From Common Meter

Excerpt from "The Blues I'm Playing," 1934
by Langston Hughes


The Persian vases in the music room were filled with long-stemmed lilies that night when Oceola Jones came down from Harlem for the last time to play for Mrs. Dora Ellsworth. Mrs. Ellsworth had on a gown of black velvet and a collar of pearls of about her neck. She was very kind and gentle to Oceola, as one who would be to a child who has done a great wrong but doesn't know any better. But to the black girl from Harlem, she looked very cold and white, and her grand piano seemed like the biggest and heaviest in the world--as Oceola sat down to play it with the technique for which Mrs. Ellsworth had paid.

As the rich and aging white woman listened to the great roll of Beethevon sonatas and to the sea and moonlight of the Chopin nocturnes, as she watched the swaying dark strong shoulders of Oceola Jones, she began to reproach the girl aloud for running away from art and music, for burying herself in Atlanta and love--love for a man unworthy of lacing her boot straps, as Mrs. Ellsworth put it.

"You could shake the stars with your music, Oceola. Depression or no Depression, I could make you great. And yet you propose to dig a grave for yourself. Art is bigger love."

"I believe you, Mrs. Ellsworth," said Oceola, not turning away from the piano, "But being married won't keep me from making tours, or being an artist."

"Yes, it will," said Mrs. Ellsworth. "He'll take all the music out of you."

"No, he won't," said Oceola.

"You don't know, child," said Mrs. Ellsworth, "what men are like."

"Yes, I do," said Oceola simply. And her fingers began to wander slowly up and down the keyboard, flowing into the soft and lazy syncopation of a Negro blues, a blues that deepened and grew into rollicking jazz, then into an earth-throbbing rhythm that shook the lilies in the Persian vases of Mrs. Ellworth's music room. Louder than the voice of the white woman who cried that Oceoloa was deserting beauty, deserting her real self, deserting her hope in life, the flood of wild syncopation filled the house, then sank into the slow and singing blues with which it had begun."

The girl at the piano heard the white woman saying, "Is this what I spent thousands of dollars to teach you?"

"No," said Oceola simply. "This is mine...Listen!...How sad and gay it is. Blue and happy--laughing and crying...How white like you and black like me...How much like a man...And how like a woman...Warm as Pete's mouth...These are the blues....I'm playing."

Mrs. Ellsworth sat very still in her chair looking at the lilies trembling delicately in the priceless Persian vases, while Oceola made the bass notes throb like tomtoms deep in the earth.

O, if I could holler

sang the blues,

Like a mountain jack,
I'd go up on de mountain

sang the blues,

"And I," said Mrs. Ellsworth rising from her chair, "would stand looking at the stars."

* * * * * *

Hughes, Langston. "The Blues I'm Playing." Hot and Cool: Jazz Short Stories. New York: Plume, 1990. pp.76-78.