The sense I get from today’s example is that by using the generic if exalted name of “Poem” as the title, when what follows is so spare and simply stated, is meant to draw attention to the provocation that this is worth consideration as a complete lyric.
It may be me and my current situation, but when I read “Poem” I immediately thought it was a memorial poem, a five-line-with-one-refrained-line statement of the essence of loss intended to put itself up against something like the book-length “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred Tennyson. I still find nothing in the text that forbids that reading.
But death isn’t the only loss in life. Some, particularly those looking for obscured clues to Langston Hughes’ erotic orientation see this a coded statement of a romantic or erotic breakup with a “He.” Like Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and Tennyson’s long poem, the poem has a dedication to a set of initials: “F. S.” in “Poem’s” case. Some articles one can find in a web search identify this dedicatee as Ferdinand Smith, who was in the merchant marine — as was young Hughes before he published The Weary Blues. Hughes did know Smith, but I haven’t seen a full explanation of how this putative identification was made. Oddly, if this poem of complete separation was written about Smith, Hughes and Smith kept in touch until Smith’s death in 1961. In Real Life there was no utter break between the two — but that’s biographical information, nothing in the text forbids the abandoned love reading either.
And then too the poet Hughes of The Weary Blues and elsewhere is very broad in his use of the pronoun I. Not only does Hughes not identify F. S. and what exactly was the nature of the love relationship, Hughes is fully capable of using “I” as a collective or representational singular. Think of Hughes most famous early poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”— its litany of I’s is not a Quantum Leap confession that this certain 20th century poet worked on the Pyramids or rafted the Mississippi with Abe Lincoln.
But “Poem” does feel like a personal expression, even if Hughes may frustrate us if we prefer poems as memoir filled with explicit self-expression. Yet maybe this is of little importance to the essence the poem wants to express. Grief from loss of a lover who leaves and lives, or loss of a friend who has died — does the heart assay any difference?
Musically today I demonstrated fidelity of a different kind, playing a cheap 40-year-old 12-string guitar that I bought shortly after coming to Minnesota, and a bass that once belonged to Dean Seal, who played in the LYL Band in the early 80s. I have newer better* instruments, but it seemed like a good way to reset and get back to making some new Parlando Project musical pieces after February presented other matters that needed to be done.
You can hear my performance of Langston Hughes’ “Poem” with the player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted link.
*My newer guitars are better in that they don’t have parts that won’t exactly work anymore or intonation issues I need to work around, but besides old-times-sake I think there’s some character remaining in these funky instruments sound.
I was talking to Glen at the café I rode to for breakfast this morning. “It’s President’s Day. Did you get him anything?”
Glen has a pretty quick mind, but he thought for a moment and countered “Well, it’s one of those vestigial holidays. We’ve got a tailbone, but how many million years since we’ve needed it? It’s on the calendar and that’s about it.”
I think he’s right. It used to be more at Washington’s Birthday, and in some states Lincoln’s Birthday was also celebrated this month. And then one of the reasons February is Black History Month is that this short month also includes the date celebrated as Fredrick Douglass’ Birthday.
No sub-text here: 19th century celebrating heavenly Presidential bromance
My celebration, my observance was taken up with the ubiquitous modern American civic act this weekend, watching things on a screen alone — which is kind of sad, but the others in my family have more proximate concerns nearer to them than my fiddly interest in musty histories and art.
I started by watching Lincoln’s Dilemma, a four-part, four-hour documentary mini-series produced by a number of Afro-Americans that is available on Apple TV+ now. It covers the time from Lincoln’s entry into state politics until his burial, focusing on his evolving and politically and war charged relationship with American chattel slavery and the Afro-American’s subjected to that. I was a teenager during the centennial of the American Civil War who read avidly about it, and between that and my interest in American Black history there was a lot that was only refrain and time-line refreshment for me, but like any well-done extensive overview there’s a power in putting things together and linking this and that.
Two things discussed fairly early in the documentary were stories I hadn’t known. One deals with the Christiana Incident, something I’d heard nothing about. It’s easily as gripping as my own city’s Eliza Winston story, or the Emily Dickinson adjacent stories of Angeline Palmer or Dickinson’s “Preceptor” Thomas Higginson’s armed assault on a Boston jail. The other was its accounts from the under-covered period between Lincoln’s election, his subsequent spring-time inauguration, and the firing on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. I would eagerly see entire documentaries or “based on a true story” depictions of either. For example, did you know (I didn’t) that during this period, as a last-ditch effort to placate southern states that were issuing their declarations of succession based on the Federal Government and its soon to be leader’s insufficient devotion to slavery, that a proposed 13th amendment that would constitutionally prohibit the ending of slavery was put forward? It passed the House and Senate with the required 2/3 majorities. Although the Civil War would soon be raging, five! states ratified it.
If this sort of thing sounds interesting to you, and you have access to it, I easily recommend Lincoln’s Dilemma.
