I hope some of you enjoyed this Black History Month look at the premier 1926 issue of Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. This landmark of the Harlem Renaissance announced a new generation of young Black writers, many just out their teens — artists who not only filled its pages, but organized and edited the publication. Today I’m going to tie up some loose ends and tuck in the laces on the Fire!! story and give you a few links in case you want to do your own exploring.
The quiz says I’m Gwendolyn Bennett. My wife’s results: Richard Bruce (Nugent). Richard Bruce too for longtime keyboard playing and alternate voice contributor to this Project Dave Moore. Dave’s artist partner joined me in the Gwendolyn Bennett result.
So, we looked at the first issue of Fire!! this month. What about the next issue, other issues? There wasn’t one. The magazine, founded by young artists, was not well funded, and selling and distributing didn’t go well. The gatekeepers were at least privately aghast at some of the content, so their advice and word of mouth was to disparage and discourage this effort. I’ve already mentioned when presenting two of the four poets I selected for musical performance that publication in Fire!! did not guarantee lasting readership or note for these young people. So, Fire!! folded, and in a lead-eared note of irony, the mostly unsold print run was destroyed in a storeroom fire. John Keats epitaph says his name was writ in water. Fire!! and some of its writer’s names were writ in fire, and it all died down.
I often suspect many folks who find these blog posts are looking for homework help or teaching resources. To what I (an old person) can understand, being a teacher or a student covers wider territories than in my days, but there are still skirmishes at the borders and difficult areas under the control of different warlords. Fire!! magazine sought to cross those borders then — and if one is to study it and its contributors in any depth, it still does. Not only did Fire!! bring forward new young writers — many committed to Modernist art and radical politics — it purposefully sought to express elements of life that the older generation of gatekeepers wanted to suppress or keep only within the tribe. One of those things was sexuality. So teachers and students, here we have a group of young creators in 1926 writing on race, injustice, and sexual expression that isn’t in committed relationships or straight. On what authority did these audacious writers take to break through those barriers? Not only were the instigators and contributors of Fire!! young, gifted and Black, they also were often somewhere on the spectrum we could label today as queer.*
A drawing by Richard Bruce Nugent from Fire!!
So, to teach or discuss Fire!! and its creators beyond a surface is to go to places where teaching and learning is still constrained. I’d say to learners (a class that includes nearly all teachers) you may choose to go there even if traveling alone. Literature, music, the arts are the forged identity papers that let you cross borders. Though the writers of Fire!! are all dead, they won’t mind speaking with you.
In the spirit of gratitude to Afro-Americans and their vital contribution to American culture let me repost my Buzzfeed Fire!! contributor-like Gwendolyn Bennett’s summary in poetic “Song.” Graphical player below, or a backup player will open in a new tab link here.
Returning to the poems published in the 1926 issue of Fire!! magazine which proclaimed it was “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists,” we get this simple seeming, yet mysterious poem by one of Fire’s most famous contributors and organizers: the then 25-year-old Langston Hughes.
“Railroad Avenue” looks like a simple free-verse street-scene vignette. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet the more I looked to understand it, the deeper the mystery of it became.
Here are a few things that seem quite clear: it’s evening. There’s a street, likely named by the poem’s title. A few things are seen or heard: lights in two businesses, a boxcar, a record player, a player piano, a boy and a girl, laughter. Largely unremarkable things, so there’s some specific character given to them.
The record player is a Victrola, a short-lived brand from the early 20th century — for example, the ones with the big conical horn as in the original RCA Victor logo. The businesses are a pool hall and a restaurant serving fish. The boy is at leisure, comfortable. The girl has a dark face that is powdered.* In what may be internal monologue the poem’s narrator gives us the winning number in the day’s policy game.**
So, are we clearly visualizing the place being described? At first I thought I could. I figured without evidence that this was a crowded urban nightlife street, the two other people only examples of many, the sounds and things part of what could have been a larger catalog. Is that reading possible? Two things mentioned that are likely heard not seen: the player piano (reasonably loud) and the Victrola, which would not be. Victrolas were not electric record players. The records turned via clockwork, the sound was produced acoustically from the grooves in the records. So, it’s not blaring out a window over robust street sounds. If the statement on the winning daily number 942 is audible rather than the interior thoughts of our narrator, it too would likely be at a conversational level (given no indication that the speaker/thinker won).
