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Langston Hughes: Experimental Folklorist

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 original here.

The following is a guest post by Sophie Abramowitz, a PhD Candidate working on a dissertation about songwriting, song collecting, and performance in the Harlem Renaissance. It is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which describes the folklore work of surprising people, sometimes people famous for other pursuits.

By 1925, poet and polymath James Mercer Langston Hughes was living in Washington, D.C. to be near his mother and working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in order to support them both. At twenty-three years old, Hughes had already been published in the NAACP’s paper The Crisis, which was founded and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Hughes’s first book of poems, titled The Weary Blues, had also recently been accepted for publication by Alfred A. Knopf. It was from this collection that Hughes selected and transcribed three sheets to slip onto the table where the populist poet Vachel Lindsay was eating his dinner. Lindsay had no idea that Hughes was currently supplementing his income at the hotel with a research position for the famous historian Carter G. Woodson. He certainly didn’t know his busboy had a book deal. Enthralled by “Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” and “The Weary Blues,” Lindsay publicly performed the three poems at the same hotel the following night. Perhaps the author of “The Congo”—which Hughes would include in his poetry lesson plan during his three-month tenure teaching 6th-10th graders at the University of Chicago fourteen years later—thought he had “discovered” an untrained “folk” talent. In fact, Lindsay had had the pleasure of encountering one of the great twentieth century poets of black American vernacular. [1]

From his diverse and prolific breadth of writing, Langston Hughes is mostly remembered selectively as a “folk” and jazz poet, or author of black vernacular blues and jazz poetry. While Hughes did dedicate himself to creating and reinterpreting these genres throughout his life and career, the core of his work is actually in collecting and experimenting with folklore across spaces and media. In Harlem and abroad, Hughes operated as what scholar Daphne Lamothe calls a “native ethnographer,” adapting his work during and beyond the Harlem Renaissance across genres to the discourses of anthropology, folklore, and sociology in a mode reminiscent of that of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, civil rights activist, songwriter, and author of the local history book Black Manhattan James Weldon Johnson, choreographer Katharine Dunham, and many others. Specifically, Hughes was an ethnographer of black vernacular culture, transcribing different kinds of linguistic and musical performance and reinterpreting those transcriptions in and as his own texts.

Manuscript page with text of songs.

Manuscript of “American Negro Blues Collected by Langston Hughes,” a compendium of miscellaneous lines of 12-bar blues songs. Photo by the author.

Even more specifically, Langston Hughes was a song collector. In June of 1927 (just a year after the publication of The Weary Blues), Hughes followed Zora Neale Hurston’s advice about what their biographer Arnold Rampersad called “the rich folk material everywhere” and set off on a trip through the southern US and the hemispheric South. Moving from the red-light district in Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the labor camps of Baton Rouge, Louisiana—where, according to Rampersad, “Hughes tried to record the more inventive songs”—Hughes turned folklorist, ethnographer, and collector. Running into Hurston in Mobile, Alabama, Hughes recounted the verses he’d transcribed from a stevedore named Big Mac, and compared notes on the idiomatic vernacular he’d been diligently recording in his notebook throughout his trip. Together in Savannah, Georgia, warned by Hurston (as he recounted in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea) that “you can’t just sit down and ask people to sing songs for you and expect them to be folk-songs, and good ones, and new ones,” the pair (again, Rampersad), “coaxed new songs out of the guitar pickers and bluesmen on the docks.”

In Decatur, Alabama, Hughes described and transcribed the chorus of what he called “the blind man playing his guitar and singing;” the sermon of “a old man named Uncle John,” and the same John’s daughter’s gospel shout. In Huntsville, a story called “The Cat Tale” that Hughes heard in “Mr. Herndon’s Drug Store” appears before a series of daily diary-style entries that shift between poetry, transcription, and even diagram (of what seems to be a self-made ventilator!). Hughes’s traveling notebooks from this field recording trip reveal his investment in vernacular black culture and language, with his observations of the sights and sounds in each southern town rendered in lush detail. And even as an ethnographer, Hughes’s work gives the impression of being a formal experiment.

During his trip to Cuba in 1930, Hughes flooded his travel notebook with personal chronicles about the live performances that he attended; the Orchestra at Marianoa, for example, and a medley of cornetín, maracas, the “Bongó,” piano, claves, “Guitar de tre cuerdas,” guayo, violin, and flute at the Club Occidente (a “Negro ballroom publico”). Hughes frequently translated the poetry of Nicolás Guillen, whom Hughes encouraged to incorporate the rhythms and themes of Guillen’s national Cuban folk music—the son—into his poetry in a mode reminiscent of Hughes’s own use of blues and jazz rhythms in his work.