I took a break halfway in on Lincoln’s Dilemma to watch John Ford’s 1939 Young Lincoln staring a startlingly well-made-up Henry Fonda as Lincoln. For good and ill this well-made film hits all the John Ford tropes* and is very inconstant in a “print the myth” way regarding historical accuracy. I suspect Young Lincoln’s emotional content no longer communicates, and more the same, it’s earnest civic lessons would be lost to most audiences today too. But it’s Ford, so we’re left with mise en scene and striking tableau frames that contemporary film makers might still copy. For humor’s sake I could try to hype its contemporary value as “The story of the trial of a pair of accused cop killers who are surprisingly defended by a lawyer reverently devoted to the law.”
Before I leave you, let me touch on George Washington, the man who posthumously gave up his birthday for President’s Day. The story of the Civil War and the end of slavery is but one example of a dictum often taken as absolute by revolutionaries: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And of course, as the leader of an armed revolution, Washington would seem to be an example** of demand backed by guns. But the singular greatest fact about Washington, a thing we should be grateful for beyond other things, is that after the American state got independence and he became its leader, he willingly, and without demand or struggle, gave up power. That’s rare.
Love of the thing one is struggling for, not for personal power, or opportunity, or mere revenge and expiation, is a hard thing to find — perhaps even more so in those who win some part of their struggles. So, let me leave off this Presidents Day not with a piece about a President, but about the man who stated that revolutionary’s dictum above, Frederick Douglass. Written by poet Robert Hayden,*** with my music and performance, you’ll can hear it with a graphical player below if you see that — or if you don’t, with this highlighted link. If you want to read Hayden’s sonnet about Douglass as you listen, you can find the text here. Back with new pieces soon.
*Although I’m reasonably familiar with why Ford is viewed as an important foundational cinema artist, I actually haven’t seen all his best-regarded films. Only last year I saw his The Searchers for the first time. As to that film: I found it highly compelling, significantly because it’s a film about racism made largely by men that could be fairly judged as patriarchal racists, and yet it’s not Triumph of the Will, some sharply focused mirror of evil, either. Somehow, Ford and fate made it multivalent.
I’ll promise you a love song at the end of this, but let’s look briefly at some other stuff that surrounds that song.
As I look in the Langston Hughes poetry collection I’m featuring this Black History Month for a Valentine’s Day piece, there is less to pick from than one might imagine. Even though his The Weary Blues is a first book by a young man, and it includes some of the Afro-American poet’s best-known poems — poems of love or passionate desire are conspicuous in their absence.
Even for 1926, the year The Weary Blues was published, this is somewhat unusual. You might think roughly a century ago the down and dirty lunge of love might be automatically missing, and to some degrees of physical explicitness you’d be correct, but poems on the emotional variety of love and desire were if anything the very fashion for the last decade called The Twenties. Popular and esteemed poets of that era Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and others were quite ready to talk frankly about desire. Nor were Afro-Americans silent on this subject. Jean Toomer wrote what I think is flat-out one of the best surrealist love poems of all time. Claude McKay wrote beautiful and passionate love sonnets, and the Blues singers performing and recording then were quite willing to serve in the lust and fond department of art.*
We’ve already said that Hughes was a pioneer in valuing those very Blues and Jazz singers. Early this month we performed Hughes’ “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s,” a Blues poem presenting just such a singer and a condensed late-night view of a hook up. Was the man in this poem Hughes himself? Possible, but I think the preponderance of the evidence says not. I think he’s an observer of the tryst, and even given the value he puts on short poems in his collection, he somewhat stints on the details.
No, Langston Hughes, for all his night-life settings and ash-can-school observations in The Weary Blues is almost prudish about sex and love. If he feels desire himself, he’s loath to talk about it — while all around him poets and singers were talking and talking about that.
I’m not a scholar, just a person who actively seeks out poetry encounters and then gathers some information that helps me grasp what the poem may be on about. Hughes was guarded about his sexuality. I gather this was true for his entire life. Some believe he was gay or bi, but then other poets of his time were and that didn’t stop them from writing about desire even if their readers didn’t necessarily understand the gender object of their affections.** I read at least one piece that concluded Hughes was asexual. Frankly no one seems to know, and if you’re looking to date Langston Hughes, he’s dead, so it may not matter.
Today’s piece uses Hughes’ “Song to the Dark Virgin.” It does show passion, and if not as Surrealist as Toomer’s great poem, it dips into almost a Robert Herrick style 17th century set of conceits*** Hughes’ use of the archaic pronoun “Thou” and a few other less current words in common speech show him code-switching to something a bit like the Bible’s “Song of Songs” in the King James translation.
And speaking of “Song of Songs,” it’s not even clear if this love poem is to some anonymous person or if in some sense it’s to Black people in general, just as “Song of Songs” melds what seem like individual lovers into Judaism. If you read this poem as Black is Beautiful breaking out 40 years before it’s more publicized instances, you could make a good case.**** The Weary Blues includes poems set in the various ports Hughes landed at around the world during his stint as a merchant sailor before assembling the book, and his father was living in Mexico. From this I wondered if the ”Dark Virgin” is a reference to the Black Madonna paintings and figures he might have encountered overseas. A possible clue to this not just being a young person’s love poem is that it’s titled “to the Dark Virgin” not “to a.”
A Greek Orthodox icon, one of the examples of the Black Madonna found in Eurasia and Latin America.