And then there’s that boxcar. Mentioned twice, Hughes really wants us to see that there’s this boxcar there, yet says nothing about it other than also saying twice that it’s forgotten. What’s that mean? A boxcar is a freight train car. This is not an urban light rail or passenger train line being invoked. Who forgets a boxcar? Is it just one piece of rolling stock left off somewhere as a spare or scrap? While the poem doesn’t say this, I began seeing it as part of a train on a grade-level street crossing, with the boxcar’s location blocking the road, a location so that it has to be mentioned, can’t be ignored. Did Hughes see this clearly in his mind and forgot to make it plain in his poem, or am I imagining things?
This vision invoked in me of a small town to small city location where the freight train line runs on grade-level, not on bridges over the roads or in tunnels under them, let me begin to see this as a much sleepier street. This isn’t the busy streetlight and neon Harlem of Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance. The dusk is “dark,” the street quiet enough to hear things distinctly as the evening begins. As the poem reaches a crescendo portion, it’s laughter we hear. It’s “sudden,” indicating that it startles the relative quiet and is not muffled by it. Hughes metaphorically amplifies that laughter with repetition — stating that this laughter with its transport from the ordinary and unenergetic street is able to shake the shop lights and move billiard balls.
This is a poem published by a 25-year-old, but I get a sense this may well be a memory of an even more youthful time with daylight ending, with sounds and a scattered glow from remembered lit windows. Dusk is a marking time for many young people, between the era when it says “time to go home” spanning to the age of “time to first go out and explore your nighttime world of romance and adult recreation.” I wondered, would the poem have more context if I knew where the poem’s titular Railroad Avenue is? America has lots of Railroad Avenues and streets, so the name alone tells us little, other than this isn’t a boxcar dropped off miles from a rail line.
A Google Streetview showing the intersection of a main Joplin MO street now renamed for Langston Hughes with Railroad Ave. Google’s camera vehicles didn’t drive & record down the gravel path that is Railroad Avenue right beside the train tracks.
I spent half a day trying to figure out where such a street might be in the places the young Hughes was known to have lived. I’ll summarize the candidates as briefly as I can. He was born in Joplin Missouri, and there’s a very good Railroad Avenue there, with everything you might want for this less-populated scene — though the Afro-American population at the time Hughes’ family lived there was low. But Hughes and his parents left Joplin when Hughes was around 1-2 years old, and there’s nothing I could find saying anyone went back. And was Joplin even big enough and ethnic enough for a numbers game? Hughes spent his grade-school years in Lawrence Kansas being raised by his grandmother. Yes, there were some Black neighborhoods,*** but no likely Railroad Avenue. He spent time at Howard University in Washington D. C. There’s a Railroad Avenue in that city, but it’s far from Howard, and seems to be (and likely was) a non-descript industrial area. Afro-American Howard students might spend evenings on U street circa 1920, but like Harlem in that era, it’d be lit and busy, and no likely boxcars there. Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and once more I thought I might have a chance. Not as urban circa 1920 — but then no Railroad Avenue, not even a railroad line for more than 15 miles that I could find. And even if he’s a famous figure from the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ Harlem is as unlikely for a sleepy dark dusk with a grade-level railroad line as Washington D. C.
Is Railroad Avenue just something Hughes made up? Is it someone else’s story, something he absorbed from a friend, or his mother or grandmother? Did he go back and visit his birthplace Joplin before 1926 and observe a relaxed scene somewhere on that gravel-surface Railroad Avenue? I’ll probably never know.
But what’s up with that boxcar? Why is it so important, and so specifically forgotten? As a short, Modernist free verse poem, we can think: “So much depends/upon/the boxcar/serenaded by a/Victrola/beside a purple/powdered girl.” One theory: the boxcar is a plausible hobo-ride escape out of the town, but our narrator either doesn’t want to leave, or doesn’t know if the train-car is soon going his way. Within a year Hughes published another poem “Homesick Blues” written more in Southern Black dialect about someone looking to hobo back south.**** Another theory? If, as I imagined without direct evidence, the train has stopped and the boxcar is blocking the road, it’s a symbol of systematic blockage of the people in the scene. Whoever owns/controls the boxcar doesn’t even need to care about this (it’s “forgotten”) — and meanwhile the laughter of the folks in the scene mitigates their lives as they deal with this unfair, indifferent, hindrance.
