May Music Find a Way. Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 7-5

Tonight is Jazz Night here at the Parlando Project Top 10 countdown. I’m going to ask the folks who come here for the talk about words to murmur down quietly today as I speak about the music.

Funny how these quarterly counts sometimes become nice little “sets.” Both today and tomorrow’s segments as we countdown to the most popular piece this past spring are as good as any planned ones I could have devised. So, let’s get the musicians on stage!

7. Sonny Rollins, the Bridge, 1959 by Frank Hudson.  Remember that the bold-face headings at the start of each entry in this countdown are links to the original post presenting them, where you can read what I had to say about it then. I had a lot to say about this one back in January, and so even though this is a piece where I wrote both the words and music, today I’m going to talk about how this (and many of our Parlando Project musical pieces) was realized.

With significant accuracy I hesitate to call myself a musician. My home instrument is the guitar, but even there my knowledge is not something to brag about, my skillset a bit unusual, but limited, and my consistency not up to a professional (or even many dedicated amateurs’) level. But I have a secret weapon: I can choose to compose or improvise (spontaneous composition) the things I present here. My Jazz guitar chops are not strong, but the chordal part was something I was able to execute. Listening back today to the second guitar part I improvised for this I think it was a good day with the wind at my back for me.

In another world I’d more often use other musicians who could add their skills to this enterprise, but logistically and financially the one-man-band approach is what makes it possible for me to express the variety of different musical ideas that I present.

To hear this or the other musical pieces here, use the player that may appear below, or this highlighted link.

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6. Lenox Ave Midnight, an Extension by Langston Hughes.  Another little miracle pulled from my limited, if a bit unusual, skill set? On a good day I can do a passible impression of a guitarist, but my keyboard playing is always naïve. The advantage I can find? Modern MIDI lets me use my mind where my fingers don’t know what to do. In a piece like this I figure out some kind of harmonic flavor by trial and error and my sketchy knowledge of music theory. I played that part and then improvised a right-hand part, editing on a MIDI “piano roll” to correct bad dynamics or altering notes I didn’t like. To an actual pianist this could be called “cheating.” To a composer, it’s called “composing.” You see, I use the term composer protectively, because I really do feel ashamed sometimes that I couldn’t play in real time with two hands the keyboard parts that to casual listeners make a sound like I could. And I think: to a real pianist realizing this simple composition would be a trifle. To me: achievement!

Near the end of this piece, to open up its musical world before I speak the two lines I added to Langston Hughes poem (the reason I call this piece “an extension”) I did something I rarely do here, which I personally try to avoid, because it really does feel like cheating to me. I used a couple of small loops of recorded melodic material from Apple Logic’s free-to-use loop library. My composer’s need here was that my simple and not very convincing saxophone part, that I did play on MIDI guitar, needed something to camouflage those issues.

Why does this bother me to do? After all sampled loops have been part of popular music since the hip-hop DJ’s started dropping riffs from vinyl records. Because I use “composer” as my excuse, my get-out-of-pretender-jail free card, I believe I (or at least some human present in the room with me in the creation process) should have played or scored the notes. I think the two short horn section loops used here sound fine, helped make this piece successful for listeners — but that’s why I feel guilty for using that tactic. Whoever played them, devised those short motifs, didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t working in concert with my aims.

Now look, I don’t generally mind when other artists do this. Returning to words briefly now: I spent many an April here performing the words of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  which includes — even more than I imagined — squadrons of quotations and paraphrases from pre-existing works. Selection, curation, recombination, and recontextualization are easily defined as creative acts. Maybe my qualms and self-imposed rules in this have a most self-interested reason: I worry that the casual listener here will think I’m just reading poems over pre-recorded music, when I’m proud that I had to write and play and record the majority of the music on this Project, one track at a time.

Player below, or link.

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Sonny Rollins, inspiring to me, yet my distance from that discipline shames me

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5. Autumn Movement by Carl Sandburg.  I stopped writing this post here yesterday, because what I had written so far seemed embarrassingly solipsistic, pretentious, and uninteresting to my audience, and yet also because some of the things I’m feeling as I write about my musical work are hard to condense into a reasonable length post — to be better, it would be even more. And so here we are at this, my presentation of a short nature poem by one of my heroes Carl Sandburg, illuminated by lovely music I made for it. How am I to feel about it tonight? Amazed that I, a non-musician, was able to make it? Or something that feels almost like shame or embarrassment that I present it publicly, when there are days I can’t play anything of any value? Knowing enough to know that what I know as a composer (little) and what I can bring to the composer as a player (limited). Knowing that at my age (old) there isn’t much lifetime to remedy those things.