But Valentines Day is here, so let’s perform this as a romantic love song. In Robert Herrick style, just calling out a love object as a virgin isn’t unusual. In such a reading or performance this is how the poem may be described: the poem opens with the idea of being a scattered and shattered love offering to the beloved in Part I. Part II gets a little more intimate: the speaker wants to be the layer of clothes next to the beloved skin. Kinky, but Herrick and for that matter “If I Was Your Girlfriend” Prince would approve. Part III gets closer to consummation of desire as in the trope of consummation as consumed by fire. Yes, it’s a little bit of archaic dress up, but who knows, maybe a love whisper of “I want to annihilate your body” is still a working bedroom line?
The above are guitar chords as I fingered them, but the recording uses a capo on the 3rd fret, so it’s heard in the key of Bb today. Interesting progression, there’s no V chord in it!
If you follow the progress of the imagery Part I starts out with shining light, then the more obscured light inside folds of clothing, and finally in Part III it’s out in blazes of leaping flame.
I ardently performed this one today with guitar, chorused fretless bass, and a warped low string section. I let those bowed strings play what an electric bass would play so that the actual electric bass could do other things. Many of you can hear it with a graphical player below, but those whose way of reading this won’t show the player can use this highlighted link to play it.
This month I’ve been doing a series of pieces based on poems from Langston Hughes’ first book-length collection The Weary Blues of 1926 — but maybe it’s time to mention that I have already presented two early pieces that were included in that book.
Here’s Hughes “Dream Variation” which also offered its title to a section of the 1926 book. “Dream Variation” is an example of Hughes offering a quickly understandable surface message with a plausible deeper intent beneath that surface. The surface reading will connect easily with anyone stuck in a February northern location winter: “To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun” is something most of us in Minnesota would be ready for, but are only dreaming of right now. Many here like to talk about our enjoyment of the outdoors even in our cold climate, and yes there was some sun when I rode out at 16 degrees F this morning on my bike. I was happy to get the exercise and to watch the crows big as black chickens and the binary oblivious to flurious* squirrels — but I’m tired by now of pulling on leggings and making sure my hands have enough covering to keep my fingers from the cold stiff numbness.
The Weary Blues has another section that takes its title from one of Hughes’ best known poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I was talking about this poem this morning to a fellow I sometimes meet in a café I ride to. I was saying this is a remarkable poem written by a 17 year old, one who literally crossed and looked at America’s Mississippi River on his way to New York City in furtherance of a compromise with his father on college education.** Maybe this won’t seem remarkable to you, if you’re here already reading this far down about a poet who died in the last century, who wrote it generations back.
Hughes might have written about the exact details of his current life. He could have written about how he felt, what with the bargain he’d been forced to strike with his father. He was 17, and forming his own autonomous self is the task of any young person. His father probably didn’t know what the rest of the 20th century would be like for Langston, much less what we’d think of things now in the 21st. What would young Mr. Hughes have known? More, or less?
I was recently reading some jokes observing what are considered the perennial follies of youth. One of the zingers was “It’s best to hire young graduates while they still know everything.” Queue the laugh track.
I don’t know if 17-year-old Langston Hughes thought he knew everything. I didn’t think so at that age myself. But as we consider why we might want to read or listen to poetry by long-dead poets, we might want to consider what Hughes’ poem asks us to consider: that we are the accumulations and results of our ancestors and neighbor’s ancestors. That doesn’t mean we are them, we are the sum on one side of the equals sign from a lot of figures to the left of it; and so the possible extensions, solutions, fulfillment and remediations of them.
That’s what’s remarkable about the young Mr. Hughes’ poem, its approachable impersonality and insistence on the distances yet salience of the past. It’s not “A Negro…” even, but “The Negro….” In it, the current of the past is longer than any history of oppression, injustice, or any stories of conquest. Endurance yes, but beauty too. So, despite age-related-stereotypes, at 17 Mr. Hughes may not, and doesn’t have to, know everything — but it helps to know some things that came before you. Rivers flow. Rivers move. Langston Hughes wrote this moving to New York City — the place where he eventually lived most of his life, but not before changing what he did on the banks of another river.
That’s why we have Black History Month,*** and why I’m talking here to what I suspect is substantially a white audience about Hughes and that observance. Some of you may be nodding off by now, whatever color — “We know all this.” you may be muttering. Facts are not the soul, but poetry and music can speak of that.
I’ve always rather liked my electric guitar performance on my setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that you can hear with the player gadget where seen below, or with this highlighted link.
*Yes, there wasn’t a word “flurious” until now. You are present at the creation!
Here’s another early Langston Hughes poem from The Weary Blues, his collection which I’ve chosen to focus on during this Black History Month. Given Hughes’ esteemed position as part of the Harlem Renaissance and the long career that followed, it may be hard to remember that this is a poem by a young man, less than 25 years old. Of course, as I reminded myself as I tried to write the best poetry I could as a young person: famous British poet John Keats died at 25 — so there’s no reason for our Afro-American poet to wait to write either.*
Though it was Langston Hughes’ first book, The Weary Blues doesn’t make much of a point of his youth. While the perennial youthful topics of wine, love, and song make their appearances in this collection’s poems, there’s little if anything I can recall that makes explicit pleading that the author is of a new generation with new perceptions. The way Hughes did signal that was in the way he deals with the “song” part of that triumvirate: Jazz and Blues were still considered disreputable musics of little substance. The decade of the last Twenties may have been called “The Jazz Age,” but that then novel music was mostly the music to dance, drink, and swive to.
