Version classiqueVersion mobile

Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

Whose Sweet Angel Child? Blues Women, Langston Hughes, and Writing during the Harlem Renaissance

Cheryl A. Wall

Texte intégral

Reckless Blues

When I was young, nothing but a child,
When I was young, nothing but a child,
All you men tried to drive me wild.

Now I'm growing old,
Now I'm growing old,
And I got what it takes to get all you men's soul.

My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild,
My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild,
I ain't good lookin', but I'm somebody's angel child.

  • 1 "Reckless Blues," Columbia 14056-D.

Daddy, Mama wants some loving; Daddy, mama wants some hugging
Honey, Pretty Poppa, Mama wants some loving, I vow.
Honey, Pretty Poppa, Mama wants some loving right now.1

1Recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925, "Reckless Blues" is a statement of self validation in the face of social rejection, sexual exploitation, and personal alienation. In her maturity the speaker has seized control of her sexuality — autonomy compensates for aging — and relishes the pleasures that autonomy affords. The lyric dissolves the proverbial dichotomy between the good woman and the bad woman. Despite her inability to conform to the accepted standards of female beauty and her refusal to conform to the acceptable standards of female behavior, Smith's persona insists that she is somebody's angel child.

2Smith's two accompanists on the record are Fred Longshaw, who gets composer credit for this version of a folk blues, and Louis Armstrong. Longshaw plays the harmonium; its organ-like timbre complements the poignancy of the lyric and Smith's mournful contralto. But Armstrong's cornet provides the emotional counterpoint. His response to Bessie's call confirms that life's challenges can be and have been met. The last verse particularizes Smith's version of the song; it makes the point explicitly that while a woman's sexuality makes her vulnerable to male exploitation, it is the key to survival. The mood of the lyric and the music meet. Smith's increasingly assertive tone and Armstrong's increasingly intricate obligatos culminate in the final verse to convey the persona's mastery of her life and situation. The recording documents Smith's mastery of her art.

3Today scholars recognize Bessie Smith and the so-called classic blues singers as major figures in the cultural history of the 1920s and 1930s. For many writers, particularly black women writers, the blues woman is a symbol of black female creativity and autonomy whose art informs and empowers their own. That was surely not true in the blues women's time. Generally even those black intellectuals who, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, wrote of the profound beauty and meaning of the spirituals, were deaf to the same qualities in the blues. Blues women were even less likely than their male counterparts to have their music acknowledged as art. (Sterling Brown's poetic portrait of Ma Rainey is the most notable exception.) Among other reasons, their propensity for flamboyant dress and reckless behavior dismayed and embarrassed their more decorous brothers and sisters.

4Langston Hughes was, characteristically, prescient in his understanding of the blues women's significance. As one imperative of his artistic manifesto, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", declared: "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored nearintellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand" (Hughes, 1976, 309). Not only was Hughes drawn to the compressed poetry of the blues, he aspired to a cultural role analogous to the blues troubadour. Fittingly, he was a student and admirer of the blues woman's art.

5In 1926 Hughes made his pilgrimage to the Empress's domain. Bessie Smith was appearing at the Regent Theater in Baltimore when the author of the just published The Weary Blues made his way backstage to pay his respects. Doubtless he knew her recording "Mama's Got the Blues", which began: "Some people say the weary blues ain't bad." Perhaps he hoped for recognition as a fellow blues artist. According to Hughes's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, whatever such aspirations he held were dashed. Miss Smith was not impressed. Hughes was disappointed in turn when he asked whether she had a theory about blues as Art: "Naw, she didn't know nothing about no art. All she knew was that blues had put her 'in de money'" (Rampersad, 1986, 123).

6Whether she chose to theorize about it or not, Hughes understood that Bessie Smith knew a great deal about art. He understood as well that her life, and the lives of the other blues queens, could be the stuff of fiction. In his 1930 novel, Not Without Laughter, Hughes became the first writer to represent the figure of the blues woman in literature. His character Harriett Williams should be considered a precursor to the memorable blues women invented by Alice Walker in The Color Purple, Toni Cade Bambara in "Medley", and Sherley Anne Williams in Someone Sweet Angel Child. I want briefly to analyze Hughes's representation and to speculate about the reasons no comparable representation would appear in the fiction of black women for decades to come.

