Watch Langston Hughes Read Poetry from His First Collection, The Weary Blues (1958)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tents:

Poems as Short Films: Langston Hugh­es, Pablo Neru­da and More

Hear Sylvia Plath Read Fif­teen Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in 1962 Record­ing

Hear the Very First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing His Epic Poem “Howl” (1956)

Ezra Pound’s Fiery 1939 Read­ing of His Ear­ly Poem, ‘Ses­ti­na: Altaforte’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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