Intertextuality 2: Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes

“I have been asked to take as the subject of my remarks the title of a very significant poem, “We, Too, Sing America,” written by the distinguished poet and author, Langston Hughes.”” stated by Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes met early on in 1936 and became friends.  They planned to collaborate on a musical together (which eventually never materialized), they also wrote together, as Ellington wrote music for one of Langston Hughes’s texts, and Hughes helped Ellington write lyrics.  The connection between the two was captivating, as both of these artists expressed the life of black Americans in the Harlem Renassaince and used jazz, black dialect, and their culture as inspiration and influence on their works.  In fact, in a speech Duke Ellington gave on the Lincoln Day Services for a church in Los Angeles, he utilized the poem as stated above, I, Too, Sing America as the basis of his speech.  He analyzed the poem during his speech:

“In the poem, Mr. Hughes argues the case for democratic recognition of the Negro on the basis of the Negro’s contribution to America, a contribution of labor, valor, and culture.”

He goes on to expand contributions that blacks had made to America, and their acheivements, while continuing to base his entire speech around Hughes’s poem.  

In many of Duke Ellington’s songs, he embodies the black American lifestyle and their dialect similar to Langston Hughes’s poetry.  He represents Hughes by working with him to write his songs and quoting his poems, as seen in the beginning of this post.  

 In contrast, Langston Hughes weaves jazz and blues sounds into his poems.  His poem The Weary Blues simply embodies the Harlem Jazz Age into a Poem.  The following excerpt of this poem utilizes the sounds and rhythms of Duke Ellington’s jazz songs to create a story.  

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

The rhythm of the poem creates a sway or swing which exemplifies the life and style of a harlem night life. This had a such a lasting effect on the Duke, that he performed it alongside Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  The imagery in this poem leads to an illusion of the night life in Harlem and the dialect provides deep insight to the life of an African American jazz artist.  

Tucker, Mark, and Duke Ellington. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York City: Oxford University Press US, 1993. 35-38. Oxford University. 29 Mar. 2009 <>.

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3 thoughts on “Intertextuality 2: Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes

  1. Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of Duke Ellington as an influence on Langston Hughes. I forgot that they were even friends! It makes a lot of sense, though, doesn’t it? Since they were both writing poetry and music during the same time period and were both experiencing the Harlem Renaissance, it only seems appropriate that they would collaborate. I completely agree with your statement that you can easily notice the influence of Hughes’ friend Duke Ellington in his poem “The Jazz Age.” Isn’t it interesting to think of all the different people that shaped and were shaped by Langston Hughes?

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  3. You have picked a perfect poem in order to link jazz music to Hughes’s poetry. Good work showing how these two forms intersect and influence each other.

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