So, when Hughes claims right from the start that “The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm” he’s making a fresh claim in 1926, that it’s not just some musical fad that’s passing through, a speeded-up frivolity. Even if white musicians and dancers were quick to latch onto the jaunty high-BPM rush of Jazz, Hughes is ready to claim that broken desires and pain were in there too.
Does he mean lovesick blues, or the Afro-American experience here when he makes that claim? Both I think. That’s a hella-reason why Afro-American forms pervade American music to this day: Americans as a whole have a long and strong dissatisfied streak. Plenty of musics sourced from around the world are good for dancing and signaling your erotic availability. Same for songs of utter sadness. But Afro-Americans figured out how to make sublime musics out of a combination of the oppressions and absurdities of life.
In his poem, Hughes twice makes the claim “The gods are laughing at us” — and despite the repetition of that line, he is ambiguous about what we should think of that. Are the gods the society that ignores, belittles, and oppresses? Or are the gods the wise eternals who know that we humans live short lives approaching half-knowledge, an absurdity that leaves laughing as wisdom?
I think at midnight — perhaps after some youthful partying that’s implied as preceding this poem — it’s a vibrating mixture of both. Overtones, undertones, Hughes says.
Overtones, undertones….Jazz in Hughes’ 1926 was still thought of as a way to shake your groove thing.
I often mention that my experience of the poems I use for texts here often changes in the process of making them into Parlando Project pieces. With this one, as I began to understand and express Hughes’ words I wanted to reply to the laughing gods in the original poem. So, I extended the original words with my own couplet: “Let them hear the laugh I return. / Let them understand the laugh I return.” Is that laugh and desire to the wise gods or the careless and oppressing system? Both. I’m far from 25, and that’s what I think reading and performing the young Hughes’ poem today.
Music in this piece is about as close as I can get to Jazz, though more of the Jazz of my youth than that of Hughes’ time. Yes, that fad was still going concern 40 years after Langston Hughes wrote his poem. I spent most of my time creating the piano part, which unlike a real pianist I have to compose by playing and selecting parts for each hand, but modern “virtual instruments” let me do stuff that Conlon Nancarrow had to hand-punch into player piano rolls to realize. I wanted a saxophone part too, but as I’ve already mentioned this winter, I can’t really get the articulations a good Jazz sax player relies on. My sax part sounded like an early student playing the most dismal society dance band number, and so I made the compromise I normally avoid and put in a short Gil Evans-ish horn section sample to enclose my sax part effectively.
This will be a short post. The last day here has not been a good day for thinking of this project and my planned series from Langston Hughes’ first book The Weary Blues. I’d intended to do a version of that book’s title poem, I’d even begun to collect some ideas in my head: different sections, different instrumentation for those sections — a fancier, fuller arrangement than I’ve had time to do this year.
Wednesday morning a young man got killed in a police raid in my town, never a good thing, but something that frankly has a lot of possible contexts. Since then we still don’t know everything, maybe not even enough yet — and yet here I am tempted to write something about that: that it’s a horrible act, stinking of systematic issues that existed long before that 7 A.M. no-knock raid, things that go beyond the specifics of the Black man killed; and a (likely white) cop shooter whose job it was to go, for us, inside a stranger’s door, apparently looking for a murderer and ending in a new killing.
If you’re not in our local area, you probably haven’t even heard of this. Apparently, this is an aberration that isn’t shocking or novel enough now. This is not a public policy or political information project, others will serve you if you feel in need of that.
Cover of the original 1926 edition of The Weary Blues
Still, I’m deeply ambivalent today about my chosen project. When Langston Hughes wrote “The Weary Blues” in the last Twenties, almost a hundred years ago, racism, ignorance, prejudice, injustice, class-caste system — all were old enough to be blues one could be weary of. So now so, more weary so — and we’re alive to feel’em. Perhaps I’ll write more this weekend, but I was feeling our current hurt today, and less any release of joy or the blessings of overcoming.
Instead of fully realized version of Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” what I’ll offer today is more like a quick demo: a beat, a guitar playing simple chords. When I finished laying it down, and with no more than a couple of minutes until I had to get off mic in my studio space, I started to riff on a variation adapted from another song, and I left a couple of lines of that in the fade out. That secondary song takes off from “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a song about love gone bad, where the heartbroken singer declares they wish they were blind so they wouldn’t see their unfaithful lover. In my variation, we ourselves must ask, heartbroken at things we don’t want to see: do we want to go blind? Is that what we want, would prefer? To just not see the hurt?
Player gadget below for some to hear my sketchy demo of Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”, or this highlighted link for those who can’t see that.
It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — butbefore we get to today’s new Hughes’ piece, let me briefly set down a few reasons for why Langston Hughes.
