Peoria, Tazewell, And Woodford: Here, There & Everywhere

“The Busboy and the Poet” by Philip Kaveny

Hughes lindsay

In late November of 1925, American poets Vachel Lindsay of  of Springfield, Illinois (1877-1931) and African-American writer Langston Hughes (1902-1967) met in Washington D.C’s Wardman Park Hotel dining room in an accidental but fortuitous event for both.

While eating supper with his wife, Lindsay encountered a nearly speechless  Hughes, who was working for the hotel restaurant as a busboy.

Langston Hughes presented his three poems “Jazzonia”, “The Weary Blues”, and “Negro Dancers” in written form Lindsay.

At the time, Lindsay was perhaps the most popular and the greatest American public poetry performance artist of his era, especially famous for performing his poems “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,”  “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” and “General William Booth Enters Heaven.”

He was considered to be the creator of a movement in American verse wherein the poems were meant to be sung or chanted.

Lindsay apparently privately read and then became convinced of Hughes’ merit, as the next night he publically performed these three poems at a reading at that same hotel.

In doing so, he proclaimed that he had discovered an American Negro genius, Langston Hughes, 23, a Columbia University dropout, international traveler and ship-jumping cook and poet, whose works he performed twice more.

On Lindsay’s second visit to the Wardman Park Hotel Dining room on Dec. 8, 1925, Lindsay gave Hughes with this advice:

“Do not let any lionizers stampede you. Hide and write and study and Think”

He left Hughes a gift of the deluxe and then definitive edition of The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, who was an admirer of  his poetry,  with the cashier, which Hughes found waiting for him when he finished his shift.

So why was Lindsay motivated to do two charitable readings of three Langston Hughes poems, the first being Lindsay’s own private reading and the second, assuming a positive reader response on Lindsay’s part, to the three poems, in public? Why did he go the extra mile and then publicly perform them for his audience along with his own work?

This was not “charitable reading” that one might give dime to a panhandler.

Nor was it the case that Lindsay lifted a talented impoverished Negro busboy out of obscurity, since even at 23,Hughes had powerful connections with the New York literati through Carl Van Vechten, (1880-1964), who was also Gertrude Stein’s literary executor.  A wealthy native of Iowa, Van Vechten became Langston Hughes’ lifetime friend. They collaborated in “The Harlem Renaissance,” which also included writers Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and pioneers of American jazz music, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith.

Between the events in the Jim Crow South, the rise of the post-war Ku Klux Klan, and events like the Tulsa, Oklahoma  race war or Black Wall Street (including an invasion, in 1921, by terrorist elements of the white community after a lynching had been thwarted),were media events. This was also a time when revolution was in the air, not only in Russia with the Bolsheviks, but in Mexico and throughout Central America.

It is no accident that four years earlier Langston Hughes was president of his own Cleveland High School’s John Reed Club. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the period from Hughes’ high school graduation in 1920 until his meeting with Lindsay was rife with racial violence.

Perhaps Lindsay’s gesture to Hughes in the hotel dining room may represent not only a gesture of kindness to a Negro busboy but also a gesture of recognition to a future great poet who happened to be a Negro and happened to be working as a busboy at that historical instant.

Section I of “The Congo” written over a hundred years ago has a profoundly anti- colonial message and positive ethical valence, prefiguring twenty-first century historical research which has established that Belgium‘s King Leopold was responsible for nearly twice as many Congolese deaths as the number of Jews that Hitler exterminated.

Like the wind in the chimney.


Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,

At least a section of the unofficial manifesto of the Black Arts Movement as it evolved some forty years later, a few years after Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington and four years before Langston Hughes’ death, had its conception in the meeting of Vachel Lindsay and Langston Hughes 89 years ago .

Appendix: Langston Hughes Poems Read by Vachel Lindsay

I      “Jazzonia” by Langston Hughes

Oh, silver tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

A dancing girl whose eyes are bold

Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve’s eyes

In the first garden

Just a bit too bold?

Was Cleopatra gorgeous

In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!

Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

Langston Hughes

II. Negro Dancers by Langston

‘Me an’ ma baby’s

Got two mo’ ways,

Two mo’ ways to do de Charleston!’

Da, da,

Da, da, da!

Two mo’ ways to do de Charleston!’

Soft light on the tables,

Music gay,

Brown-skin steppers

In a cabaret.

White folks, laugh!

White folks, pray!

‘Me an’ ma baby’s

Got two mo’ ways,

Two mo’ ways to do de


III. The Weary Blues   by Langston Hughes

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.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

“I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can’t be satisfied—

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.


2 comments on ““The Busboy and the Poet” by Philip Kaveny

  1. Mike Foster
    November 18, 2014

    Thanks to book vendor @ Tolkien At Kalamazoo Phil Kaveny.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don Goodearl
    December 4, 2014

    I started to read and could not stop !! Great work.


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