Manuscript page with song texts.

Second page of manuscript of “American Negro Blues Collected by Langston Hughes,” a compendium of miscellaneous lines of 12-bar blues songs. Photo by the author.

While Hughes moved away from songwriting and collecting during the 1930s when he was a vocal and practicing communist, by the 1940s he gravitated back towards the musical and archival work that would characterize roughly the last 25 years of his life. From 1948 until his death in 1967, Hughes edited and/ or compiled fifteen anthologies, emphasizing his commitment to collecting and crafting a narrative about the history of black art and culture. (Of particular interest might be The Book of Negro Folklore, which Hughes collected, compiled, and edited with Arna Bontemps and published in 1958). From the late 1930s onwards, he wrote hundreds of songs, librettos, and song-poems. Particularly from 1940 until his death in 1967, Hughes fastidiously collected and cataloged his own work to be donated to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University: signing and dating not just rough drafts but often scraps of paper, loose notebook sheets, and even post-its. In Hughes’s anthologies, his reinterpretation of original sources in his songs and poems, and in his personal archive, collection was both an essential practice and itself a form of representation.

At the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, during his travels through the global south, Hughes collected folklore while simultaneously drafting the novel Not Without Laughter (1930), the poetry collections The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) , and an unpublished black vernacular play in collaboration with Zora Neale Hurston titled Mule Bone. As he continued to write poetry, fiction, and plays—and nonfiction, criticism, music and literary reviews, and librettos—Hughes also continued to collect songs. “Blues Heard on Lenox Avenue, July 1957,” a pocketbook transcription that he scribbled down on the central Harlem thoroughfare, and two years later, “Little Song I Heard Somewhere” (1959, n.d.)—a song-poem that plays the experiences of bombs exploding, factory whistles blowing, and trains running against his own ethnographic collecting practice—are two stark but by no means isolated examples of this work.

Manuscript page with song texts.

Manuscript of “Bits of Negro Folk Songs Collected by Langston Hughes,” a compendium of miscellaneous lines of folk songs. Photo by the author.

In fact, Hughes sourced the majority of his writing in the folklore he researched and collected. His commitment to these intertwining practices is difficult to overstate. But while he has been recognized as a poet of black “folk” vernacular, almost nothing has been said about the way he compiled and organized his sources for his writing. One reason for this oversight is that the field of folklore has at times been fetishistic, primitivistic, and very racist. It has justified the collection and preservation of black cultural production as if it were inherently anathema to modernity, a progenitor to modern advancements on the evolutionary chain—which have historically been coded as white. During Hughes’s lifetime, the field, like much of academia, was also largely closed to practitioners of color.

By contrast, Hughes’s complex celebration of black culture as a poet of vernacular language, black diasporic music, and modernist experimentation is ground-up and, to quote Zora Neale Hurston describing “a new kind” of black folklore, “always in the making.” Pivoting from the dominant attitudes of preservation and cultural purity that undergirded folklore as a practice, Hughes embraced a modern, urban vision of black “folk” on his own terms.

Hughes’s work with folklore prefigures what has recently been called “experimental folklore,” which involves the interpretation of folklore through new media practices. His contribution in this area is, in many ways, still unrecognized. As recently as 2002, Meta DuEwa Jones dissociated Langston Hughes from the misunderstanding that frames him “as a totemic figure whose pedestal is primarily built on his ‘authentic’ rendering of African-American forms of vernacular and musical expression.” As a result, “heavy emphasis on Hughes’s poetry’s linguistically authentic African-American ‘folk’ and urban characteristics has tended to over-simplify his corpus.” It would be wrong to label Hughes as a folklorist in the abstract, because “authenticity” was never his goal to begin with. His corpus of mixed-genre writing that interprets and incorporates his sources speaks to a project that exceeds pure preservation. Fred Moten would call it conservation: the process of creatively reinterpreting, reinventing, and synthesizing originary sources such that the dialectical relationship between black art and its source is muddled. At a time when primitivism dominated the artistic scene, Hughes’s creative folklore questioned the naturalization of the relationship between primitivism and black art, presenting black “folk” art not only as modern, but as the harbinger of modernity.

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


In practice, Hughes’s art was embroiled in a longer history of debates about black folklore beginning in America roughly during Reconstruction from the 1870s to the 1890s. When Hughes began to embrace song collecting as a practice (during his trip with Zora Neale Hurston in 1927, though he did collect before that), Hughes joined previous and then-current black folklorists like John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, Louise Bennett, and Emma Julia Cooper. Each worked outside of the academic discipline of folklore, which itself still operated in departments external to the field, like English and Sociology. The academy was not especially supportive of the discipline and its few black practitioners.