This project presents early Modernist poets most often. From the American predecessors of Modernism (Whitman, Dickinson) we often jump to those of the 1905-1926 era who sought in various ways to “make it new.” While I continue to read and have interest in post-1926 work, less of that can be reused freely for this project. This reduces the Afro-American sources free to use, as the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance have moved into Public Domain slowly, year by year, since this project began in 2016. My earlier Hughes’ pieces, even if they were eventually included in The Weary Blues, were published earlier and so had already moved into PD. It’s only on January 2022 that the whole book’s contents moved to public domain.
Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.
A second reason: look at the title of Hughes’ first book, it includes “Blues.” As we celebrate Afro-American contributions and experience this month there’s an important parallel here. Americans, some of whom set up shop in England and France before WWI, are hugely important in establishing the Modernist break with the shopworn 19th century writing styles. At the same time, Afro-Americans were crucial in doing the same job for music. As I tried to briefly explain last Black History Month, a great deal of the American Black intelligentsia was caught flat-footed by this musical revolution happening around and by them.*
Let’s cut them some slack on that: cultural change is hard to understand while it’s happening, and the quick white adaptation of Afro-American musical ideas in The Jazz Age of the previous Twenties reflected back to the Black community some rough or even derogatory approximations of what was really going on.
Hughes was a young man when he wrote today’s poem. He’d crossed paths with Black intellectuals by then, but he wasn’t fully one of them. His father had cut a bargain for him to go to Columbia to become a professional. Langston skipped out, worked as a cook and at other restaurant jobs; and took to sea working on merchant ships. Hughes came quickly to an understanding of this new music, it’s complexities and its reflections.
Lastly, here’s one of the things I’ve come to understand about the beginning of Modernist poetry in English: there were substantial elements there that sought to strip back poetry, to simplify it to its essence, to make it immediate to an open heart and mind without pre-requisites. This mode was eventually superseded by a more academic and allusive poetry to the degree that some of the best of this early poetic Modernism was set aside or down-rated as simplistic and insufficient.
Over the years you’ve heard me sing the praises of Carl Sandburg, who seems to have been eventually excused away as cornball. But Sandburg was still vital to the young Langston Hughes in the 1920s, and Hughes took Sandburg’s Midwestern American Modernism and applied it to his own heritage and experience. The mainstream of Afro-American poetry retained more of the vitality and working-class connection that Sandburg expressed. Thank you, Afro-Americans.
Let’s move onto the poem I used as today’s text for the performance you’ll be able to hear below. “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s” is not one of Hughes’ best-known works, though it deserves more attention. Here’s a link to the text. You could skim through it on the page and see the Blues connection, even if it’s not a Blues stanza as printed — though it could be refitted as one — but more importantly, it’s got a Blues sensibility. My reading of the poem says there may be a little playing going on, a little con and double consciousness which the whole of the work will show up. This will let the hip listener say on hearing it “Yeah, you and I know what that’s like.” That’s Blues sensibility.
I think the poem is a dialog. Nan of the title is performing at a club, and she’s expressing some eroticism in her performance. I think the poem’s other voice is hitting on Nan. The opening stanza is that other voice, the un-named man, who’s starts out teasingly acknowledging that he’s getting what she’s putting down.
The second stanza could be either voice. I performed it neutral, even as if it might be a narrator, a third voice. Note the loaded word “jungle” in it, one of the “primitive” adjectives used to describe this new Afro-American art. Primitive isn’t totally a derogatory or diminutive to the Modernists, who remember wanted to remove the cruft of a worn-out culture and get back to an essence; but in the context of a white-supremacist-soaked society it could surely slide over to being that. Black artists with intact self-respect did use labels such as “Jungle” in the 1920s, so it’s not simply an external white appellation, but it sure sounds like they’re partially reflecting with the white culture when they do. Pause at the last line: I hear Hughes’ “And the moon was white” with intent.
The third stanza is the man cheering on the singer/performer Nan, and I think also he’s suggesting that if “lovin’” is her object, he’s ready.
Fourth? Yes, the two get together. I perform this as Nan’s voice. Note Nan’s use of the diminutive “boy” for the man in this part of our dialog. He may have been acting the player in his earlier stanzas, but I think this is an intentional reveal that the male character is less than a fully actualized man. The white moon image returns, and their moments of Black joy contrast against it. One could write a moving essay on this poems white moon image, but I’ve already gone long.** You write it.
The poem concludes by refraining the entire first stanza. I perform in the man’s voice, now sour-grapes-ing the couples’ night. Who put one over on the other in this one-night? Maybe some of both, and maybe external social forces are part of the fate-mix too. Hughes chose to dedicate the poem to Nan, so I suspect his sympathies lie more with her. Another question: is Langston Hughes the unnamed male voice? Hughes’ sexuality is mysterious, and while that’s possible, my estimate is that he’s observing, not writing a poem as memoir here.
I performed “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s” with my own one-man-band providing the trio accompaniment, and I hope your speakers can handle the bass part. Some of you will see a graphical player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so here too is a highlighted hyperlink to play it.
*Last years Black History Month book was 1925’s The New Negro , which included an essay worrying about the dilution of Black uplift and culture from the diversion of frivolous Jazz. Read my post on that essay here.
**As with Sandburg’s short poems, with Langston Hughes here it may help to imagine that you are translating this from Tang dynasty Chinese. The plain English words here could mislead us to think this a mere rote moon/June thing and that Hughes had nothing complex to say.
