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Whose Blues?Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music$
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Adam Gussow

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469660363

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469660363.001.0001

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Langston Hughes and the Scandal of Early Blues Poetry

Langston Hughes and the Scandal of Early Blues Poetry

(p.128) Bar 7 Langston Hughes and the Scandal of Early Blues Poetry
Whose Blues?

Adam Gussow

University of North Carolina Press

The history of the blues is, among other things, a history of commentators who lament the appropriation, commercialization, dilution, sexing-up, and other misuse of the blues. Early blues scholar Howard Odum wrote about the blues in this way, decrying the “filth” propagated by the “depraved” Negro blues singers of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Langston Hughes, America’s first great Black blues poet, would later lament that popular theatre had “taken my blues and gone,” but he too, as a young and insurgent poet, was castigated by the Black press of his time as the “poet low-rate of Harlem” for having dared to depict his blues people with their bawdy, sometimes violent vitality intact. Focusing on Hughes’s key early poem, “The Weary Blues” (1925), this chapter seeks the source of his greatness as a blues translator—somebody who sensed power of blues lyricism and performance was located and found ways of conveying that power on the printed page, inventing blues literature in the process. This chapter also explores the so-called “blues craze” of the 1920s: the sudden emergence of a mass African American audience for race records on the heels of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920), followed by broader cultural participation.

Keywords:   Langston Hughes, Howard Odum, Blues, Blues poetry, Mamie Smith, Race records, African American, Literature

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