This, though I cannot say I have sufficient understanding or skills, is where Jazz comforts me as no other art does. Jazz is always confronting the empty sky. Always a critique of silence — and able to the fears inside silence, now, not later, and with surprise and failure. There can be no surprise without failure. I’m a small man, it’s a big sky and a big silence. There are better musicians, better composers, but it’s a big sky and a big silence. This the musician’s and composer’s prayer: may music find a way.

Player below, or link.

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Winter 2020-21 Parlando Top Ten (abbreviated edition)

Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.

I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:

10. Song to the Dark Virgin by Langston Hughes

9. Winter Solstice Consolations by Frank Hudson

8. I died for Beauty —  but was scarce by Emily Dickinson

7. Oh, Maria by Ethna McKiernan

6. Letting Go the Wolves by Ethna McKiernan

You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues.  There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.

We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.

Tommy Thaw card 800

Spring, a rebuttal.

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5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.

One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.

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4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.

Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.

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3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.

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2. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost. I made my pitch that Robert Frost was verging on being a bluesman elsewhere this winter, but that piece didn’t make the Top Ten as this one did. His Black American contemporary Langston Hughes called his first book and a featured poem in it The Weary Blues,  but this poem of Frost’s could have that name too. Both Hughes’ Weary Blues and Frost’s end in sleep.

I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.

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1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.

Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.

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Langston Hughes’ Poem

Today’s piece, “Poem”  from Langston Hughes 1926 poetry collection, The Weary Blues, is one of the shortest poems in that book. Here’s a link to the text, all of it, if you’d like to read along. Those who’ve followed this Project as it has looked at early English language Modernist verse may recall that very short poems, even poems that seem bereft of obvious metaphor, were something that many of those early Modernists liked to present. Such tiny poems are pointed darts at the pomposity and long-windedness of the poetry they were seeking to replace.

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.

Frederick Smith

Frederick Smith, who’s been identified by some as the  mysterious F.S.

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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.

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*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.

Song to the Dark Virgin

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.”

Mother of God of Andronicus

A Greek Orthodox icon, one of the examples of the Black Madonna found in Eurasia and Latin America.

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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?

Song to the Dark Virgin

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!

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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.

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*She’s not Black, but Genevieve Taggart wrote one of the most pointed and poignant of love poems about love on the poor side of town during the last Twenties too.

**Today’s poem never uses a gendered pronoun or name.

***No, not meaning he’s vain — it’s a poetic term for a metaphor that’s not afraid to be elaborately weird or fanciful.

****Back to “Song of Songs,”  get to the 5th verse and you get “I am black, but comely” in the KJV. Or as “Ecclesiastics”  had it: “Nothing new under the sun.”

More from Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”

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.

I talked about my encounter with the poem and it’s sometimes discussed deeper connotations here. You can hear the audio piece with guitar and piano clustering around a three-months-into-winter drone with either a graphic audio player that some of you will see, or this highlighted link.

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I was quite taken by this photo of Roy DeCarava’s “Graduation 1949” when I saw it this winter.

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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.

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*Yes, there wasn’t a word “flurious” until now. You are present at the creation!

**My original post on this poem has a longer summary of Langston Hughes’ family situation at the time he wrote this poem. In short, his father was adamant that instead of literature that Langston study engineering. Langston agreed, but then after trying to go along with his father’s wishes, he dropped out, shipped out to sea on merchant ships, and on return to the U. S. worked various lower-end jobs. I think of John Keats’ decision a hundred years before Langston Hughes’. Engineering and medical field students: I’m not suggesting poetry instead. Really, I’m not. Perhaps rather an and instead of or is best.

***It may not be coincidental, but one of the jobs Langston Hughes eventually had was a stint working with Carter Woodson, who first suggested an annual observance of Black history. So, all the more reason to focus on his work this February.

Lenox Avenue: Midnight, an extension

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.

Move by Heidi Randen 800

Overtones, undertones….Jazz in Hughes’ 1926 was still thought of as a way to shake your groove thing.

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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.

You can hear Langston Hughes’ “Lenox Avenue: Midnight”  and my extension to it with the player gadget below, if you see one — or this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.

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*Lesser-known early 20th century Afro-American poet Anne Spencer made the same point eulogizing Paul Lawrence Dunbar with her short poem.

The Weary Blues (demo version)

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

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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.

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To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s

It’s Black History Month, and I’m planning on presenting a series focusing on Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection: The Weary Blues — but before 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.

The Weary Blues cover 1024

Our February focus: Langston Hughes’ first book.

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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.

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*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.