7Hughes knew the folk blues from childhood. As an adult, he came to admire the so-called "classic blues" as well. Their interest in the blues was something he and Carl Van Vechten, the novelist, music critic, and bon vivant, shared. Hughes offered his assistance to Van Vechten when the latter wrote several pioneering articles on the blues, particularly women's blues, for the magazine Vanity Fair. Van Vechten was persuaded that the blues were at least equal to the spirituals as music and superior to them as poetry. Blues were "eloquent with rich idioms, metaphoric phrases, and striking word combinations" (Kellner, 1979, 44). To support his premise, Van Vechten quoted "Gulf Coast Blues", as recorded by Bessie Smith, and evoked the authority of "the young Negro poet, Langston Hughes", whose career he had begun to promote.

  • 2 Clarence Williams was the composer credited with "Gulf Coast Blues", which Bessie Smith recorded o (...)

8In a letter from which Van Vechten quotes at length, Hughes glossed the blues lyric and praised the vividness of its imagery.2 Recounting his own visit to West Africa, he suggested a link between the blues ethos and African musical traditions. In the most incisive comment, Hughes drew his own contrast between the spirituals and the blues: "The blues always impressed me as being very sad, sadder even than the Spirituals, because their sadness is not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter. The absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to" (Kellner, 1979, 46). It is this laughter which his novel seeks to inscribe.

9Two women embody the conflict between the spirituals and the blues in Not Without Laughter. Hager Williams and her youngest daughter Harriett are locked in a battle that is both philosophical and generational. Initially, Harriett appears to be her mother's opposite. Angry and rebellious, she refuses to accept the place society assigns her. She is highly intelligent, but she drops out of school after her seemingly liberal teacher and classmates fail to intervene when she is Jim-Crowed on a class trip. With each racist incident, Harriet's hatred of whites intensifies. In vain Hager urges her daughter to transcend bitterness. As an ex-slave, Hager recognizes the evil whites have done, yet she refuses to view them as evil. Instead she grants whites a humanity equal to hers. She explains that whites are good as far as they can see, but when it comes to blacks they cannot see far. Harriet is not moved.

  • 3 Sterling Brown referred to the novel's "poetic realism" in his review in Opportunity, 8 (September (...)

10No passage exemplifies Sterling Brown's description of the novel as "poetic realism" better than the prose poem recounting Hager Williams's forty years as a washerwoman: "Bought this house washin,' and made as many payments as Cudge [her husband] come near; an' raised ma chillen washin'; an' when Cudge taken sick an' laid on his back for mon a year I taken care o' him washin'... an' here I is with ma arms still in de tub!" (135-36)3 Harriett, by contrast, refuses the domestic's role. Disgusted by the low pay, insults, and sexual harassment, she quits her job at a country club. There is no poetry in her catalog of the menial tasks required to earn a weekly wage of five dollars.

11Most tellingly, Harriett rejects her mother's religion. Christianity is the bedrock out of which Hager derives her beliefs and behavioral codes. She is shocked to hear Harriett declare that the church has made "you old Negroes act like Salvation Army people... afraid to even laugh on Sundays, afraid for a girl and boy to look at one another, or for people to go to dances. Your old Jesus is white, I guess that's why! He's white and stiff and don't like niggers" (42). Harriett's words, like her music, are blasphemous to her mother, whose response to this particular outburst is to begin a fervent prayer.

12A cultural rebel, Harriett enacts the role blues scholar William Barlow attributes to blues men: "They acted as proselytizers of a gospel of secularization in which the belief in freedom became associated with personal mobility — freedom of movement in this world here and now, rather than salvation later on in the next" (Barlow, 1989, 5). In Harriett's view, Hager's faith has no utility. It transforms neither Hager's material condition — the family remains poor and is occasionally destitute — nor her social status. Whites call on her to nurse their sick and comfort their bereaved, but they deny her even the respect a proper name and title confer. She is "Aunt" Hager. Bound by her work and religion, Hager is locked in place. Harriett's disavowal of Christianity enables her to imagine alternative sites.

  • 4 The representation of jazz musicians as priestly figures anticipates James Baldwin's more elaborat (...)

13Harriett's secular temple is the cabaret; the priests are jazz musicians.4 In one of the novel's most extended scenes and through some of its most evocative language, Hughes depicts BENBOW'S FAMOUS KANSAS CITY BAND in performance. The typography stresses the brashness of the commercial enterprise. The text experiments further with its transliteration of musical sounds ("Whaw-whaw... whaw-whaw-whaw"), as it represents the phases of performance from the "hip-rocking notes" of Easy Rider to the Lazy River One-Step to the urbane rhythms of St. Louis Blues.

14Tellingly, the music that produces catharsis is the band's improvised rendition of a folk blues, "a plain old familiar blues, heart-breaking and extravagant, ma-baby's-gone-from-me blues." Like the other congregants, Harriett is transported. "It was true that men and women were dancing together, but their feet had gone down through the floor into the earth, each dancer's alone — down into the center of things" (93). They go to the point, perhaps, where one experiences the existential validation that one is indeed, somebody's angel child.