I’ll conclude by admitting I composed the music and performed Langston Hughes’ “Railroad Avenue” without knowing exactly what the poem was about. I did have my supposed internal vision while doing so: it’s a small non-urban place, like some in Hughes’ youth. A boy or young man is watching the grownups, thinking without even thinking much, about where he might go, what he might do as he grows up. He knows somehow this, and he, will go away — but this evening he’s there. That personal, practical, vision of mine is, as Hughes has it, “Neither truth nor lie.”
*This line is the only one that specifically calls out the racial caste situation in the poem. Powders to lighten the skin tone of darker skinned Afro-Americans were a common cosmetic in Hughes’ time.
**Number or Policy lottery games were present in cities by the time of this poem. The illegal gambling game was usually a daily low-cost bet, winners determined by some coincidental trio of numbers that could be found published daily in newspapers. While associated with Afro-Americans, it was played by other ethnicities too. I don’t know much about its plausible presence in smaller cities and towns before 1926, though Wikipedia says such games go back to Civil War times.
***During the mid-19th century violence of the “Bloody Kansas” struggle to decide if Kansas would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state the pro-slavery forces sacked and destroyed Lawrence more than once. John Brown became a leader of guerilla anti-slavery forces in Kansas, and Hughes’ grandmother, who largely raised him, had a first husband who was killed with Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
****Example that Hughes was comfortable writing either as a collective noun or in the voices of personas.
Last time here, as we examined the young “Harlem Renaissance” writers who created the 1926 issue of Fire!!, we met one of its lesser-known contributors, Waring Cuney. Today I present an example of something that Cuney did later in his career. But let’s start by going backwards. Cuney was contributing to Fire!! around the time he had won a poetry contest prize as a 19-year-old, but he was originally intending to become a musician. His Wikipedia entry says he changed his mind because he thought he had a poor singing voice.
Already you can see why I, with my inconstant voice and a project that uses the subtitle “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” might take a liking to him. His family’s music and civil-rights connection may be deep and as strange as America could offer. While I can’t confirm this as I write today, he appears to have been the grandson or other descendant of Norris Wright Cuney (Waring’s father was named Norris Wright Cuney II) who was an important figure in Reconstruction era Texas politics and therefore also related to Norris’ daughter Maude Cuney Hare. Even a glance at the Wikipedia summaries for Norris Wright Cuney and Maude Cuney Hare might tell you how rich and fascinating American Black History can be.*
So, what strangeness made Cuney consider poetry? Here’s the story I found: one day Cuney was riding on a bus reading a newspaper when he saw in it a picture of another young black man his age who had just published a book of poetry. He looked up, and there was that same guy, riding on the same bus, Langston Hughes. The two became friends.
If Hughes’ poetry was early in concerning itself with Black musical expression, Cuney was alongside him with that same inclination. Later on, Hughes would occasionally read his poetry with jazz accompaniment. Cuney went Hughes one better, collaborating with Josh White on a remarkable dawn-of-WWII record of Blues songs about racial injustice called, like the lyric I perform today, “Southern Exposure.”
The 1941 record where Cuney’s lyric was first performed
This song lyric is nothing fancy, but it’s a compressed portrait of the forces that led large numbers of southern Afro-Americans to move North. What moved them? In short: industrial or domestic/pink color work seemed preferable to the feudal system of southern agriculture enforced with outright de jure racial segregation and restrictions. I could step back a bit and say that like Joseph Campbell’s highly compressed portrait of Irish rural poverty and emigration, “Southern Exposure’s” small cabinet of modest imagery is in the service of describing big things.
I didn’t use Josh White’s music or arrangement for my musical performance of Cuney’s “Southern Exposure,” preferring to rig up my own. I’m singing with acoustic guitar, the adopted Blues instrument White used, but about halfway in the rustic guitar is joined by a cello, a concert-hall instrument. You can hear my rendering of “Southern Exposure” with a graphic player if you see that, or with this backup highlighted link that will open a new tab with a music player.
*When I read the current controversies being utilized for political leverage regarding American Black History, may I introduce one point that I think gets missed as folks try to maximize white fears about this subject. Yes, horrible things occurred — and they weren’t accidents or fate, they were inflicted with intention. But strange and brave things occurred too. I’d argue that studying evils inflicted with intention is a vital subject for humanity — but also that the second, however bittersweet at times, is marvelous and intensely interesting.
