to music, the book also includes elements that struggle to find a means of turning attention away from music and back towards the medium poetry is made of-language. In that, this book is certainly, as Rampersad writes in "Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew," "the perfect companion piece" to "The Negro Artist," but because it more fully explores the contradiction that underlies the aesthetics of discovery that "The Negro Artist" inaugurates.
Understanding the importance of jazzaphobia reveals the extent to which Hughes's work, even in Fine Clothes, where poetry It is worth a moment to consider the structure of the book itself which underscores the books jazzaphobic dilemma. The volume opens with the poem "Hey," and closes with "Hey Hey," two poems that in 1932 were published as one two-stanza poem titled "Night and Morn" (Collected, 627). The book as a whole, therefore, can be read as a collection of stanzas for an extended lyric poem. The specificity of the reference to time, also suggests a single oral performance-"Hey" is set at dusk, "Hey Hey" at dawn as if the poet has been up all night. The space between "Hey," and "Hey Hey"-the space in which the poems in the volume occur-also suggests the space between a repetition, like the structure of jazz. In fact, the very lack of a grammatical connection between the words (shouldn't there be a comma? or two exclamation points?) removes any distraction from the title's status as a repetition. We are given no hints even on how to say these two "Heys," only confronted with them twice.
On the face of it, then, Fine Clothes elaborately frames itself as a piece of music: the poems like movements, the words like notes. The music analogy is extended once again in the recording The Weary Blues with Langston Hughes that Hughes made in 1958. The opening track, "Blues Montage," begins with "Hey," and that section of the album ends with "Hey Hey." But the book's aspiration to become music is only an appearance. The more the poems explore their own structure, the more they rediscover language. "Hey" and "Hey Hey" do not, as one might expect them to, present the arrival of the blues as wholly good, or the departure of the music as wholly bad. Instead, they insist on including the price that must be paid for the elevation of music over poetry as the source of meaning. The blues voice originates, these poems declare, in compulsion. In "Hey" the singer has no control over his or her song:
Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing.
Sun's a settin'.
This is what I'm gonna sing:
I feels de blues a comin,
Wonder what de blues'll bring?
The speaker is left a spectator-only able to "wonder" what is going to happen. He or she cannot know what is coming. The blues arrives and departs uncontrollably. It arrives and departs with the force of nature evident in the immutability of the weather, or the rising and setting of the sun. These are cycles tied to an elemental force, not to a poet's will. Of course, on balance, this compulsion would seem to be a good thing. The speaker begins to sing. He or she begins to feel. Though the blues may leave the speaker bewildered, they have made him or her an artist.
In the second bookend poem, "Hey Hey," the return of day and the close of the song/poem/book signify the return of control, yet because art is founded on compulsion, the return of human agency may also choke inspiration off. The poem reads,
Sun's a risin',
This is gonna be ma song.
Sun's a risin',
This is gonna be ma song.
I could be blue but
I been blue all night long.
"This is gonna be ma song" may be taken in a negative sense; in this reading, the speaker claims that this is going to be all of "ma song" that there is ever going to be. Along with the passing of the blues, the poet's music and voice is the passing. Likewise, the singer seems to be worn out by the music and ready to be done with it. At first glance, then, the pair of poems narrate an aesthetic founded on an inhuman automatic process. The force that gives the poems their meaning is unalterably outside the two poems and their speaker-derived from something wholly uncanny. This is a mass consciousness taking hold of the speaker.
But is the end of the blues the end or beginning of poetry? These lines can also be convincingly read as underscoring the new, possessive, adjective "ma"; now, the speaker can also be understood to mean, this new song that comes with the break of day is going to be mine-in contrast to what has come before, which was not mine. "Ma song," in this reading, signifies the return of voice, human control and possession. The passing of the blues, in this second reading, liberates the individual human artist's voice. The singer's voice not only persists past the time when the blues depart, but is even liberated from its previous captivity. This is underscored by final two lines, which, in sharp contrast to the compulsion of the initial lines of "Hey," present the poet as making a choice to move beyond the blues with represent a style now fully explored.
We can recognize this mini-drama, confined to the literal margins of the text, as the attempt to locate in the time before and after a blues performance a poetry that escapes the gravitational pull of music. Despite their ostensible imposition of the hierarchy of music over poetry, these poems reveal the reassertion of poetry and voice in the margins of the all encompassing signification of the music. Although the structure of the book itself seems to aspire to imitate music, it does so in a way that calls attention to the limitations the blues imposes on language. Further, the book's structure also insists that poetry bubbles up inevitably, marked by the loss of that central, unifying, meaning, but redeemed by being within the province of an individuality.