Summer 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2

Continuing our countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here this past summer we move today to the numbers 4 through 2 on our list. I’ve mentioned that blog traffic and listens have dropped off a bit this summer, which from looking at past years stats follows a yearly trend. Things are picking up this month, which is encouraging — and even before autumn has begun, we’ve already rolled up our most page views and visitors for a year ever. Most of the blog visits come from those using search engines stumbling onto a particular page, and there are some perennially popular Parlando blog posts that draw visitors month after month and year after year. Maybe sometime this fall I’ll talk about those, but when it comes to listens to the audio pieces this summer, the list is all recent work, so let’s move on to them.

4. I, Too by Langston Hughes  I did a double post for American Independence Day, using texts from Walt Whitman (“I Hear America Singing”)  and this answer piece by Langston Hughes. Hughes’ piece easily outdrew the Whitman in listens, perhaps because it’s fresher to some listeners (Whitman’s piece has already had at least one widely-sung setting). Then too, the music I wrote for “I, Too”  was a catchy little cycle of chords that I played in full strums on acoustic guitar. To my ears, and apparently many of yours, it was simply effective.

Hughes wrote his poem as an individual Afro-American’s story, one paralleling his own biography, but it’s easy to see he intends it as a fully-earned addition to Whitman’s catalog of Unum’s in the E Pluribus. I decided to add onto Mr. Hughes’ lyric one short phrase at the ending, “If not us, who else,” in part to double-down the Independence Day point being made. Questions of cultural appropriation may prick us, their needling will establish these concerns have small if sharp and painful points, but the overall issue of who tells, who sings is long past decision. Story tellers will tell. Singers will sing. Poets can do both at the same time.

If you haven’t heard this one, or want to hear it again, there may be a player gadget below, and if not, this highlighted hyperlink can also play the piece.

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3. Sappho’s Old Age by Sappho  Speaking of cultural appropriation, yesterday in this Top Ten countdown we had a piece written by pioneering Canadian poet Bliss Carman presenting himself as if a reincarnated Sappho. Is that ridiculous? I guess it can’t help but be, but I honestly enjoyed his poem and performing it. However, this piece in today’s part of the countdown was somewhat more popular this summer and was actually largely written by Sappho.

Now it’s my turn to respectfully appropriate her work and twist it my way. Ancient Greek being — oh what’s a saying for this? Oh yes: “It’s Greek to me.” — I worked from literal glosses of the text and tried to turn it into singable modern English idiom. Then I got to the poem’s conclusion, and enchanted by the parallels with a poem by 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud that I presented here this spring, I decided to replace Sappho’s metaphor with one drawn from Rimbaud and his life.

Bliss, I guess you and I are in the same boat, probably on one of the lakes between my state and yours.

To hear the performance in my old age of Sappho’s song of her old age a lot of ages ago, you can use the gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window and play it.

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Bee Busy Hearts

Bee busy! Hearts! Summer photos by Heidi Randen.

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2. The Poem ‘The Wild Iris’ by Heidi Randen   Heidi wrote the text I used here at the end of a post at her blog this summer, though I added the music and additional repetitions and pauses of my device to the piece you’ll hear. In turn Heidi was resonating with something she had read in a poem by Louise Glück. So, in the end, I appropriated her work appropriating Glück’s. This process by which I appropriated the text as well as the musical repetition give it a rondeau effect if not that exact form.

Oddly, all this repetition was to present a thought about transitions, which Heidi and I are both going through this summer. Things cycle, things repeat, and then they don’t. Every day for months a parent picks up an infant and carries it somewhere. Then the toddler asks, and the parent lifts their toddling body to hip or shoulder and carries them bidden. One day they no longer ask, the parent no longer lifts, and never lifts again. And then sometimes, with time and age, the parent, will be carried by the child.

That and more. We can be so nearsighted with doorways, they sometime appear only when we are on the threshold.

You may see a player gadget below to play this highly popular piece from this summer, but some ways of reading the blog won’t show that. This highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

An Independence Day Double-Header: I Hear America Singing and I, Too

Visits to this blog tend to go down on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer — so, congratulations if you’re reading this, you’ve managed to beat the crowds!

America is a young country, but after a bit of a slow start, we’ve been meeting our quota for poets, and by now the record shows a great variety and number of them. Who’s great? Who’s dispensable? Well, some days I wonder if any of that matters when poetry still has challenges getting traction on the slick surface of our nation. Still, one thing’s clear to me if I take stock of American poets, there’s no more American poet than Walt Whitman. That’s no accident: it was his life’s work to become the most American of poets. Few poets before and since have sincerely tried for that. Whitman did.

Whitman didn’t just want that personally. His poetry is full of invocations for other American bards to arise, with claims that the spirit of America would nurture and welcome them.

This Sunday is American Independence Day. Has he been right?

Our first piece today is one of Whitman’s best-known poems. In its litany of lines he shows us two things: that Americans love to sing and that America is the sum total of our varied labors.

