Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by Steven C. Tracy

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
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Critical Essay by Steven C. Tracy

SOURCE: "'Midnight Ruffles of Cat-Gut Lace': The Boogie Poems of Langston Hughes," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 55-68.

In the following essay, Tracy analyzes Hughes's use of the boogie-woogie form in five poems from Montage of a Dream Deferred.

The influence of the blues tradition on Langston Hughes's poetry is by now an oft-discussed and readily accepted fact, although the depth and breadth of his employment of the tradition has not often been discussed with a similar depth and breadth. A close examination of a related sequence of Hughes's blues poems offers the opportunity to explore his fusion of oral and written traditions and to examine his tremendous skills as a literary-jazz improviser. That is not to suggest that Hughes's poems are spontaneous creations. Improvisation is normally thought of as a spontaneous act, but the jazz or blues musician's improvisations are in fact bounded by several things: the musician's "vocabulary"—style, patterns, techniques, and riffs; the accepted conventions of the specific genre (even if those conventions are deliberately violated, they are, in a large sense, at work); and the boundaries of the individual piece being performed. For example, boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, in his 1947 version of "Swanee River Boogie," performs the melody of the song to a boogie-woogie beat, thereafter improvising solos built around the song's chord changes, the boogie-woogie beat, and variations on the melody of the piece, combined with his arsenal of boogie-woogie riffs and performed in his inimitable style. Hughes, in his 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred, generated a set or sequence of six "boogie" poems—"Dream Boogie," "Easy Boogie," "Boogie 1 a.m.," "Lady's Boogie," "Nightmare Boogie," and "Dream Boogie: Variation"—that have in common much more than the "boogie" of the titles. The poems comprise an intricate series of interwoven "improvisations" over a set boogie-woogie rhythm, with Hughes modulating and modifying rhythm, words, imagery, moods, and themes, and constructing a complex interrelationship between music, the musical instrument, the performance, and a set of attitudes exemplified by them.

Structurally, Hughes's six boogie poems share the exciting, rushing rhythms of boogie-woogie: Hughes at work on his poems, pounding out rhythms on his typewriter keyboard. Briefly, boogie-woogie is a form of Afro-American music, normally performed on the piano, that emerged as a recognizable genre in the 1920s. As blues researcher Karl Gert zur Heide points out, "the theme of boogie is the blues, some features derive from ragtime, and the rhythmic interplay of both hands can be traced back to African roots." In boogie-woogie, the improvisations executed by the pianist's right hand on the treble keys of the piano are set off against the ostinato or repeated phrases of the left hand on the bass keys. Characteristically boogie-woogie follows the twelve-bar blues chord change pattern—in the key of C, CFC GFC—employing a repeated bass pattern recognizable most often for its eight beats to the bar and performed at a medium-to-fast tempo that builds an explosive drive and swing appropriate to the dance step after which it was named. Besides identifying a dance step and a type of music, however, the term "boogie" functions in other contexts: to boogie is to raise a ruckus or act wildly or uninhibitedly; it also has sexual connotations:

     I'm gonna pull off my pants and keep on my shirt,
     I'm gonna get so low you think I'm in the dirt.
     I'm gonna pitch a boogie-woogie,
     Gonna boogie-woogie all night long.

In this tune, singer Big Bill Broonzy has taken a boogie-woogie beat suitable for dancing and provided both the "wild acting" and sexual connotations that go with it. In the tradition, the word carried these connotations, and typically Hughes tried to capture the ambience of the tradition.

Hughes demonstrated his knowledge of boogie-woogie in The First Book of Jazz, in which he and his coauthors identified among the outstanding exponents of boogie-woogie "Pinetop" Smith, Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson—all important and generally recognized masters. It was the spirited, exuberant, danceable, and often rhythmically complex and intricate music of performers like those men that provided the basis for Hughes's boogie poem rhythms and the connotations of the word and the tradition that he tried to capture in his poems.

Hughes obviously wanted us to hear the boogie rhythms in these poems: the first four poems in the boogie sequence ("Dream," "Easy," "1 a.m.," and "Lady's") are very "aural"; the words "hear" and "heard" are employed repeatedly, both in a question—

     Ain't you heard
     The boogie-woogie rumble
     Of a dream deferred?

and an assertion—

     I know you've heard
     The boogie-woogie rumble
     Of a dream deferred.

The incessant rhythm and rumbling of boogie-woogie becomes in the poems symbolic of the dream he had delineated in his earlier poem "Dream Variations":

      To fling my arms wide
      In some place of the sun,
      To whirl and to dance
      Till the white day is done
      Then rest at cool evening
      Beneath a tall tree
      While night comes on gently,
                       Dark like me—
      That is my dream!