I’ve got reasons for kicking off Black History Month a few days early: my February is going to be appointment-filled, something that’s likely to reduce new work for this project, and I want to participate in this observance of American history.
Why was I so determined to do this? Well, note this project’s subtitle: “Where Music and Words Meet.” I’m an American composer, and American music is disproportionally Afro-American music. Yeah, it’s a big country, and many musicians with heritages from every continent* have contributed, but if you compose or play American music, a lot of the notes are Black. So let’s get to today’s piece through three short, linked, tales.
The First Story:
Who’s this Sonny Rollins, and what bridge is he selling us back in the Fifties of all decades? It’s easy writing about poetry as I do here most often, to get used to a constrained fame; but I suspect more of the general Internet audience will know Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, or T. S. Eliot than know this man’s name and work. Mid 20th Century Americans, most often Black Americans, made a consolidated point of becoming masters of improvisation on the saxophone. Afterwards artistic accountants rank art and artists — and even if you think that’s wrong-headed, I’ll cite those who expend sincere effort in doing that and say that lists of great improvising saxophone players likely include Sonny Rollins.
But, just saying Rollins was good at it, a skilled musician, reduces him. For one thing, he had a dedication to the art of his craft, a need to expand the expression. So much so he famously spent a couple of years or so just dropping out of what was then still a viable commercial niche of jazz gigs and recording when he was considered to be one of the best and brightest on his instrument. To do what? To get better.
Insiders later learned some particulars of what he did. He went to a near deserted deck of a busy urban bridge and just played. And played. For months. For hours a day. In all kinds of weather. No, he wasn’t busking for spare change. Few noticed him. One of his records before this time was called Saxophone Colossus. This wasn’t ironic as a title, or laughable, or a piece of hopeless self-promotion. Once likened to a metal giant who could stride rivers, Rollins on the bridge was small and alone and unnoticed, one man in a wind-gap of a city’s gusts. Practicing there he was no more than a flea on the back of a colossus.
After around two years of this, he figured he found some of his new/better. If you’re writing a screenplay you know how the final scene plays out. Our hero walks off the bridge and into a recording studio. A selection of ominous natterers remind us of the stakes in quick cuts: “Was he kicking drugs, or failing to kick? Is he washed up?” “You know folks like it sweet and tropical, he should try to play bossa nova.” The next voice says, “Funky jazz is the thing.” And another says, “How can you be even more free than ‘free jazz?”
And you know the next beat in your screenplay: he emerges with a record or a concert or both — and all of a sudden everyone realizes that he’s found it, something great, unique, ground-breaking, resplendent and recognized.
Wait, you don’t know who Sonny Rollins is — or maybe you do, but you know the person next to you on the Internet doesn’t. The record that Rollins did make was called The Bridge in honor of the solitary workshopping he did over the East River. It was not a cultural event. Throw out your screenplay, the elevator doesn’t want your pitch. Even the experts then, the artistic accountants and grim critic-coroners were underwhelmed. Paging the Joseph Campbell who isn’tan under-recognized Irish poet, this is The Hero’s Journey that ends with a shrug.**
The Second Story.
Back in my youth you paid for music ala carte. Every bit you could access at will was on a material disk you had to pay for. A person like myself with more time and adventure than money might scrounge. One thing I liked to do was to go into charity and second-hand shops and look for used records that attracted me. I can’t recall the exact cost of a new LP then, but I think it was around $3 to $4 or so. Records in these dingy shops might be a dime or 25 cents. Those within cardboard covers gave you extra material to judge if it was worth your widow’s mite — but at those places and time, the most forlorn records were just bare black disks scuffing against each other in a bin, and sometimes those got an additional price break. Whenever I recall those naked disks, I think of those who cleaned up after someone died or skipped rent and town, who just shoveled it all off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army in whatever, Warholian, cardboard boxes.
That’s where I found Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge. I may have heard a bit about Rollins, how he was a particularly good improvisor because his improvisations had the logic of more considered compositions while retaining the flow of fresh idea after fresh idea.
Three things struck me about the record upon listening to it over and over and under its scratches and surface noise: that it mixed moods more than most jazz records. It wasn’t just a fast blowing session with a change of pace ballad or two, but that it was both angular and spare and hauntingly beautiful in both sorrow and joy.** That the guitar player, Jim Hall, on the record didn’t sound like “jazz guitar” as I had heard it then.*** Instead, Hall added unusual harmonic colors that Rollins would then carve from. Eventually I realized something else unusual about the record as I compared it to more jazz records: there was no piano or other keyboard instrument. I eventually learned that this was something Rollins’ made a practice of. Yes, Hall was giving pieces some harmonic framework, and bass players in non free Jazz contexts are often asked to, and then, play “the changes” indicating the chords; but keyboard players, even if it’s not their session, often dominate the harmonic and rhythmic structure of a track. Here there was none of that.
Poetry in Gray. I know this is a long post, and I value your time, but here’s 30 minutes of the same group that recorded The Bridge playing live with a short interview with the 32 year old Rollins.
The Third Story
I read this week an article by John Fordham in the Guardian that reminded me that Sonny Rollins went into the studio to start recording The Bridge on January 30th in 1962 — so, 60 years ago. Fordham remarked on the legend of Rollins’ time on the Williamsburg Bridge along with a new interview he did with Rollins.
