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The Blues I’m Playing Analysis

Analysis of The Blues I’m Playing by Langston Hughes

The Blues I’m Playing | Analysis

 “The Blues I’m playing” introduces to the readers a rich, middle-aged, widowed white woman who is confused about what she intrigues her to, the creation of an artist or the creator. she provides financial aid and takes up the expenses of talented artists and sponsors them. She is fascinated by a young African American pianist, Oceola Jones when hears about her from her critic Mr. Hunter. She decides to be Oceola’s patron and provides her with checks at times when she does not ask for them. Oceola is skeptical of Mrs. Ellsworth’s generosity because she has never come across someone who helps with money for the sake of true art. Mrs. Ellsworth is committed to providing her with musical education to hone her skills and wilful to take her out of Harlem, to expose her to blissful music and dimensions of traditional art. Mrs. Ellsworth wants Oceola to pursue classical training whereas Oceola has never found happiness in symphonies and string quartets but prefers music that moves the audience, which makes them move with the tunes. 

 Oceola keeps her old tradition intact of playing Jazz for free, devoting her time to music and education, playing in concerts, and making Mrs. Ellsworth proud. Her life goes smoothly and Mrs. Ellsworth treats Oceola like a motherly figure but she grows distant when Oceola involves herself with her boyfriend. Mrs.Ellsworth believes Pete will take away her music from her and distract her from the idea that an artist “could live on nothing but art”. For Mrs. Ellsworth art is the only ultimatum in life and she believes in saving it. She could not accept the idea of Oceola turning her back to music. Mrs. Ellsworth insults Oceola’s boyfriend claiming she knows what men are and tries to convince her Pete will destroy her career. Oceola is confident she can manage her marriage as well as her career. Mrs. Ellsworth firmly suggests she will have to choose between love and art. That Oceola is digging her own grave when she is there to help her excel in her career.

 Mrs. Ellsworth feels Oceola’s career will be a waste once she marries and ” The period of Oceola” ends when Mrs. Ellsworth occasionally sends checks only when asked and they grow distant. The tension between them is further elevated when in the last concert for Mrs. Ellsworth, Oceola plays her own choice of music, the Blues, a Jazz rather than the traditional one. Mrs. Ellsworth feels Jazz is unsophisticated and undignified as compared to the “pure “symphonies and the traditional and classical forms. The argument that happens between Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth motivates Oceola to play the Blues. Oceola had bottled up her love for Jazz, and taste for a different form of music since the beginning. Blues is played in the story only during times of distress and anger which represents Oceola’s real feelings. It’s not the symphonies that gave her happiness, but the jazz, which Mrs. Ellsworth hated especially being played on pianos. Oceola’s playing the Jazz shows the end of Mrs. Ellsworth’s influence and power over her and the end of Mrs. Ellsworth’s patronage. The clash between Mrs. Ellsworth and Oceola on art, music, and love leads to the breaking of a relationship that could have helped both of them in various ways. Mrs. Ellsworth’s adherence to traditional thinking and beliefs and the assumption that one should live only for art and save art conflicts with Oceola’s idea of free-living and loving music.

 “The Blues I’m playing” focuses on the superficiality of white people who attached themselves to the Harlem Renaissance. During the Renaissance, White people offered their aid to black artists by funding them. The concept of patronage was born during the Harlem Renaissance. The white people liked the idea of providing funds for the art of colored people and helping in their progress but often objectified them. 

 Many instances throughout the story present the idea of objectifying and eroticizing colored people. Mrs.Ellsworth’s desire for Oceola’s beauty and her talent is camouflaged by Mrs. Ellsworth’s fascination with Oceola’s talent in music. When in her bed, Mrs . Ellsworth starts thinking about dresses that can look nice on Oceola, which is the first hint of objectification and sexual fascination. The sharing of a bed between Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth in the resort home also hints at Mrs.Ellsworth’s desire “aware all the time of the electric strength of that brown-black body beside her”. 


 The Blues I’m Playing | Themes 



Oceola’s song for her patron in the last section of the story shows Oceola’s real taste in music and how the two women feel about music. The Blues, a Jazz shows the contrasting ideas of both Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth on interest, passion, and sexuality. Family, love, marriage, and children are all important to Oceola and she considers them significant aspects of life. She cannot imagine her career with all of it and she believes she can carry both confidently. Mrs. Ellsworth on the other hand believes in being devoted to art and imagining art as life. Mrs. Ellsworth represents the repressive ideas of the nineteenth century where people adhered to certain traditions and prioritized particular classical forms.

Jazz represents passion. Mrs. Ellsworth hates it. Her hatred for the form of music hints at Mrs. Ellsworth’s hatred for passion and enthusiasm. She has camouflaged her sexual desires by being fascinated by art. Her response to Oceola contradicts the sexual feelings that she has suppressed within herself with the acceptance that one lives for art. Her sexuality is shown throughout the story while she is entertaining herself imagining Oceola in various dresses, sharing a bed with her and while explaining why Oceola is interesting” such a rich velvet black, hard young body…”.

 Race and Racism

Racism in the story is shown through ignorance. Mrs. Ellsworth orders a book “Nigger Heaven on the morrow”, and the line “she had never yet seen that dark section of New York” shows how she feels she has never known and doesn’t know anything about colored people. This thought betrays her memory because she might have interacted with few, mostly servants and the story shows another black character, Mr. Hunter’s maid who goes to the same church as Oceola. 