15However cleansing spiritually, in the social world of the novel, Harriett's behavior is irresponsible. Lost in the music, she has stayed out all night herself, and worse, she has kept her young nephew Sandy out all night as well. Awaiting Harriett's return, her mother sits "with the open Bible on her lap... and a bundle of switches on the floor at her feet" (98).

16Clearly, Harriett is destined to leave home. Hughes constructs the narrative of her leave-taking out of the myths and legends that surrounded the blues queens. Gertrude Rainey left home at 14 to join a vaudeville act; only after serving a long apprenticeship working tent shows did she emerge in the 1920s as the Mother of the Blues. Although Bessie Smith began her career as a professional in a traveling show in 1912 when she was 18, she had been singing for nickels and dimes in her hometown of Chattanooga since age 9. After leaving home and marrying at 15, Sippie Wallace returned and left home a second time to work as a maid and stage assistant to a snake dancer, Madame Dante, who performed in Phillips Reptile Show (Lieb, 1981; Albertson, 1972; Harrison, 1988). In like fashion, Harriett, unable to make peace with her mother or to make a life for herself, joins a carnival and hits the road.

17Schooled by her brother-in-law Jimboy, an itinerant blues man, Harriett has already honed her art. Jimboy anticipates Harriett's rebelliousness when he refuses to work under demeaning conditions. He is equally unwilling to be tied down by his family. His frequent and prolonged absences make the lines from "Gulf Coast Blues," an apt leitmotif for the character of his wife Annjee:

The mailman passed but he didn't leave no news
I'll tell the world he left me with those Gulf Coast blues.

18Appropriately, too, the chapter that introduces Jimboy is called "Guitar"; he is less a fully formed character than an anaesthetic principle. "Guitar" opens with a twelve-bar blues:

Throw yo' arms around me, baby,
Like de circle round de sun!
Baby, throw yo' arms around me
Like de circle round de sun,
An' tell yo' pretty papa
How you want yo' lovin' done. (64)

19The lines function in the novel less as a sexual boast than as a celebration of the blues man's art. The blues, as Sterling Brown observed, represent collective yearnings and feelings, but unlike the earlier musical forms of the work songs and spirituals, the life of the artist becomes the prototype of the collective. Harriett, as a member of the collective, can appropriate Jimboy's songs.

20He teaches her the full range of the rural blues man's repertoire: traditional folk seculars and ballads, popular ragtime tunes, and the floating lines of the blues. The latter constitute the storehouse of blues lyrics which can be repeated and varied in limitless combinations. Jimboy is also Harriett's dance instructor; he teaches her the parse me la, the buck and wing, and the fundamentals of tap. In the novel's romantic representation, the blues man's art compensates for his marital infidelity and his dereliction of paternal responsibility. When Jimboy plays, "the singing notes of the guitar became a plaintive hum, like a breeze in the grove of palmettos; became a low moan, like the wind in a forest of live-oaks strung with long strands of hanging moss" (51). His talent is admirable both for the beauty it creates and for the generosity with which he shares it.

21On one level, the novel encapsulates the history of the blues — representing its development from the folk blues Jimboy sings in the yard of Aunt Hager's home to the blues Harriett, now Harrietta Williams, Princess of the Blues, performs on stage at a Chicago Theater at the novel's conclusion. The schematic design of the novel reinforces the link between the two song forms. In one of her stage numbers, Harriett, dressed in a blue calico apron with a bandanna handkerchief knotted about her head, sings a blues she has learned from Jimboy. The lyrics are traditional:

It's a mighty blue mornin' when yo' daddy leaves yo' bed.
I says a blue, blue mornin' when yo' daddy leaves yo' bed —
'Cause if you lose yo' man, you'd just as well be dead!

22It moves many in the audience, including Sandy's mother, to tears. But neither its style nor its substance define Harriett.

23While the blues women did demonstrate "a common bond" with rural southern blacks, as scholar Daphne Harrison affirms, the connection was highly mediated. Consider, for example, the complaint of blues queen Alberta Hunter. Hunter, whose stage persona exemplified sophistication and glamour, resented theater owners' requirement that black entertainers conform to plantation stereotypes. "They wouldn't accept us Negro girls in smart clothes," she complained. They insisted instead that black women perform "wearing bandannas, Aunt Jemima dresses, and gingham aprons; the men wore overalls" (Quoted in Taylor, 1987, 68). For reasons of profit and prejudice, theater owners sought to sustain the illusion of a fundamental identity between performer and audience through costumes, stage sets, and advertisements. They wished to increase the entertainers' appeal to a mass audience whose background was predominantly southern and rural, and they were loath to grant complex identities to either their employees or their customers.

