Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

It’s Langston Hughes’s birthday (Feb. 1, 1902- May 22, 1967). Known primarily as a poet, Hughes was a versatile writer: by his mid-twenties he had published challenging essays in national periodicals, and two books of poetry.

Here are two brief birthday tributes. The first is from his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, when he was 28.

This passage evokes a domestic scene in a small Kansas city, modeled on Lawrence, where Hughes spent several boyhood years. Hughes was proud of his humble roots, and the creativity it wrung from hardship, like the largely homemade blues songs by the itinerant laborer Jimboy. Here he has returned after a long absence seeking work. In Hughes’s prose, we can hear the poetry woven through it.

Jimboy was home. All the neighborhood could hear his rich low baritone voice giving birth to the blues. On Saturday night he and Annjee went to bed early. On Sunday night Aunt Hager said: “Put that guitar right up, less’n it’s hymns you plans on playin’. An’ I don’t want too much o’ them, ‘larmin’ de white neighbors.”

But this was Monday, and the sun had scarcely fallen below the horizon before the music had begun to float down the alley, over back fences and into kitchen-windows where nice white ladies sedately washed their supper dishes. . . .

Long, lazy length resting on the kitchen-door-sill, back against the jamb, feet in the yard, fingers picking his sweet guitar, left hand holding against its finger-board the back of an old pocket-knife, sliding the knife upward, downward, getting thus weird croons and sighs from the vibrating strings:

O, I left ma mother
An’ I cert’ly can leave you.
Indeed I left ma mother
An’ I cert’ly can leave you,
For I’d leave any woman
That mistreats me like you do. . . .

It was all great fun, and innocent fun except when one stopped to think, as white folks did, that some of the blues lines had, not only double, but triple meanings, and some of the dance steps required very definite movements of the hips. But neither Harriett nor Jimboy soiled their minds by thinking. . . .

“Do you know this one, Annjee?’ calling his wife’s name out of sudden politeness because he had forgotten to eat her food, had hardly looked at her, in fact, since she came home. Now he glanced towards her in the darkness where she sat plump on a kitchen chair in the yard , apart from the others, with her back to the growing corn in the garden. Softly he ran his fingers, light as a breeze, over his guitar strings, imitating the wind rustling through the long leaves of the corn. A rectangle of light from the kitchen-door fell into the yard striking sidewise across the healthy orange-yellow of his skin above the unbuttoned neck of his blue laborer’s shirt. 

“Come on, sing it with us, Annjee,” he said.

“I don’t know it,” Annjee replied, with a lump in her throat, and her eyes on the silhouette of his long, muscular, animal-hard body. She loved Jimboy too much, that’s what was the matter with her! She knew there was nothing between him and her young sister except the love of music, yet he might have dropped the guitar and left Harriett in the yard for a little while to come eat the nice cold slice of ham she had brought him. She hadn’t seen him all day long. When she went to work this morning, he was still in bed–and now the blues claimed him.

In the starry blackness the singing notes of the guitar became a plaintive hum, like a breeze in a grove of palmettos; became a low moan , like the wind in a forest of live-oaks strung with long strands of hanging moss. The voice of Annjee’s golden, handsome husband on the door-step rang high and far away, lonely-like, crying with only the guitar, not his wife, to understand; crying grotesquely, crying absurdly in the summer night:

I got a mule to ride.
I got a mule to ride.
Down in the South somewhere
I got a mule to ride.

Then asking the question as an anxious left-lonesome girl-sweetheart would ask it:

You say you goin’ North
You say you goin’ North
How ‘bout yo’ … lovin’ gal?
You say you goin’ North.

Then sighing in rhythmical despair:

O, don’t you leave me here,
Babe, don’t you leave me here.
Dog-gone yo’ comin’ back!
Said don’t you leave me here.

On and on the song complained, man-verses and woman-verses, to the evening air in stanzas that Jimboy had heard in the pine-woods of Arkansas from the lumber-camp workers; in other stanzas that were desperate and dirty like the weary roads where they were sung; and in still others that the singer created spontaneously in his own mouth then and there:

O, I done made ma bed,
Says I done made ma bed.
Down in some lonesome grave
I done made ma bed.

It closed with a sad eerie twang.

“That’s right decent,” said Hager. “Now I wish you-all’d play some o’ ma pieces like When de Saints Come Marchin’ In or This World Is Not Ma Home–something Christian from de church.”

“Aw, mama, it’s not Sunday yet,” said Harriett.

“Sing Casey Jones,” called old man Tom Johnson. “That’s ma song.”

So the ballad of the immortal engineer with another mama in the Promised Land rang out promptly in the starry darkness, while everybody joined in the choruses.

“Aw, pick it, boy,” yelled the old man. “Can’t nobody play like you.”

And Jimboy remembered when he was a lad in Memphis that W. C. Handy had said: “You ought to make your living out of that, son.” But he hadn’t followed it up–too many things to see, too many places to go, too many other jobs.

“What song do you like, Annjee?” he asked, remembering her presence again. . . .

Not Without Laughter is a rich novel, packed with color and insight and compassion. Hughes is frank abut the impact of racism, and the anger many people of color carried because of it. Yet he is also candid about the internal tensions of this community:  lighter vs. darker color discrimination; jagged class distinctions and snobbery; even struggles over religion.
Yet there is an underlying generosity to his storytelling, a sense of a people being beleaguered but not defeated.

Langston Hughes

The second tribute is a poem, which I had the good fortune to hear recited by Mrs. Coretta Scott King in the hard summer of 1968, at a rally for her late husband’s Poor People’s  Campaign.

Mother to Son


Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


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