Today we feature recordings of Langston Hughes reading two of his earliest and best-known poems from his debut 1926 collection The Weary Blues. The first, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes wrote in 1920 when he was only 17. In her very close reading of this poem, Alexandra Socarides tells us that Hughes was just “emerging from a distinctly Midwestern childhood” and taking a train to Mexico City to spend a year with his estranged father when he wrote the lines: “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins.” (You can hear Hughes tell the story of writing the poem here). The short poem spans four rivers in three different continents, though “at the moment of its composition, it was the landscape of the Midwest [Hughes] knew best.”
Even before he had traveled the globe, Hughes’ concerns were global in scope. But he is most often associated with the jazz-age Harlem Renaissance scene, and rightly so. After his year in Mexico City, Hughes moved to New York to study at Columbia and helped pioneer a jazz poetry that anticipated Beats and Black Arts poets alike. The title poem of The Weary Blues is firmly situated in Harlem—“Down on Lenox Avenue” where a bluesman “made that poor piano moan with melody.” It’s a poem meant to be read aloud, and in the video above, you can see Hughes do so with accompanying jazz ensemble The Doug Parker Band for a 1958 Canadian program. That next year, Hughes collaborated with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather on an album of jazz readings called The Weary Blues.
Critic Donald B. Gibson once noted that Hughes may have “read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.” His generous populism didn’t always mean critical success—the two are often at odds—such that in 1969, Lindsay Patterson called him “the most abused poet in America” for the neglect or outright scorn his accessible poetry received from both black and white critics at the time. In a review of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s hard-to-find recorded readings of 50 of Hughes’ poem, Patterson wrote that Hughes’ work “must be heard, rather than read silently, for one to realize its emotional scope.” I disagree. From early short poems like “A Wooing” to later, longer works like “Prelude to Our Age,” Hughes’ work on the page is deeply evocative, complex, and rewarding. But while Hughes was steeped in history, he was also steeped in poetic tradition of a very American variety—Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen—that privileged musical language, vernacular expressions, and an exuberant personal voice, and that makes his work a particular joy to hear read, especially by the poet himself.