Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.

The speaker opens the poem with these lines (lines 1–3), in which he describes the Black musician he heard playing a blues song the previous night. Two things are worth noting about this passage. First, these lines contain an intriguing grammatical ambiguity. At first glance, the speaker appears to be describing the actions of the musician. That is, it’s the musician who is droning, rocking, and crooning. However, the speaker introduces uncertainty in third line when he says, “I heard a Negro play.” This third line is the main clause of the sentence, which makes the speaker (i.e., “I”) the grammatical subject of the whole sentence. Thus, on second reading, it’s not the musician but the speaker who’s droning, rocking, and crooning. And indeed, it’s likely that the speaker is swaying and vocalizing along with the musician, creating the powerful sense of a shared experience. The second thing worth noting about these lines is their musicality. Each of these lines has four main beats, but the beats don’t fall at regular intervals in the line. The interplay of the underlying beats and the variation in the language creates a syncopation that will continue throughout the rest of the poem.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!

These lines (lines 9–11), which appear in the first stanza, evoke the distinct mix of pain and beauty produced when the blues musician plays the piano. The speaker likens the musician’s playing to violence or torture. When his fingers strike the keys, they make the “poor piano moan.” This instance of personification associates the music’s sorrowful tone with the piano itself, as if it’s painful for the instrument to express the melancholy melody. But despite the evident pain that makes the piano produce a painful moan, the speaker also emphasizes the cathartic power and even beauty of the blues. He expresses this feeling with the cry, “O Blues!,” which he amplifies a few lines later: “Sweet Blues!” (line 14). In addition to evoking blues music’s distinct mix of sorrow and beauty, this passage also symbolically inverts the hierarchy between white and Black people. Notice how the speaker attends to the juxtaposition of colors as the musician’s “ebony hands” play “each ivory key.” In contrast to the history of Black enslavement by whites, here it’s the musician’s Black hands that are striking the white keys, causing the piano to “moan.” This inversion suggests that blues music affords the musician a symbolic liberation from subjugation.

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.

The speaker closes the poem with these lines (lines 33–35), which constitute the one and only triplet in the entire text. As the poem reaches its conclusion, the speaker imagines what the musician might have done after playing “far into the night” (line 31). These lines envision the musician as being drained by the echoes of blues music that reverberate in his mind long after the playing is over. The sorrow of the music, exacerbated by its continued presence in his thoughts, may have contributed to an exhaustion so profound that the musician longed for deep, soundless sleep. Arguably, the musician’s exhaustion is more existential than physical in nature. The speaker suggests as much in his unusual use of a double simile in the final line. Both parts of the simile come from common idiomatic expressions. In everyday English, “to sleep like a rock” simply means to sleep deeply. Likewise, “to sleep like the dead” means to sleep so deeply that the sleeper can’t be disturbed. Despite having very similar meanings, the way the speaker corrects himself by replacing the first with the second is significant. Indeed, it seems like he may half believe that this musician is so world-weary that he could simply die in sleep.