Hughes is trying to get black people to recognize that the deferment of that dream is a large part of their lives, both by questioning and by asserting the "obvious." If they hadn't heard that boogie-woogie rumble, they could certainly hear it in the rhythms of Hughes's poems; for example, if one were to treat "Dream Boogie," the first poem of the sequence and therefore a prototype for the other poems in the sequence, as if it were a lyric to be sung to boogie-woogie music, and identify the beats and chord changes as they relate to the words, the annotation would look as follows:

          1  2 34 567 8
       Good morning, daddy!
       1  2 34 5 6 7
       Ain't you heard
       8  12   34   56
       The boogie-woogie rumble
       7 8 12  34  56 7 8
       Of a dream deferred?
       1234  567
       Listen closely:
       8   12  34   5678
       You'll hear their feet
        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
       Beating out and beating out a—
       You think
       It's a happy beat?
       1  2  3  4  5 6 7 8
       Listen to it closely:
       1 2 3 4 5 6 78
       Ain't you heard
        1  2  3 4 5 6  7 8
       Something underneath like a—
       What did I say?
       I'm happy!
       Take it away!
       Hey pop!

What Hughes has done is create a twelve-line, twelve-bar boogie-woogie poem, annexing an exclamatory "tag" ending like those occasionally employed in music. Here, though, Hughes has manipulated the form and rhythm: stanzas two and three are jarred by the dramatic insertion of disturbing questions that achieve their impact by rewording the line we would expect in the normal rhythm and progression of thoughts into a question. Thus, in stanza two, "Beating out and beating out a happy beat" becomes:

     Beating out and beating out—
     You think
     It's a happy beat?

Just as Hughes shifts to the interrogative and separates those questions from their normal stanzaic group, he just as surely upsets the boogie-woogie rhythm, eventually violating even the rhyming pattern in stanza three. This is significant because stanza three draws on the first two stanzas for a repetition of important lines: "Listen closely" of stanza two becomes "Listen to it closely" (Hughes employs a common characteristic of blues lyrics, building slightly modulated lines around loose formulaic patterns) in stanza three, while "Ain't you heard" of stanza one is lifted verbatim. Stanza three, however, becomes deliberately vague—"Something underneath"—in order to force the audience to answer the subsequent question, "What did I say?" By upsetting the rhythm and asking the questions, Hughes highlights the disparity between the rumbling seriousness of the deferred dream and the superficial happiness of the beat or performance. To this masterful maneuvering of the idiom Hughes annexes the "tag" ending—in jazz and blues a four-bar section appended to the end of a tune that repeats a phrase, offers a final comment, or indicates that the performance is about to end—often for those dancing to the performance. Hughes's seven-line ending contrasts once again the happiness of the words/music performance with the underlying problem. In light of the dramatic irony with which Hughes dealt with the subject earlier, this return to the facade of carefree happiness adds psychological complexity to the poem. Hughes felt that blacks needed to recognize the reality of deferred dreams, as he has forced in stanza three, but in stanza four he emphasizes the need to retain the spirit of cultural expression and the usefulness of the elaborate role-playing that provided blacks with the opportunity for advances, while whites concentrate on the superficial happy roles that blacks played.

The boogie rhythms extend to other poems in the sequence, although the twelve-bar progression is not necessarily present in any of them. "Easy Boogie," "Nightmare Boogie," and "Dream Boogie: Variation" could theoretically fit into the twelve-bar pattern annotated with the variations above. One indication that they may not have been intended to fit into the twelve-bar pattern is the presence, in "Easy Boogie," of the line "Riffs, smears, breaks" between stanzas two and three, which seems to indicate an instrumental break that would not be characteristic in a standard twelve-bar blues—the breaks would come between the twelve-bar verses. This underscores the importance of "hearing" the boogie-woogie rhythm and spirit of the performance as opposed to following a predetermined structure. "Lady's Boogie" and "Boogie 1 a.m." reemphasize the distinction, each of them eight-line poems (with an additional mock-jive exclamation in the former) in boogie rhythm. These poems, then, are tied together by the rhythm and spirit of boogiewoogie—a rhythm and spirit that Hughes clearly intended for us to hear.

The poems, of course, have other features in common besides boogie-woogie rhythm. The first four poems in the sequence all employ black jive slang: in "Dream Boogie" he uses "Daddy!" and "Hey pop! Re-hop! Mop! Y-e-a-h!"; in "Easy Boogie" he uses "Hey, Lawdy, Mama!"; in "Boogie 1 a.m." he uses "Daddy!"; and in "Lady's Boogie" he employs the phrase "Be-Bach!" Coupled with the boogie rhythms this plying of black speech demonstrates the influence of oral culture on Hughes's work, giving the distinctively black flavor to the poems necessary to suggest encoded messages appropriate to a segregated group of people. Music critic John McDonough has pointed out the usefulness of slang code words:

There is a fraternal link that always seems to bond together those who would challenge or otherwise separate themselves from the mainstream of social custom. Sometimes the trappings and devices of such brotherhood are enjoyed for their own sake—a sort of college game without substance. But more commonly, they have a very specific and necessary function. In a hostile and crowded world, such devices identify each member to the other. It may be a handshake, a secret word or phrase, gesture or symbol. In short, a lexicon of code words that separate the true believers from the indifferent or unfriendly.

