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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Terrance McKnight and Franklin Bruno on music in the life of Langston Hughes

As part of last month’s celebration of Langston Hughes’s 110th birthday, WQXR-FM broadcast an hourlong radio documentary, I, Too, Sing America: Music in the Life of Langston Hughes, produced and narrated by Terrance McKnight. While best known as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes once said that he believed that “words with music could reach more people than words on paper.” The program chronicles the wide variety of music that influenced Hughes and the even wider range of his musical collaborations, which included pop songs, Broadway showstoppers, gospel spirituals, opera arias, and jazz poetry with musical accompaniment.

Hughes’s obsession with music started early. In his semi-autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter Hughes offers a virtuoso riff on what ten-year-old Sandy witnesses when his babysitting aunt sneaks him into a Kansas dance club in 1912:
“Whaw! Whaw! Whaw!” mocked the cornet—but the steady tomtom of the drums was no longer laughter now, no longer even pleasant: the drum beats had become sharp with surly sound, like heavy waves that beat angrily on a granite rock. And under the dissolute spell of its own rhythm the music had got quite beyond itself. The four black men in Benbow’s wandering band were exploring depths to which mere sound had no business to go. Cruel, desolate, unadorned was their music now, like the body of a ravished woman on the sun-baked earth; violent and hard, like a giant standing over his bleeding mate in the blazing sun. The odors of bodies, the stings of flesh, and the utter emptiness of soul when all is done—these things the piano and the drums, the cornet and the twanging banjo insisted on hoarsely to a beat that made the dancers move, in that little hall, like pawns on a frenetic checker-board.
In his essay “When the Negro Was in Vogue,” looking back at his nineteen-year-old self, freshly arrived in New York City, Hughes describes his reaction to seeing the musical Shuffle Along (1921), with music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and a yet-to-be-discoverered Josephine Baker in the chorus:
Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. . . To see Shuffle Along was the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia. When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted. From then on I was in the gallery of the Cort Theatre every time I got the chance. . . . I remember Shuffle Along best of all. It gave the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—to the Negro vogue of the 20’s, that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing.
In the radio program, McKendrick relates how Hughes yearned to bring black history and black folklore to the opera stage. When the Gershwins beat him to it with Porgy and Bess in 1935, Hughes’s responded with the poem “Note on Commercial Theatre”:
You’ve taken my blues and gone—
You sing ’em on Broadway
And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ’em up with symphonies
And you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
But later in the poem, he predicts:
. . . someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Me myself!
Hughes’s breakthrough came in 1945 when Elmer Rice invited him to join in a collaboration with Kurt Weill on Street Scene. The result was what is still Hughes’s most frequently performed song “Lonely House.” In 1949 Hughes realized his dream when he collaborated with William Grant Still on Troubled Island, an opera about the Haitian revolution, for New York City Opera. The first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera company, Troubled Island received twenty-two curtain calls on opening night but negative reviews caused it to shut down after only three performances and it has never been revived.

On the Poetry Foundation's website, Franklin Bruno offers an appreciation of the musical comedy Simply Heavenly, Hughes’s 1957 collaboration with Dave Martin, based on the long-running character Jesse B. Simple in Hughes weekly column for the Chicago newspaper The Defender. Comparing it favorably to the recent hit musical In the Heights, Bruno finds many of the numbers in the show “magnificent”:
They added escape, affirmation, lament, complaint, and a challenge to the reduction of rhythm to clock-time. The show’s best songs are distinctive, witty, and touching, combining Martin’s idiomatic sense of melody and phrasing with Hughes’s own predilection for “composed” urban blues over Southern “country” styles.”
Bruno cites the blues number “Broken Strings” sung by Brownie McGhee as “the score’s undiscovered gem” and McKnight’s program includes McGhee’s version. Despite a few short-lived revivals since, Simply Heavenly never became popular and Hughes abandoned musicals in favor of the tremendously successful genre of gospel plays he launched with Black Nativity in 1961.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set; includes Not Without Laughter); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “When the Negro Was in Vogue”); The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion (includes one of Hughes’s Simple pieces, “Simple Prays a Prayer”)

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