24Not Without Laughter highlights the shifting personas that blues women assumed on stage and off. For her initial entrance, Harriett is dressed in "glowing orange, flame-like against the ebony of her skin" (297). The effect is to evoke the image of a jungle princess and to enforce the myth of exotic primitivism that was pervasive during the 1920s. The description of the song she sings, "a popular version of an old Negro melody, refashioned with words from Broadway", helps the reader deconstruct the image as commercial and counterfeit. After singing the folk blues, Harriett reappears: "Her final number was a dance-song which she sang in a sparkling dress of white sequins, ending the act with a mad collection of steps and a swift sudden whirl across the whole stage as the orchestra joined Billy's piano in a triumphant arch of jazz" (298). Its placement at the end of her performance suggests that this is the persona which embodies Harriett's greatest achievement as an artist. The triumph inheres as well in Harriett's successful invention of a life which she can lead without denying her self.

  • 5 At other points, particularly in the description of life in "the Bottoms", the novel does romantic (...)

25But the price is high. Not Without Laughter is honest enough in its depiction of Harriett s life to show her broke and stranded in Memphis — she has quit the carnival because she was not being paid — and to allude to the prostitution which she practices when she has no other way to earn a living.5 It notes the latter by interpolating a news clipping headlined "NEGRESSES ARRESTED," which both provides the information and comments on the dominant society's refusal to recognize the individual humanity of black people. In addition to countering such stereotyped racial and gender representations, the novel refuses to reinscribe the good woman/bad woman dichotomy. Indeed it subverts that dichotomy in the same way "The Reckless Blues" does. Harriett, a scarlet woman — in one of the novel's many allusions to Hughes's poetry, she wears red silk stockings — is also the guardian angel who enables Sandy to fulfill Hager's dream for him.

26Harriett and Sandy are reunited when he and Annjee attend her performance. Harriett castigates her sister for requiring Sandy to quit school and take a job running an elevator. She promises to give him the money he would have earned. The words that accompany her gesture strain credulity. Harriett says to her sister that "You and me was foolish, all right, breaking mama's heart, leaving school, but Sandy can't do like us. He's gotta be what his grandma Hager wanted him to be — able to help the black race, Annjee! You hear me? Help the whole race!" The gesture itself does not.

  • 6 Hughes employed the figure similarly in the poem "Dream Variation," which begins: "To fling my arm (...)

27Although the story emphasizes Harriett's estrangement from her mother, the discourse of the novel inscribes a common bond. One key imagistic link is the figure "whirl." It is first associated with Harriett at the moment that Sandy discovers her performing at the carnival. Then in a passage that begins by identifying Harriett, Jimboy, Hager, and Afro-Americans generally as "a band of dancers", the figure is applied to Hager: "Sandy remembered his grandmother whirling around in front of the altar at revival meetings in the midst of the other sisters, her face shining with light, arms outstretched as though all the cares of the world had been cast away" (293). Finally, at the culmination of her performance as the Princess of the Blues, Harriett performs "a swift sudden whirl across the whole stage." In each instance, whirling becomes a sign of spiritual release. Following a pattern characteristic of African religious practices, spiritual ecstasy is manifested in sudden, intense physical movement.6 Whirling signals the momentary freedom from the oppression and sadness which define much of these characters' lives. Truly Hager's daughter, Harriett finds in Afro-American secular music the joy her mother found in the Christian God.

28Hughes's representation of the blues woman invests her with moral and spiritual power. She is an artist, who despite her professional success, bespeaks the aspirations and desires of the masses. The novel draws a sharp distinction between Harriett, as the avatar of a new generation, and her snobbish sister, Tempy. Tempy mouths the rhetoric of the New Negro and reads The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People edited by Du Bois, while acting out an extreme form of racial self hatred. By contrast, Harriett's militancy grows out of a hard-won self love, that is uncountenanced by social or divine authority. Harriet follows her own path to self validation. Yet, as a model for the women in her audience, she charts the way for others to identify themselves as "somebody's angel child."

  • 7 Jessie Fauset comes closest with Marise Davies, a character in Comedy: American Style, whose caree (...)

29Given the role the blues woman played in Afro-American culture during the 1920s, her total absence from the work of contemporary black women writers is striking. None of the Harlem Renaissance women writers, including Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Marita Bonner, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Georgia Douglas Johnson fashioned a character after the blues queens.7 Few of them even acknowledged the existence of the blues. The blues woman, whose penchant for wild and reckless living was well known even to those who never deigned to listen to her music, could not be embraced by her literary sisters until the impulse toward conformity, decorousness and the staider forms of uplift was spent. Only when black women writers ceased to valorize "the careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners" to the exclusion of the "dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions," as Toni Morrison phrases it in The Bluest Eye (64), was the blues woman welcomed in her sisters' fiction.