Unlike almost every one of his mid-century saxophone contemporaries, Rollins is still alive. He’s 91 years old now, and I last saw him play when he was around 80. Rollins was performing in a trio on that night with just bass and drums, and for about an hour he tore it up covering so much sonic space with his monophonic but powerful instrument. I marveled then, and now that I’m approaching his age at that gig, my amazement increases. Rollins developed lung disease and can no longer play, but he seems to have retained his composer as improvisor ability to see the patterns and connections.
This month I’ve been trying to build up a little strength and chops on guitar again. Nothing like Rollins’ multiple hours each day on a bridge level of woodshedding, but enough so that I can play that instrument that requires some physicality to realize its sounds.
In the midst of this, in the middle of the night, I awoke with some thoughts I had been growing about Rollins and the task of being an American and Afro-American artist. I wrote a complete first draft of today’s text in that middle night awaking. Not quite a Kubla Khan dream, but still complete and formed enough to count today’s text as an improvisation. Wednesday, I came up with the song’s harmonic structure equally quickly. Yesterday I recorded it. Given that I’ve no access to other musicians — and I hardly make count-one-musician unless I beg the composer (who’s me, so I listen) to make things I can play — I had to play a track at a time. Today’s recording is a trio: drums and two guitar parts. I first recorded the chordal guitar part on a big archtop guitar (DeArmond X-155) along with the vocal. I’m no Jim Hall, but like Rollins’ The Bridge I let that instrument set the harmonic framework. I confess (though listeners have already convicted me) I’m not good at Jazz comping, a key guitarist’s skill in that genre. I pardoned myself and proceeded. I then did the drums, trying very hard to get them to play off the guitar’s rhythm feel. And then finally as my studio-space time was coming to a close, I got to “blow” with guitar for the lead part.**** I did four passes, and the third was the best, and there you are. No, it doesn’t sound like The Bridge LP, but then the point of The Bridge wasn’t to sound like what went before either. The player gadget to hear it is below. No gadget? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*I must pedantically interrupt in footnote form to note that the continent of Antarctica has done little for American musical culture! It may be because our human species only visits there? One man, one guitarist at that, stands (sinks?) as the submariner of Antarctic-American guitar: Henry Kaiser. Here’s a 90 minute example. Yes, that’s him playing guitar, and doing the under-ice diving too.
**Joy? “Without a Song. ” Sorrow? “God Bless the Child.” Angular? The title cut’s cascade of heterodox melodic ideas. Or the stubborn “John S.” I used to share a workspace with a 20-something guy who liked his progressive metal. He was perfectly tolerant of my King Crimson live tour ‘70s tapes. But the opening riff of “Jon S.” would drive him right around the bend to a burlesqued old-person-like rant about “take off that noise.”
***Jazz guitar at that time was represented to me by John McLaughlin in his Mahavishnu Orchestra years and others exploring that bag. Those guitarists were loud and very in your melted-face with their expression. Even quieter, older generation jazz guitarists often played more notes in one song than Jim Hall played on the entire The Bridge LP. Magazines would have “best of” polls back then for musicians, and I’d always vote for Jim Hall, who’d end up in the fine print of “those also receiving votes.” Then strangely enough as the 20th century started to end, Jim Hall became the model for a number of other guitarists who came up later, for example: Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell.
The Bridge itself has come to be recognized as more vital in retrospect. Oh, not necessarily to the raters who will need to get numbers down for Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, The Shape of Jazz to Come first, but to those who seek to learn new pleasures listening to music whose time has passed but whose timelessness remains. You may not like all of it if you just taste test it. Looking today, about eight times more Spotify listeners pleasantly listen to “God Bless the Child” than dig “John S.” By the way, the version on Spotify seems to be remastered, and to my memory Jim Hall’s parts are mixed up higher than they were in my vinyl memories.
****Should it have been saxophone? Yes, but I have a hard time wrangling any of my saxophone MIDI virtual instruments to get good expression, and Rollins is a master of saxophone expression. I stuck with my primary instrument for the lead instead. By the way, it’s the same jumbo DeArmond archtop that chopped the chords, but my little combo amp is turned up.
This project has gone on so long and produced so many pieces, so before February ends I thought I’d highlight five of the most popular pieces we’ve presented in past years that deal with Afro-American experience or history. The bold-faced start of each listing is a link to take you to the original Parlando Project post that presented this poem if you want to read my first reactions to it back then.
Lines to a Nasturtium by Anne Spencer. Another Afro-American poet who published before 1925’s The New Negro anthology, but who was not published much during the later half of her life. This poem may be her extant masterpiece. It still defeats me from extracting a simple prose “meaning” from it, but it’s just breath-takingly gorgeous in sound and a diffuse emotional impact remains even in its mystery.
The Witnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What, a poem by a white guy? Well, white supremacy is — what, how does that term start? — a white problem. Here’s a 1841 poem about the notorious Middle Passage of African captives taken across the Atlantic written within the lifetime of those that would have chartered, manned, and benefited from that trade.