I said I’d return to our encounter with the 1926 Harlem Renaissance issue of Fire!! magazine — and here we are with another poem that was printed there. If you’ll remember from earlier this Black History Month, Fire!! was largely organized, written, and edited by young people under the age of 25, and as such it wanted to represent a generational change from the curators of anthologies like James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry or Alain Locke’s The New Negro of 1925. There’s more emphasis on free verse in the poetry section for example, and throughout the issue there’s less attention to propriety. Though only a year separates Fire!! from The New Negro,long-time readers here may recall that Locke’s book included an essay on Black music casting a suspicious eye on what the essayist cast as frivolous Jazz music — and Blues, as a vocal music depicting a lot of disreputable situations, wasn’t considered an art at all.
The cohort of Fire!! didn’t share that outlook. If anything, they wanted to make sure they touched on unconventional thoughts and affinities. And here’s something we now think we know about the young writers in Fire!! — a substantial portion were gay or bisexual. Afro-Americans in the 1920s were coming out as full-fledged contributors to all the public arts — would that other status, fully-illegal and disrespected, muddy the waters of “racial uplift?”
Today’s piece uses a poem by a lesser-known contributor in this issue of Fire!!, Waring Cuney. Like Helene Johnson, who you may have been introduced to earlier this February, Cuney deserves to be better-known. While not directly part of the Harlem scene, Cuney was friends with Langston Hughes, one of the chief instigators of Fire!!, and like Hughes he was a young man who was comfortable with the language and outlook of the Blues.
I can’t seem to find a picture of the young William Waring Cuney, but here he is later in life modeling modern vinyl hipsterism.
Today’s set of words, Cuney’s poem “The Death Bed” doesn’t use Blues forms directly, but I’ve already been working with some other Cuney poems that do for possible performance, so I decided that I could include some of that today. “The Death Bed” is a poem about a dying man who doesn’t seem very interested in his family’s consolations of religion. While getting religion as death approaches is a common trope, our dying man quickly tells his relatives there’s no need for prayer. The relatives leave for another room, and instead of the purposeful theology of public prayer, our protagonist listens to the enigmatic wind. For one moment he tries to join the windsong with his own song, but finds he can find no words. If windsong is nature (likely) or the paraclete (possible), our dying man cannot form his response.
The poem ends with the dying man concerned with what the relatives in the other room are praying. Are they seeking to intercede for the non-believer? Or might they think he needs to be cleansed of some evil — maybe they are even praying to be protected from the sins this sinner personifies?
Cuney’s poem as it appeared in Fire!!
In my performance I sought to open-up intimations of another possibility via music. The Godhead or the universe may not require intercession or last-minute prayers. I made a rare choice to use a conventional musical sample* for this performance. The slide guitar you hear in the main body of “The Death Bed” is taken from a 1927 recording “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” by gospel/blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson. While many guitarists think Johnson’s sound and distinctive slide-vibrato is unmatchable, one could suppose I could have tried to approximate it. However, I was taken with the romantic notion of combining this 1926 poem with a slice of music recorded around the same time. I then included a short coda with a sung variation of this song.** The rest of the music was made with percussion and the sound of bowed cymbals. You can play this performance of Waring Cuney’s “The Death Bed” with a graphical player below. No player to see? This highlighted link is a backup method to play it.
*Portions of modern popular and art music intentionally use collaged and looped sections of existing recordings. I tend to avoid that for whatever reason, generally choosing to play or electronically “score” my instruments.
**The performers in that short coda are Fred and Annie McDowell. Fred McDowell is another master of the bottleneck slide guitar.
As we continue our 2023 Black History Month encounter with the young Harlem New York based writers in the 1926 issue of Fire!! we reach a much less familiar name: Helene Johnson. Our lead-off poet Countee Cullen was a mere 3 years older than the 20-year-old Johnson when Fire!! was published, but Cullen had already published two books and had two more in the works. Johnson had published mostly though successful writing contest entries. In the upcoming year she’d publish a poem in Vanity Fair. And then? Well, not much.