Hughes doesn't employ code words that whites are unlikely to understand, but the words are readily identifiable with black culture, and by doing so he intimates that his message is directed at blacks and, to a great measure, originates with them.

This slang also helps call attention to the similarities and contrasts of the poems. Both "Dream Boogie" and "Boogie 1 a.m.," for example, are narrated by women, as indicated by the address "Daddy." This address, along with "Papa," is common in the blues songs of females and in black culture in general, but the term of address would not be used by a male; "Daddy-o" would be used, but not simply "Daddy." This use of a female speaker, which is also prevalent in Hughes's blues poems, is important in that it indicates that the ideas are not necessarily identifiable with a single viewpoint: that of the black male Hughes. The suggestion is that the problems of blacks connected with deferred dreams is not simply an intricate artistic stance of the author, but the representative stance of sensitive blacks, both male and female, who, especially in terms of the sexual theme of the poems, will be creating future generations.

"Dream Boogie" is a poem of beginnings: besides being the first poem of the sequence, it is the poem that greets at the beginning of the day and poses the nagging and disconcerting questions dealt with repeatedly in the other poems. It is appropriate that this is the first poem in the sequence, since upon awakening one would have the best chance of recalling dreams, and awakening from the fantasy/dream world to reality would accentuate the disparity between those two worlds. In "Dream Boogie" the speaker asks questions, in contrast to "Boogie 1 a.m.," a poem of conclusion that addresses the listener at day's end—"Good evening, Daddy"—and asserts that the listener is aware of the rumblings of the dream deferred, presumably after day-long contact with the white-controlled world.

Similarly, "Easy Boogie," the second poem of the sequence, and "Lady's Boogie," the fourth, are related. In contrast to "Dream Boogie," in "Easy Boogie" a man addresses a woman—"Hey, Lawdy Mama!" The speaker associates the recognition of the steady beat of the dream deferred with the vitality of the sexual act:

      Hey, Lawdy Mama!
      Do you hear what I said?
      Easy like I rock it
      In my bed!

This sexual vitality, implicit in the word "boogie," as already pointed out, is also linked with the soul's aspirations through the repetition of sentence construction:

      Down in the bass
      That easy roll
      Rolling like I like it
      In my soul.

The souls' dreams are seen as vital, lively, and life-giving. Thus through the repetition of phrases and structures, Hughes expands the importance of his words beyond their initial or superficial meanings.

"Lady's Boogie" exposes the superficial concerns of a posturing "lady" who

      ain't got boogie-woogie
      On her mind.

Viewed in comparison to "Easy Boogie," the sexual connotation is at work here, suggesting a sexually ineffectual or inhibited person and connecting that to the inability to hear the beat of the dream deferred. Hughes suggests that the "Lady" has not listened, and could be successful if she did:

      But if she was to listen
      I bet she'd hear
      Way up in the treble
      The tingle of a tear.

However, the final exclamation ("Be-Bach!") suggests that her pretense makes a mockery of her own people's language in combining the phrase be-bop with the classical composer from another culture, mocking the pretension of her position and making it seem ludicrous.

"Easy Boogie" and "Lady's Boogie" also begin to deal with the relationships between the performer/creator, his instrument, and his creation, as they relate to the underlying desires and feelings of blacks. Although the "boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred" played "underneath" on the bass keys of a piano had already been introduced in "Dream Boogie," "Easy Boogie" further connects the bass rumble with something "down," something "underneath," something sexual, something elemental. It is the walking bass of solidarity:

      Down in the bass
      That steady beat
      Walking, walking, walking
      Like marching feet.

This solidarity is connected, through repetition and parallel sentence structure, with the feeling of the soul:

     Down in the bass
     that steady roll,
     Rolling like I like it
     In my soul.

Conversely, "Lady's Boogie" deals with the speaker's attitude toward a woman who has allowed the pretensions of "society" to interfere with her realizations about the problems of her people. This woman's mind is linked to the notes played in the treble on the piano:

     See that lady
     Dressed so fine
     She ain't got boogie-woogie
     On her mind—
     But if she was to listen
     I bet she'd hear
     Way up in the treble
     The tingle of a tear.