The same jazzaphobic dynamic is identifiable in the poem that gives the book its title (usually ascribed to-or blamed on-Carl Van Vechten). Fine Clothes to the Jew takes its title from a line in the poem, "Hard Luck," that raises the problem of what the cost of producing the blues is, and how that cost is to be paid. The lines run,
When bad luck overtakes you
Nothin' for you to do.
When hard luck overtakes you
Nothin' for you to do.
Gather up yo' fine clothes
An' sell 'em to de Jew.
In the title, the "fine clothes" can be understood to refer to the poems themselves, emphasizing the gesture of stripping away. Thus, the method by which the poems are produced in this volume is indeed founded on the abandonment of poetry itself-at least to the extent that poetry is synonymous with "finery" or conventions of beauty. "In Fine Clothes to the Jew," Rampersad writes, Hughes takes the blues "to their stripped and bare extreme" (Rampersad 1986, 160). In getting rid of his clothes, the speaker literalizes Rampersad's metaphor. Rampersad means to argue that in "stripping away" poetic conventions (the "fine clothes") Hughes reveals the new possibilities for poetics hidden in the bluesman's vernacular voice. But it is important to notice the very temporary endurance of this model of poetry-the aspect Hughes draws attention to by figuring the exchange through the metaphor of the Jew, who is, after all, meant to invoke a pawnshop. "Hard Luck" shows this process of "stripping down" to be temporal-it is a gesture. This is a sale, but one sells to a pawnshop at a loss. The underlying racism of the poem speaks also to this dilemma. A Jew is, of course, understood to be a shark, and the speaker gains time by submitting to him. It is not a true sale, but rather the assumption of a debt that the speaker in "Hard Luck" acknowledges will never be paid. This is less a new state of being, in other words, than the deferment of the moment of accountability. Again, the limiting role of time is implicit also in the structure of the book itself. By drawing attention to itself as a moment-one that begins at dusk and ends at dawn- Fine Clothes, like "Hard Luck," confines itself within a moment that must inevitably pass.
Similarly, in "Ma Man" the lines "He plays good when he's sober / An' better, better when he's drunk" demonstrate a similar attribution of the power of blues significance to create a deficit along with an aesthetic moment. Inspiration comes from an outside, intrusive and inevitably destructive source. In the case of "Ma Man," the banjo player's very drunkenness provides the essential element of skill. The blues are about precisely this moment of being overwhelmed, but the poems also try to find a way around this problem through an aesthetic production that happens despite music and only in its absence. Hughes not only leaves room for authentic poetic production outside of music and mass consciousness's influence, he underscores the need for poetry that emerges, fundamentally, for literary language and the written sign.
In The Big Sea, Hughes distances himself from the title Fine Clothes to the Jew, which would seem to argue against reading too much into it. Recounting the public outcry the title provoked among those who found it anti-Semitic, Hughes proclaimed himself indifferent to what the book was actually called (Big Sea 264).Yet his alternate choice for the title, "Brass Spittoons" also dramatizes the impossibility of shedding finery and convention without cost. It can even be read as an attempt to recover the power of the conventional beauty of language.
In "Brass Spittoons" the speaker attempts to separate out his oppressive existence cleaning spittoons from his attempt to lead a spiritual life. But even as he attempts to assert the separation of the product from the conditions of production, his thoughts are constantly interrupted by an oppressive voice-"Hey Boy!"
Clean the spittoons, boy.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
The problem in this passage is to escape the slime which is the same anywhere. The voice comes in as the speaker tries to distinguish the slime and degrading work from his own life. The pathos of "part of my life" is the calm, deliberate tone of the speaker, which gives the reader confidence he is capable of so much more. It is sound's very immediacy and power to compel attention that is so threatening in this poem. Sound is associated with a penetrating means of getting into the brain. The poem, after all, is violated by that "Hey, boy!" Sound, the outside of the poem, is cast as the violator. Sound breaks up the speaker's concentration, violating his isolation from the oppressive world around him. Worse, the voice of the boss, in the first quoted line, "Clean the spittoons, boy," becomes part of the speaker's internal monologue in its second repetition. It is as though the speaker has internalized the voice of his oppressor.