None-the-less, her poem in Fire!! “A Southern Road” is as strong as any included. I’m going to try to be brief in discussing the poem’s craft — though the poem exhibits those skills — because discussions of meter and imagery against the poem’s subject seem disproportionate to my heart’s response. And let me be clear at the start of this discussion: “A Southern Road” is a lynching poem, and in the last decade called The Twenties most Black American poets assayed a poem on the terroristic acts against Afro-Americans that were then an occurrence as common as mass shootings or questionable police killings are today.* And like those things we experience today, lynchings and other acts of anti-Black violence were both a cause for political organizing and an ongoing hurt that the country seemed incapable of correcting. Let that sink in for cause of sorrow and information: around 100 years ago, in the lifetime of people in our lifetimes, it was considered an insolvable problem that American communities would torture, mutilate, and summarily execute fellow citizens as a public display of their power and the executed’s lack of it. Read that sentence again. Read it once more after that. This level of savagery was thought something that couldn’t be stopped, something inevitable.
Can I appropriately introduce an odd sort of hope into this horrendous history? Yes, the heart and head may be confused on that. Still, people, Black and white Americans, dealing with a nation that collectively thought this just had to continue, eventually made lynchings rare. There’s a long and likely necessary analysis on why this happened that would include how the same hatefulness mutates into new forms, I won’t get to that here. I’ll just say to our current, crucial, Greatest Generation (because, like the last given that name, they’ll have to be great) that pervasive “This can’t be changed. Any solution would be ineffective and worse than the disease” statements about present horrors can be reflexes not reflective of history.
As the poem appeared in Fire!! The Internet has some mistranscriptions likely due to OCR errors.
Did Johnson’s poem make this change come about? No, it’s not even well-known as a poem— not even well-known as an African-American Harlem Renaissance poem — but poetry works in each reader and listener, one-by-one. A little over a decade later Abel Meeropol’s song “Strange Fruit” was powerfully realized by Billie Holiday, but Johnson’s earlier work was similarly skillful in giving us a portrait of evil. Even more than “Strange Fruit,” “A Southern Road” is cast as a cold pastoral. “A Southern Road” opens with a somewhat specific yet mysterious image: a dry yellow tongue. A metaphoric rural clay road? A parched leaf? From the poem’s generalized title we don’t know. I think the following “little tune” image developed over the next few lines is birdsong, and our dry forest pastoral ends unexpectedly with a line “Pregnant with tears.”
Johnson’s next sentence spread over four lines is part of why I think the tune, a melody that is a “streaming line of beauty” is birdsong, as there’s a nest that’s been flung down by some indifferent god/fate, before the Sabbath. We are to worship that god? We are to puzzle at a beautiful song despite loss?
The poem’s final five lines have us reassessing the poem’s portion before them. Several antique words are used here, perhaps a conscious choice to make this horror that was contemporary to her time in a way more timeless and generalized. A tree is described as a “predella,” the platform of an alter. We can next tell that the metaphoric altarpiece in this case depicts a crucifixion of a kind, a lynched person. “Sacrificial dower to raff” is near-Chaucerian in language. “Dower” is the inheritance of a dead person, raff is Middle English for rubbish, akin to the slightly less out-dated term “riff-raff.” The sacrificed body does not seem like much of an inheritance, any more that Christ on the cross seems much like a godhead, but I think Johnson is using raff/riff-raff in this line also to refer to the lynchers and their hate’s inheritance.
The poem ends with the tortured body suspended in the air, which I believe the poem compares to a plausible reader’s opinion on this matter: suspended?
There, I said I would keep my account of how we might encounter and understand this poem’s craft brief. I’ve compared “A Southern Road” above to “Strange Fruit,” and so I took it as my job to give Helene Johnson’s poem some further equivalence, albeit with what I could create for music and with a less masterful singer. I needed to put the music together fairly quickly again, but despite having three guitars and an electric piano over the bass and drums it worked spontaneously, as it needed to. You can hear it with the player you may see below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*There’s a figure easily found in web searches that more than a thousand lynchings occurred between 1900 and 1914. The later year 1919 (not included in that selection of years) was notorious for white riots and other forms of violence. US population at the time of today’s poem was roughly 1/3 of what it is today if you’d like to adjust figures. It’s plausible that numbers were not easily gathered for other years — after all, in our century there were no figures on the number of people killed in police encounters until recently. And anyway, technical arguments about collection and accuracy of numbers, like metrical scans of this poem’s lines don’t get at the overall effect of this: that people are going to terrorize and kill you and not enough are going to care about it.