Once again the lines relate through their parallel structures: the lady whose pretensions prevent her from "hearing," being aware; who concentrates on appearances rather than sounds, messages; who doesn't listen to the agent that would "enlighten" her, the treble improvisations; whose mind refuses her emotional involvement with the boogie-woogie message. Hughes is, in effect, replicating the amazing dexterity and remarkable rhythmic diversity of the boogie-woogie pianist: he is combining the rumbling, infectious bass beat and rhythm with treble variations and improvisations, relating the former to the "soul" and action, and the latter to the mind and thought of the "movement" to foster awareness of the problems of black people in terms of the deferred dream. The staccato alliteration is particularly effective in "Lady's Boogie," "Boogie 1 a.m." ("trilling the treble"), and "Dream Boogie: Variation" ("tinkling treble"), particularly when picked out over the momentum of the rolling bass.

These treble and bass patterns are used to introduce and indeed are a part of the compelling unifying image of the poems:

     Trilling the treble
     And twining the bass
     Into midnight ruffles
     of cat-gut lace.

Here the right-hand treble notes and the left-hand bass notes are united in performance, just as the mind and soul or thought and feeling of blacks are meant to be united in a common cause: the recognition of the dream deferred and the organization into a unified front to confront the problems of blacks in America. Hughes did not want to overemphasize the bass/sex/soul of the second poem of the sequence, "Easy Boogie"; neither did he want to concentrate exclusively on the treble/inhibitions/mind of the fourth poem, "Lady's Boogie." It was the poem in between, "Boogie 1 a.m.," that presented the "unified sensibility" for which Hughes aimed and that combined the bass and treble into a single compelling image.

The image itself at once suggests several things: ruffles and lace both suggest the delicate trimming of clothing; however, to be ruffled is to become disturbed, and to ruffle is to cause disturbances, as in water; the lace becomes something to hold things together in light of the "cat-gut" prefix. All these combine to suggest a decorative appearance tied to an underlying disquietedness. The "midnight" of "midnight ruffles" identifies the revelation as a black one and places the revelation at nighttime—the time of dreams and nightmares.

A variation of the image returns in "Nightmare Boogie," which follows "Lady's Boogie" and, with "Dream Boogie: Variation," helps emphasize the dream theme at the end of the sequence. "Nightmare Boogie" deals with the collective loss of black identity:

      I had a dream
      and I could see
      a million faces
      black as me!
      A nightmare dream:
      Quicker than light
      All them faces
      Turned dead white!

This sentiment is a magnification of the problem recognized in "Lady's Boogie," where the "lady" has lost the ability to hear and understand cultural messages. In "Nightmare" Hughes identifies the instantaneous loss of black identity as a phenomenon that occurred more quickly than it could be recognized, more quickly than it could be exposed, thus stressing the urgency of black identity, pride, and unity. What is important here is that the first four lines have a direct parallel relationship to lines five through eight: the dream of line one is the nightmare of line five; the seeing of line two is the revelation of line six; the faces of lines three and seven and the colors of lines four and eight define whether the event was a dream or a nightmare. At the climax of the metamorphosis from black to white, from dream to nightmare, Hughes eschews a smooth transition, generating a "whirling" midnight incantation, as if awakening to a real solution:

     Rolling bass,
     Whirling treble
     Of cat-gut lace.

This variation on the lines of "Boogie 1 a.m." labels the dream deferred as a nightmare that leads to a racial identity, resolvable only by hearing and understanding the "message" of boogie-woogie.

In contrast to the nightmare of the dream deferred, the black pride/identity "movement," the marching, walking feet of "Dream Boogie" and "Easy Boogie," is a whirling awakening to a new dream, which forms a very natural sequence to "Dream Boogie: Variation"—the final poem of the entire sequence—and a counterpoint to "Dream Boogie," the first. Whereas "Dream Boogie" is an upbeat, urgent poem, "Variation" is much more sad and subdued: the portrait of the boogie-woogie pianist, performing his music, his piano screaming for him under his lone stomping feet, his eyes misting at the prospect of having missed his chance at freedom. Here, however, the "midnight ruffles of / cat-gut lace" of the "Boogie 1 a.m." quatrain, and the "Whirling treble / of cat-gut lace" of the "Nightmare Boogie" quatrain become "High noon teeth / In a midnight face," identifying the central idea and image of the poems with the actual facial features and identity of the performer, the creator, the one closest to the music itself. Hughes is emphasizing here how easy it is for an individual to fail to recognize the dream deferred, the nightmare as it relates to the individual himself. The final image is not the jive-talking, energetic persona of "Dream Boogie"; it is the embodiment of the boogie-woogie tradition, alone and too late, playing the wistful boogie of freedom deferred.

By varying and manipulating the rhythm, words, imagery, moods, and themes of these poems, Hughes has illuminated the issue of the dream deferred from different emotional perspectives. By employing folk culture so well, he in effect gives his poems traditional authority, makes them unadulteratedly black, and establishes a continuity that makes them seem to express the ideas of the people for the people.

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