But, contrary to the resignation and surrender of "Hard Luck," it is exactly an aesthetic appreciation that offers the speaker a real possibility of separating the terms that threaten to overwhelm him. The speaker imagines sanctifying the products of his labor and therefore separating them from the oppression that accompanied their production:
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord
Bright polished brass like the cymbals of King David's dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
In this poem preserving the speaker's individual mind against the pressures from outside is paramount. And the solution to preserve the sanctity of the individual mind is the labor of aesthetic production. The speaker asserts that labor be separated out from the forced conditions that produce it. The brightness of the brass, the speaker claims, is "beautiful to the Lord" independently of its use. The speaker's labor, in creating this 'likeness,' sanctifies the object through making it beautiful-one can literally see God's work in the shine, which recalls the shining of the cymbals of King David. Through the likeness produced, its beauty recalls stories from the Bible. "Brass Spittoons" holds out the hope that aesthetic value can be "cleaned up" through hard work, liberated from the political context that tarnishes it. Finery, in this process, need not be discarded. It is capable of rehabilitation. Although the "Hey, boy!" continues to intrude upon the speaker's thoughts-rendering his solution available only within his mind-aesthetic labor retains value. The inside, aesthetic, world may be delusional, but in contrast to the provisional space available through "stripping down," the creation of beauty provides the speaker with an important interior space of his own. Aesthetics, the product of individuality, is the only safe place in a world of political repression. Beauty and labor, although they may not change the speaker's objective situation (he remains oppressed), help keep the mind and imagination free.
Further, in a reversal of the deferment of the highest significance to sound, in "Brass Spittoons" sound is the medium of the oppressor's voice. When a purified, holy music does enter into this poem, it is necessarily through the medium of written language. The simile "Bright polished brass like the cymbals of King David's dancers" suggests that the polished brass recalls the sound and movement of the cymbals and dancers; the comparison of "bright brass" to "cymbals" does not simply end with color and shine. "Brass" is a conventional metaphorical and literal description of music. The word "cymbals" hints at "symbols," a source of literary meaning. This is a type of beauty that begins to extend and expand categories of sensing. Hughes not only hints at the power of words to suggest music, light, and motion, but poses the highest form of music as one derived from the written word. In order to be meaningful and protected from the voice, music takes on fundamentally written/literary qualities of metaphor and literary image. The production of beauty and meaning becomes a process that is fundamentally linguistic and written.
In "Brass Spittoons" it is the very inability of the ideas the words on the page invoke to be realized in sound that creates their special significance. The literary image hints at meanings that could not exist in the experience of the senses. Here the very textual nature of written language is critical to the poem's ability to suggest music. Rather than a hierarchy in which music makes language secondary and derivative, it is the metaphoric power of association that produces the musical effect, not a direct imitative power of words. In suggesting that sound can be rehabilitated by being subordinated to language, "Brass Spittoons" brings the hierarchies of jazzaphobia full circle-sound is derivative of writing. This is a step beyond mere jazzaphobia; the expected subordination of poetry to music is overturned.
As a poem that reverses the hierarchy of jazzaphobia, "Brass Spittoons" is telling evidence against Baldwin's impatient dismissal of Hughes's use of music. It is also evidence against the too simple assumption that Hughes unproblematically accepted poetry's subordination to music as beneficial to his art. It is important, in other words, to recognize that Hughes's creativity does not end with the gesture of "stripping down." "Brass Spittoons," and other poems, are equally concerned with how meaning can be built back up while still retaining the creative power of repetition, but applying it to literary language and even that problematic finery-poetic convention.
In sum, inserting the term "jazzaphobic" into the critical discourse around Hughes is important if we are to understand the complexity of Hughes 1920s experiments with poetic form. Hughes's jazz poem was not simply the discovery of a new, unproblematic, source of poetic inspiration. Instead, it was an engagement with how far a poet could take the correspondence between music and the mass cultural tradition of jazz and the blues and poetry. Jazz is both a source of inspiration for Hughes, and also a crucial limit on the range of expression poetry can achieve. In particular, the later jazz poetry needs to be read in the light of a reaction to jazzaphobic aesthetics. Particularly poems such as "Ask Your Mama" and the sonnets in Shakespeare in Harlem are a reaction against the implicit limitations on language Hughes accepts in his early jazz poetry against and an attempt to use the jazzaphobic dilemma to produce a beauty both true to jazz and true to language.
Baldwin, James. "Sermons and Blues." New York Times 29 March 1959.
Hollander, John. Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography by Langston Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1994.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The Nation 1926: 692-94.
Rampersad, Arnold. "Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew." Callaloo 9.1 (Winter 1986): 144-57.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,