Taking the last first. Whitman is going to concentrate on manual labor and trades in this poem. He could have written about other work and workers, even poets or professional musicians after all — but he says the songs he’s going to note are “those of the mechanics,” meaning the mechanical trades,* using the word in the same meaning that Shakespeare uses it when burlesquing the “rude mechanicals” and their ardently inept art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But Whitman is not making fun. He says nothing about the quality of their songs or singing, but the very length of his list indicates he values something in their number and variety. Overall (or overalls?) there’s celebration of masculine traits in the poem, though some work associated with women — and specific, specified work, not just sentimental “remember the ladies” stuff — is included in his list.

It’s fitting that in this summer month, as a holiday weekend approaches, that he ends his poem with a party, a get-together, but throughout “I Hear America Singing”  songs continue in work, in comradeship, in love. I would wish you too just as happy a July 4th.

It’s complicated to judge if American poetry disproportionately influences the world in our time, but one doesn’t have to go hard to make the case that American music has done so in the time since Whitman’s death. Whitman speaks of poetry as a bardic art, and so he uses “song” and “poetry” interchangeably when he speaks of his art, even if later most have come to see these as separate arts and that it’s important to distinguish between them.

Whitman asked that — more than that, promised that — there’d be many significant American poets to come. He got musicians. Close enough Walt.

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Checking on the predictions of two American poet-prophets: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes

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Some decades later, one of the poets that Whitman prophesied wrote an “answer record” poem to “I Hear America Singing.”  In “I, Too”  Langston Hughes, an Afro-American poet, decided to add one more labor example to Whitman’s litany. Hughes’ poem is sung from the position of a servant.**  In Whitman’s 19th century time, many/most of the jobs that Whitman cataloged would have been self-employed, and it’s clear that Hughes’ worker isn’t. Furthermore, as an Afro-American his segregation from the “company” is double-more with his class status. Make the food, serve the food, wash the dishes — but you won’t eat in the room with the guests.

Hughes too is going to prophesize a future America then from his 1925 present. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin he says in effect about that stay-in-the-kitchen status. He’s going to spin that wheel.

Nearly a hundred years later*** how have things worked out with Hughes’ prophecy? Poets have written. Songs have been sung. Work from American political mechanicals has gotten us partway there to equality of opportunity, to recognized accomplishments, to appreciation of Black beauty.****

Is this an unpatriotic thing to say on this holiday, that our workmanship on some important civic matters is slipshod? I’m no prophet, but if I was one, I might say that some day we could build the temple in time where we can see beauty presently while being ashamed in the past tense, just as Hughes promises.

What Americans could build this temple? If not us, who else?

For some of you there will be player gadgets to hear the two audio pieces today just below this paragraph. If you don’t see them, this highlighted hyperlink will play “I Hear America Singing”   and this one will play Langston Hughes’ response “I, To.”   Want to read along? Here a link to Whitman’s poem, and here’s one to Hughes’ poem. You may also notice that I used essentially the same music for both texts today. That’s me trying to show the two poems conversation. The first is the more formal presentation, the second a simple acoustic guitar folk song. Feel free to sing along with the “I, Too”  final chorus, including the line I’ve added to the original poem.

“I Hear America Singing”

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“I, Too”

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*I note that in his catalog Whitman mentions specifically house carpenters, the job his father held. He also mentions wood-cutters. Ezra Pound’s family had connections to the lumber industry, and in Pound’s poem “A Pact”  about Whitman, Pound calls out Whitman as a wood-cutter while patting himself on the back as the more developed “carver” of wood, a job further down the supply chain and further up the artistic hierarchy. Sick burn Ezra.

**Details of this aren’t completely clear, perhaps intentionally. Hughes poem’s speaker could be enslaved, or he could be a paid domestic servant. He could even be a restaurant worker, a job that Hughes himself held for a short time. Early in his life, his poetry career got a boost when he left some poems at the table of diner Vachel Lindsay when that Illinois poet visited the establishment where Hughes worked. Lindsay read them, thought they had value, and touted Hughes as a result.

***When the country was younger, July 4th was a day for speeches on our history. Now, for me, so strange to be so old, and how disappointing how slow citizenship equity is. In my youth, it was common to speak of racial justice and full rights as being an American goal a hundred years old, using the end of slavery as the starting line. And now we near 100 years from Langston Hughes’ poem. The famous “arc of history” is such a long archway that one should wonder why it hasn’t collapsed in the middle.

****Speaking of I hear America singing: disproportionally the reason that strains of American music are known worldwide is due to Africans taken to these American shores. American singing, American music, has many tributaries, many are important, even the many-ness itself is important — but as I’ve said here before: I am an American musician. Most of the notes are black.