The Voice of Langston Hughes

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Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1955-60
Langston Hughes was one of the great spokespersons for African-Americans during the middle of the last century. Author, poet, raconteur, dramatist and polemicist; it seemed that there was no limits to his talent. As a poet, his chief virtue was to write in clear, accessible language, which not only reproduced the rhythms of the blues, but actually spoke to listeners. He is the author of such memorable works as “The Negro Speaks Rivers” with its memorable likening of the African-American to the Euphrates and the Mississippi, and its reference to “My soul [which] has grown deep” through contact with those “ancient, dusky rivers.” Another poem, “I, Too” reminds us that “I, Too” [the African-American] is part of America.


In this selection, drawn from the myriad of recordings Hughes made for the Smithsonian Institute during the 1950s, we heard examples of his blues poetry, where language is used as much for its sound as its sense (“The Weary Blues” and “Night and Morn”). We also heard some of his poems set to music: “I’m Gonna Testify” shows the benefit of communal activity in which everyone joins in the chorus. It is not only a show of strength, but shows how the African-American community benefited from sheer numbers. “The Struggle” recounted the early years of the African-American, explaining that they were originally to be found in the United States in the late fifteenth century at the time of Columbus. It was only when the colonists brought over black people from Africa in the early seventeenth century, and ruthlessly exploited them as slaves, that the concept of discrimination became a reality in the country.


“Rhythms of the World” a talk introducing listeners to African rhythms, reminded us of how rhythms made on percussion instruments actually joined people together – everyone was involved in making music with no suggestion of social distinction. This provided a good introduction to the final piece on the CD “Simple,” the story of Hughes’ alter ego Jesse B.Semple, who stood up for African-American values of the extended family, and who had a pragmatic view of the world. In his view no white people could actually understand how their African-American brethren suffered, walking vast distances in the hope of obtaining food and shelter. Simple also preached the message of universal peace – although different communities might struggle for their rights, perhaps they should do so with as little violence as possible. This in a sense summed up Hughes’ mission as a writer; he wanted to change the world through prose and speeches rather than through battles. In view of the bloody history of America during the late 50s and 60s, which only ended with the granting of civil rights, it is a shame that more people did not heed his message.