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Langston Hughes on the Folklife Today Podcast

Poet Langston Hughes, with one arm around a small statue of a seated man.

Langston Hughes, photographed by Gordon Parks for the Office of War Information in 1943. Find the archival scan here.

Season 3, Episode 8 of the Folklife Today Podcast is ready for listening! Find it at this page on the Library’s website, or on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher.

In this episode  John Fenn and I, along with guests Langston Collin Wilkins and Sophie Abramowitz, look at Langston Hughes as a “Hidden Folklorist.” As usual, I’ll present links to the relevant blog posts and audio selections in this post!

But first:

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Head and shoulders portrait of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, photographed by Jack Delano for the Office of War Information in 1942. Find the archival scan here.

This episode looks at a “Hidden Folklorist” renowned as a poet and playwright: Langston Hughes. It includes interviews with folklorist Langston Collin Wilkins and Hughes scholar Sophie Abramowitz. Wilkins and Abramowitz show us how Langston Hughes’s folklore work was grounded in song collecting and vernacular expression, and committed to the visionary futurity of Black folkloric creativity.

As part of the story, we also explore Hughes’s connections to the American Folklife Center archive, especially correspondence between Hughes and Alan Lomax that preserves perhaps the only known copies of some of Hughes’s collected songs, right here in the Library of Congress.

We’ve already told this story in written form here on the blog, in the form of a guest post by Sophie Abramowitz.  You can find that blog post here. Sophie is now a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University and is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Virginia. Of course, the podcast includes Sophie’s updated thinking about the materials she found both here at AFC and in Hughes’s collections at Yale University.

Sophie notes particularly that a set of typescript pages in Alan Lomax’s collection documenting “Negro blues” seems to have come directly from Hughes’s typewriter, using a distinctive style of transcription with lines of hashtags bisecting the page. It’s a style Hughes used in two contexts: while writing songs, and while collecting folklore.  Sophie believes it’s direct formal evidence of the deep connection between his collecting and his creativity. Sophie found the pages while looking for “Dupree Blues,” a song that Hughes sent to Lomax for publication in the book Our Singing Country. The full transcription didn’t turn up, but parts of the song were on these other pages typed by Hughes. As Sophie noted:

While the original transcription of Dupree Blues is still missing, this collection we see at the American Folklife Center is probably only a fraction of the work that Hughes collected, but didn’t catalog, throughout his entire life. And honestly, who knows what else people will find if they keep looking?

Our other guest for the episode, Langston Collin Wilkins, may also sound familiar. In a 2019 Botkin lecture here at the Library of Congress, Langston discussed “screw,” Houston’s distinctly local form of hip-hop music, which emerged within the city’s African American community almost 30 years ago. It is inextricably tied to “slab,” a vernacular car culture in which mostly young African American men spend countless hours and money transforming outmoded American sedans into spectacular automotive art pieces. In his talk, Langston discussed how “screw” and “slab” combined to form a unique local tradition that affirmed and empowered working class black Houstonians across several generations.  Find the video of his lecture here.

A man leans on a lectern and speaks into a microphone

Langston Collin Wilkins speaks in the Whittall Pavilion of the Library of Congress in 2019. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Langston currently lives and works in the Pacific Northwest as the Washington “State Folklorist,” or more formally, the director of the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, which is a program co-sponsored by the Washington state Humanities Council and the Washington State Arts Commission. (Find the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions online at this link.) Prior to that, he was a traditional arts specialist at the Tennessee Arts Commission and served as a fellow for the folklife and traditional arts program of the Houston Arts Alliance and the Houston Museum of African American Culture, where he conducted fieldwork and produced public programs that centered on the traditional arts of Houston’s African diasporic communities. As an African American folklorist who was literally named after Langston Hughes, Langston is uniquely qualified to comment on Hughes’s importance to folklore as a discipline and to African American folklore and folklorists.

The episode also presented two songs from the archive The first was a version of “Take this Hammer” known as “Spike Driver Blues,” played at the Library of Congress by Mississippi John Hurt in 1963. We don’t have this recording online, but there is a licensed video at YouTube, here.

The second recording is a version of “Dupree Blues” sung by Buena Flint in Florida in 1939. You can find that recording on the Library’s website at this link.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for listening. In case you need that podcast link again…here it is!

Hidden Folklorists and Hidden Spirituals on the Folklife Today Podcast

Our latest podcast looks at three “Hidden Folklorists” from Louisiana with special guest Joshua Clegg Caffery from the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. The Hidden Folklorists are Becky Elzy and Aberta Bradford, two spiritual singers who had been born in slavery, but who years later sang over a hundred spirituals for collectors; and E.A. McIlhenny, the head of the Tabasco Sauce company, who first collected their spirituals into a book. We recount details of how a microfilm of unique, unpublished manuscript spirituals by Bradford and Elzy came to be part of the American Folklife Center archive, and how Bradford and Elzy came to be recorded on audio discs for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax in 1934, with the resulting recordings also coming to the AFC Archive. It’s an amusing story in which the 19-year-old Alan Lomax is forced to leave his father, the seasoned collector John A. Lomax “by the side of the road” and drive 40 miles with the 73 year old Bradford to try to find the 82 year old Elzy so they can sing together for the Library’s recording machine. The episode also presents several of their spirituals, and ends with the very moving recording of two women who had been born in slavery singing “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, got free at last!”

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