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.