30Even Zora Neale Hurston, the one literary woman who embraced the cultural legacy that was the blues and who had little patience with any kind of racial uplift, did not represent a blues woman in her prose. When, for example, in Their Eyes Were Watching God she sought to give her heroine Janie Crawford access to the liberating and self-affirming ethic of the blues, she invented a male character, Tea Cake, to be Janie's mentor. If she did not create a fictional blues woman — though one could argue contrarily that the character Janie is informed by the blues ethos and floating blues lines recur throughout the novel — Hurston did pay her personal homage to Bessie Smith. She met her in the company of Langston Hughes.

31During the summer of 1927, Hurston and Hughes crossed paths unexpectedly in New Orleans. She was beginning her field work; he was visiting the South for the first time. When they met he had already listened both to records and street singers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and "heard many of the blues verses [he] used later in [his] short stories and [his] novel" (Hughes, 1963, 290). Although he had, with great bravado, renounced the impulse toward propriety in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", he had little first hand knowledge of the lives of the "low-down" folk he celebrated. He knew that in Hurston he would have the ideal tutor to instruct him in southern black culture and folkways: "Blind guitar players, conjur (sic) men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts" (Hughes, 1963, 296). He expected that it would be fun traveling with Hurston, and it was.

32In Macon, Georgia, they heard Bessie Smith sing in a small theater. Of course, as Hughes jested, one did not have to go near the theater to hear Bessie sing; she could be heard from blocks away. Due doubtless to the exigencies of segregation, the Empress and the two writers were staying at the same hotel where they heard Smith practice every morning; they met and "got to know her pretty well" (296). "With Hurston taking the lead," Rampersad concludes, "Smith was warmer this time to the Bard of the Blues" (Rampersad, 1986, 153).

33By the time Not Without Laughter was published, Hughes and Hurston were no longer friends (Hughes, 1991). Thereafter, they rarely spoke about, let alone to, each other. Hughes minimized the importance of their friendship in his memoir, The Big Sea, and Hurston omitted all mention of Hughes from her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. But the experiences and conversations they shared marked them both. Scholars will continue to speculate about the specific influence each had on the other's career. One important nexus is Bessie Smith and the blues tradition. I would like to think that Hurston helped Hughes gain possession of his own sweet angel child.



Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Brown, Sterling. "The Blues." Phylon XIII (Autumn 1952): 286-292.

Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction. 1937. Rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

— Review of Not Without Laughter. Opportunity 8 (September 1930): 279-80.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Hughes, Langston and Zora Neale Hurston. Mule Bone. Ed. George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. Rpt. New York: Hill & Wang, 1963.

— "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." 1926. Rpt. in Nathan Huggins, ed. Voices From the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

— Not Without Laughter. 1930. Rpt. New York: Macmillan, Collier Books Edition, 1969.

— Selected Poems. 1959. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. Keep A Inchin' Along: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vol. I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Taylor, Frank. Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.


1 "Reckless Blues," Columbia 14056-D.

2 Clarence Williams was the composer credited with "Gulf Coast Blues", which Bessie Smith recorded on 16 February 1923 (Columbia A3844); it was the "B" side of her first Columbia Records release, "Down Hearted Blues."

3 Sterling Brown referred to the novel's "poetic realism" in his review in Opportunity, 8 (September, 1930) and in The Negro in American Fiction, where he called the novel "one of the best by a Negro author" (155).

4 The representation of jazz musicians as priestly figures anticipates James Baldwin's more elaborate representation in "Sonny's Blues" and other fictions.

5 At other points, particularly in the description of life in "the Bottoms", the novel does romanticize the lives of the poor. Describing the neighborhood as "a gay place", the narrator asserts that "in the Bottoms folks ceased to straggle against the boundaries between good and bad, or white and black, and surrendered amiably to immorality" (216).

6 Hughes employed the figure similarly in the poem "Dream Variation," which begins: "To fling my arms wide/In some place of the sun,/To whirl and to dance/Till the white day is done." (Hughes, 1974, 14).

7 Jessie Fauset comes closest with Marise Davies, a character in Comedy: American Style, whose career seems inspired by Josephine Baker's.


Cheryl A. Wall teaches Afro-American and American literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. The author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995), she has edited Changing Our Own Words: Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women (1989) and two volumes of Zora Neale Hurston's writing for the Library of America (1995)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search