The Banjo Player by Fenton Johnson. Like Anne Spencer, Johnson published before 1925 and sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance — which is spiritually correct, but geographically misleading. He’s from, and spent a good deal of his life, in Chicago. He predates Langston Hughes in wanting to present ordinary Afro-Americans in the whole of their expression and experience without so much emphasis on the Talented Tenth. He’s also sometimes presented as an Afro-American radical-poet predating McKay and Hughes, though I still don’t know much about his actual political beliefs. This poem brings some humor to Black History Month, while coincidentally linking us to an historical reminder: the banjo is an Afro-American instrument first constructed by people that remembered African home fires and instruments.
Zalka Peetruza by Ray G. Dandridge. Another Midwesterner, this time from Cleveland Ohio, but as far as I’ve seen he’s not linked often to the Harlem Renaissance. If fact this piece is one of the Parlando Project pieces that has garnered outsized listenership without being a well-known poem or being written by a well-known poet. Perhaps folks liked the music I wrote for it, or maybe they just recognized it as a fine short poem that implies some good questions within its short character study. In my original write-up I thought it might stand being as well-known and discussed as Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s“We Wear the Mask.”
Portrait of Jean Toomer included in the 1925 “The New Negro” anthology that launched the Harlem Renaissance.
Her Lips Are Copper Wire by Jean Toomer. I’ll maintain this is one of the best short poems of love and desire ever written in English, and it would stand well with anything written in any other language too. Yes, I love me some Paul Eluard. Folks have rushed to read my pair of translations and accompanying thoughts on the young Pablo Neruda’sTwenty Love Poems. Kenneth Patchen can paint love in an unseeing world and break my heart. Yet. Yet. Toomer’s poem is as effective a surrealist work as any of that. It’s beautiful, mysterious, and charged — everything poetry should be.
A hundred years ago, a teenager is riding on a train to Mexico. He’s just left his high school in Ohio. He’s Black. Most of the school was white. When he was in Junior High, the class was asked to elect a class poet. The teacher suggested it should be someone who understood rhythm, and so they elected him. Ah huh…but then he’s also done well at school and now his teachers are suggesting college. That poetry that he had been elected to is sticking with him, literature too. The first successful Black American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been from Ohio. He thinks “This is possible.”
The teenager is traveling alone on the train. He’s already accustomed to that. If his poppa was a rolling stone, then his mom was moss. They’d split up before he entered school. His father moved far about, following his business interests, and he was the one in Mexico the young man was traveling to. His mother had left him when he was a young child in the care of his grandmother, and then the grandmother died just as he became a teenager. After that, he and his mother tried to reconnect. Mother. Son. Perhaps the deepest tie there is. It didn’t quite work.
The train crosses the Mississippi, the indispensable dividing river of America. He watches out the train window. A train line is a story someone wrote. A river is history — it’s there even if you don’t know it is. But the young man knows more history than many young men knew then, or that many know now.* In particular, he knew that Abe Lincoln, scuffling for work as a young man, had manned a freight-loaded flatboat down that river to New Orleans in 1828. His freight was goods in crates, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was a commercial center for goods. While there young Lincoln sees another market, another type of goods: Black people being bought and sold as livestock.
How ignorant was the young Lincoln of slavery? There were a small number of slaves in the Illinois County Lincoln was traveling from.** The slave market in New Orleans was Americas largest. Perhaps slavery was mostly a story someone told Lincoln before that.
Back in 1920, our Black teenager on the train pulls out the handiest scrap of paper he can find, a letter from his father. On the bare places of that paper, outside his father’s words, he composes today’s poem. He’s going to Mexico City to spend some time with his father and to ask him if he’ll help pay for college so he can study literature.
They spend a summer together in Mexico. Father and son. So often there’s a deep tie between such, but in this case it didn’t quite work. In the end this was the deal they negotiated: yes, he’d help his son with college — but no, he had to study something useful: engineering.***
The young man tries to hold up this agreement. He enters Columbia University in New York City to, yes, study engineering. It doesn’t work. The young man drops out of college and begins working as a bus-boy, but he’s writing poems, and in June of 1921 W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis magazine publishes today’s poem, the one he wrote on the back of his father’s letter on the train: “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1925 it also appears in The New Negro anthology which I’m using as a theme here this month. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
Our young man was Langston Hughes. Today’s post is a story based on the little I know about how he came to become a writer. Stories are something we have to write, we engineer them, we build them, lay them out. But, history? History is a river. It’s there whether you know it or not. Surely it goes on, whether you know it or not. Shouldn’t you know it? Shouldn’t I know it? Shouldn’t we know it?
Full circle. After Hughes died in 1967 his ashes were interred in the the middle of this mosaic depicting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the floor the lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
*Indeed, somehow our teenager knew more about Black history than many would have in his time, and the chance that he learned much if any of this in school was low. Forty some years later when I was a teenager, I asked my Freshman Western Civ. teacher an innocent question: “Were the ancient Egyptians Black?” He seemed startled at the question. Hughes was hip to that question in 1920.
However interrupted and strained Langston Hughes’ relationship with his family was, he must have been pointed in some directions by them. A chief source was likely that grandmother who took care of him until she died when Langston was 13. Did she know stories or history? Well, Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid just before the Civil War.