It’s February and in America it’s Black History Month.* In the past few years of this Project I’ve picked a publication that has entered into public domain status to examine.** This February I’m going to feature work from a singular 1926 publication, the first issue of what was to be a literary quarterly called Fire!! The cover advertised it would be “Devoted to younger Negro Artists.”
Want to read this issue of Fire!! in part or all? Here’s a link to a high-resolution scan of it.
It’s worth stopping and noticing that “younger” again. It’s easy to fall into a trap when considering a time so long ago to many who will be reading this in 2023 — but its contributors and instigators were in their younger 20s though some had been writing and publishing since they were teenagers. They may seem old to you by strange definition, but they were certainly young to themselves and their contemporaries.
I find that remarkable. While a range of Black American artists were coming to the fore in the last decade called “The Twenties,” I can’t think it was in any way a time friendly to them. Even artistic Modernism, which sought new sources of inspiration and often delighted in mocking old prejudices, was a mixed bag. Racism and ethnic stereotyping remained present in Modernism. Perhaps sociologists could tell us if it was greater or lesser in the world of art than in society at large then, but I’m certain it was no small factor. And yet here were these young writers who at this point thought it was time for them to unleash a record of their experiences.
It’s not so wild a theory to say that they were so audacious because they didn’t know any better. I’m not going to knock that — for this white elderly composer and amateur sorta-scholar to think I have anything to bring to their efforts is not how the smart money would bet either. And you? You’re reading a blog with poetry and a variety of non-commercial music. So clearly, we all don’t know any better.
In the previous year’s Black History Month series here we’ve noted that some forms of new expression that would be featured in Fire!! were not without opposition even from the existing Black Intelligentsia. Jazz and Blues musics were considered problematic. Literary examinations of the sequalae of poverty rather than stories of uplift were controversial. Even if the 1920s were the decade that free verse became more widespread, some of these young poets looked more to Shelley and Keats than Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes.
Here’s Cullen’s sonnet as it appeared handsomely set in Fire!! It’s also the first poem in the poetry section of this issue, a section titled “Flame From the Dark Tower.”
Our lead-off poet is one such example. Countee Cullen was not a Modernist poet. Unlike other metrical/rhyming poets like Frost, and sometimes Yeats or Millay, he’s not even Modernist in outlook. While he’s 23 years old when this was published, he writes as if he was looking back to his last decade to be called the 20s, which would be the 1820s. None the less, “From the Dark Tower” is an impassioned account of the harms of white supremacy — and it is very well written within that style. If the premiere Afro-American poet Phyllis Wheatley was out to prove that she could write 18th century poetry as well as any white poet, Cullen demonstrates that he could do the same for the 19th century. Sure, there’s the matter that he was writing in the 20th century, and we are reading him in the 21st, but that’s likely a lesser sin now when there’s no fresh battle to be joined over free verse, Jazz rhythms, or Blues speech. It’s not unlikely that we read other older poems written in this poem’s style, and Cullen is in 2023 one of those old poets.
And then there’s this — this huge thing. I was trying to quickly get down an acceptable take of my simple acoustic guitar version of my song-setting of Cullen’s poem from Fire!! yesterday. Across my country, at the same time, in a city famed for its American music, so significantly Afro-American music, there was a funeral for yet another Black person killed by our official representatives in a manner that seems clearly to be an affront to civilization. Should we, musicians who’ve inherited that tradition, merely “beguile…with mellow flute?” To sing Cullen’s line, couched in careful rhyme and meter: “We were not made eternally to weep” — can I wish that situation would seem old-fashioned, out of date, a curiosity of the obsolete?
To hear that performance you can use a player gadget that should appear below. No player? This highlighted link is an alternative.
*Not to cast shade on this worthy endeavor, but Black History Month has been in my observation largely an Afro-American History month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with concentrating on that subject. I’ll just acknowledge that in the past century or so there’s been a counter-colonialist reassessment of African continental history — and while it has not risen to the level that this American has been aware of it (beyond some UK and other former English-speaking Commonwealth country reading) there may be worthwhile study and information coming forth on the wider African story.
**Because reusing, adapting, even performing, work not in the public domain is a legal gray area, this project shies away from using more modern work. Luckily as this nearing 7-year-long project has continued, more and more “Harlem Renaissance” work has entered PD status. Specific thanks is due to the Yale University Library for making Fire!! available digitally.
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!