Blues in Stereo: The Texts of Langston Hughes in Jazz Music

By Tkweme, W. S. | African American Review, Fall-Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Blues in Stereo: The Texts of Langston Hughes in Jazz Music


Tkweme, W. S., African American Review


The title of this is drawn from essay a section of Langston Hughes's long experimental poem ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 MOODS FOR JAZZ, published in 1961 as a stand-alone volume. The entire work is emblematic of Hughes's lifelong engagement with African American music and identity, and their relationships to domestic and international structures of white supremacy, even as the poem's experimentalism eluded the appreciation of critics contemporary and since (Rampersad 343-44). "Blues In Stereo," the fifth section of ASK YOUR MAMA, evokes colonialism in Africa and the slaughter in King Leopold's Congo, and alludes to the ways that black music is misheard if not misappropriated by those who consider themselves the superior of people of African descent.

Indeed, African American music, its beauty, cultural meanings, and creative representations of the people, was absolutely central to Langston Hughes's artistic project. His poetry and fiction return again and again to the figure of the black musician and scenes of music-making; his characters express themselves through traditional songs and song forms, and he pioneered in adapting the twelve-bar blues form to the printed page. He recorded his poetry with jazz bands, most notably with Charles Mingus in 1958 on the album Weary Blues. He helped Lonne Elder III write the fascinating "Scenes in the City" that was the centerpiece of A Modern Jazz Symposium Of Music And Poetry With Charles Mingus the previous year. (1) Hughes is also credited as being the inventor of the gospel musical play, with works such as Black Nativity and Simply Heavenly enjoying great popularity over the years. In addition, he was a librettist for operas by William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, and Jan Meyerowitz.

Scholars have rightly focused much attention on the role music plays in Hughes's literary aesthetics and cultural vision, as well as his ideas about and portrait of the African American musical tradition. He was one of the few intellectuals of his generation to take twentieth-century black music forms--especially blues and jazz--seriously, as both enriching aesthetic achievements and definitive expressions of black culture. His celebration of the music and language of working class and poor black people put him at odds with many of his contemporaries who were still searching for some soon-to-come high, refined, Negro art, but it was his vision which ultimately was of greatest influence on subsequent generations of African American writers, even when they did not acknowledge that influence. (2)

This essay looks at another side of the connection between Langston Hughes and the black musical tradition. The question typically posed about this relationship is, what has Hughes to say about the black musical tradition? But let us instead consider the question's inversion: what has the black musical tradition to say about Langston Hughes? I will shortly consider several jazz performances of Hughes texts, but first, a bit more contextualization.

The setting of poetry to music has a long history in the West, dating back at least to ancient Greece, and this practice has continued to be commonplace in the European concert music tradition. Thus, when one adds up all the known recordings of Langston Hughes texts with music, one finds quite a few, perhaps the majority, from composers and performers of concert music. African American composers Florence Price, Howard Swanson, and Margaret Bonds each set several Hughes poems to their compositions, and these have been performed and recorded repeatedly over the years. Bonds, a friend of Hughes, organized and assembled a 1964 tribute, "The Poetry of Langston Hughes Set to Music on the Occasion of Mr. Hughes' Birthday," that is representative of this thrust, featuring the music of William Grant Still, Harry T. Burleigh, and other major figures of the theater and concert stage. (3)

One might think that given Hughes's fondness for writing blues verse, he might have a presence in blues or rhythm & blues music, but that is not really the case. …

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