Mrs.Ellsworth is presented as a patron who admires people’s talent. But her character is authoritative as well because of the way she approaches the artists. The way Mrs. Ellsworth found out about her and treated her, in the beginning, is an indication of Mrs. Ellsworth’s authoritative attitude. Mrs. Ellsworth started asking questions regarding Oceola’s background as well as her personal life. Oceola did not suggest Mrs. Ellsworth have a look at her apartment but she goes there uninvited taking an excuse of driving her home after their meeting. She sends Oceola checks when Oceola did not ask for them.

 Mrs. Ellsworth believes that her protegees need assistance, and guidance as well for refining their talents. Mrs. Ellsworth sees Oceola’s apartment and it symbolizes Oceola’s financial limitation Mrs. Ellsworth makes up her mind to move Oceola out of Harlem because she thinks Oceola’s talent is confined in the place and her community and she forgets that Oceola never asked for her help. 

Oceola adjusts to people’s opinions and tastes, but Mrs. Ellsworth considers her culture inherently superior. She hates Jazz and openly expresses her disgust for the form because she feels it isn’t pure and dignified like classical music. She even objectifies Oceola and finds her more interesting than any other talented person she has ever met.  


 The conflict between Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth arises from the difference in their views and opinions regarding music, and in a broad way regarding art. Mrs. Ellsworth adheres to stereotypical, traditional thoughts. She believes art is pure and dignified. And these terms are confined to classical music. This view narrows down her ability to try other forms of music, or appreciate anything other than the classical forms. This is shown using her hatred for Jazz which is loved by Oceola. Oceola isn’t chauvinistic and is free-minded as she tolerates the concerts she visits with Mrs. Ellsworth. She is not limited to one favorite form of music and is open to new forms and kinds of music. 


 The Blues I’m Playing | Characters

 Mrs. Dora Ellsworth

 A wealthy, middle-aged, widowed white woman with no children. She lives with the idea that one lives only for the sake of art. She adheres to the traditional and stereotypical conventions of her time, and considers a classical form of music as superior, “pure” and the rest distasteful and undignified. She acts as a patron for beautiful creations and creators of art because she believes by funding talented people she can save art. She is fascinated by the extremely talented African American Young pianist, Oceola, and decides to get her out of Harlem to refine her talent. Her continuous contribution to fund the artists shows not only her love for art but also a desire for power and intimacy. Mrs. Ellsworth decides to get Oceola out of Harlem to furnish her talent and paternalism is shown through this idea and how she wants to take control over Oceola’s life. Conflict arises when Oceola shows her love for another form of music, Jazz. The difference in their opinions and way of thinking severs their relationship and ending Mrs. Ellsworth’s control over Oceola’s life. 

Oceola Jones

 Oceola Jones is an extremely talented African American young pianist. She takes care of herself by teaching pupils, rehearsing choirs, and playing for colored house parties or dances. Her talent is recognized by Mr. Hunter who is one of the music critics who went to Harlem to hear the church music and had listened to Oceola’s playing. She is suspicious of Mrs. Ellsworth for her generosity “for art’s sake” and mistrusts her till she sends a check. Later, Oceola becomes the protégée of Mrs. Ellsworth. She remains emotionally distant from her and tries to stay independent throughout the story. She attends concerts with Mrs. Ellsworth and realizes the music that Mrs. Ellsworth loves does not feel blissful to her. But she respects Mrs. Ellsworth’s preference and taste in music.

The relationship is affected when Oceola confesses to Mrs. Ellsworth’s relationship. Mrs. Ellsworth becomes distant and ignorant. She sends checks occasionally which implies the end of the patronage. Oceola is not discouraged by Mrs. Ellsworth’s views on relationships and careers, which presents her headstrong character. She does not devote herself to the music which is classical and detached but practices learning about various forms. She embraces every form of music from spiritual, and classical selections to Blues and Jazz. Her playing of the Blues shows her refusal to give up her relationship, her passion, her career, and as a whole her life in the control of Mrs. Ellsworth’s hands. 

 Pete Williams

 A train porter is introduced at first as Oceola’s roommate in Harlem. He is a smart person who is seen saving money for getting into medical school. He gradually steals the spotlight in the story as he becomes the sole reason for the conflict between Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth acting as a driving force for the climax of the story. Mrs. Ellsworth despises Pete because she feels he will end Oceola’s career. Oceola is digging her own grave by marrying Pete and her career will go to waste if she starts a family. Pete presents the sexuality of both the character, Mrs. Ellsworth, who has her desires repressed, and Oceola who is true to her feelings and sexuality. 



 Title and About the Author

 “The Blues I’m playing” is written by Langston Hughes. It is the first one of the most effective fourteen short stories in his collection ” The ways of White Folks” (1934). The Harlem Renaissance was the period that saw the artistic excellence of African Americans. The artistic works of African Americans were supported and sponsored by white people. This Renaissance influenced the writing of the story. The Blues was kind of a Jazz invented by African Americans that express distress and is sung in remembrance of past struggles and hardships. Langston uses the Blues in the story as well as the title to hint at the spiritual music of African Americans. 


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