Conversely, beginning at the turn of the century, W.E.B. Du Bois’s public embrace across his writing and activism of black “folk” culture as the origin and source of creative brilliance in black America was reflected by the Harlem Renaissance’s embrace of black folklore throughout the 19-teens and twenties. However, because by the 1920s black vernacular language rendered in dialect was so deeply entrenched in the forms and symbology of minstrelsy, “New Negro” artists and intellectuals took varying approaches to the problem of embracing black “folk” culture for both white and black audiences. One response was to laud black “folk” culture as an origin point from which modern black people were evolving: embracing black spirituals as raw material to be rearranged by the growing number of black choruses like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, but approaching popular black musical forms like jazz music with consternation.

Hughes and others diverged from this approach, which was more common among the older generation of the “New Negro” literati, [2] to embrace vernacular texture in his writing as a way to extol those middle and lower-class black people whom he believed to represent the living heart of black culture. Hughes’s most enduring poetry collections, The Weary Blues and Montage of a Dream Deferred, exemplify this project, but to see his diverse, panoramic, experimental, and African diasporic musical appetite, consider Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. A freeform poetic newsreel-turned-poetry book published at the end of Hughes’s life that was recently staged as a concert for the first time upon the book’s reissue in 2009, Ask Your Mama is a sonic and textual collage of transnational black musical history with years of research and collection at its surface.

Ask Your Mama is a monument of and testament to Langston Hughes’s experimental folkloric practice. As an archival piece that animates his songwriting, song collecting, and vast musical knowledge, Ask Your Mama is unparalleled within his vast breadth of writing. It is narrative, political commentary, song, musical notation, geography, poetry, and toasts, and in its fragmentary narrative structure, transnational musical synthesis, and formal unpredictability it is wildly experimental. I believe that Hughes’s use of archival and folkloric sources as vehicles for improvisation [3] speaks to what scholar John Lowney sees in the book as “a need to improvise by whatever rhetorical means necessary:” if poetic improvisation is meant to symbolically dismantle the hierarchies and structures that oppress black communities, then Hughes’s choice to deploy a breadth of folkloric sources to do this work is a testament to the power with which he endows them. Ask Your Mama is an archive, and the sources do the work of an experimental poem: to challenge the world as Hughes knew it, and to reclaim a vital, transnational black history.

With all of this said, Hughes was both influencer of and directly influenced by the predominantly white world of public folklore, participating in it briefly and directly before electing to contribute on his own terms. In the 1940s, Hughes joined forces with Alan Lomax to write the libretto for two patriotic ballad opera radio plays: “John Henry Hammers it Out,” for NBC Labor for Victory, starring Paul Robeson as a factory worker, and “The Man Who Went to War,” starring Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, and Ethel Waters for the BBC. The manuscripts for “The Man Who Went to War” are available online at the Library of Congress, and the audio for “John Henry Hammers it Out” is available to stream online at the Association for Cultural Equity.

While Hughes collaborated with Lomax as a librettist in the 1940s, a few years earlier Hughes had had already been working alongside Alan Lomax as a folklorist-practitioner for years. Langston Hughes’s papers are held primarily at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and selectively in the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. His correspondence, which is housed in both collections, begins with Lomax’s response to a now-lost letter, thanking Hughes for sending a song transcription. He wrote:

The Dupree text you were kind enough to send is the best myself or my father have ever seen and we are encorporating [sic] most of it in “American Ballads and Folk Songs,” now in process of completion. It is one more example of the many that show who ought to be doing the job of collecting Negro folk-lore while it is still growing, while it still has the freshness and fertility that it now has. In the mean time, however, I should greatly appreciate any scrap, fragment, stanza or version of any Negro folk song you know, whether it has ever been published or not and let me assure you that if the Archive of American Folk Song can be of any assistance to you that is within the scope of its procedure.

Letter from Langston Hughes to Alan Lomax, 1939.

Letter from Langston Hughes to Alan Lomax, 1939.

In December 1939, Hughes replied:

I got a chance to copy out for you some of the folk song verses among my notes. Wish you’d let me know if there’re any you haven’t heard yourself before. I have lots more, I expect, in my trunk full of papers in New York that I can’t get at now. I know I have somewhere one swell version of Frankie and Johnny that may have some variants not in the published verses that I have seen. And if I ever come across it I’ll send it to you in case you’d like to have it…..I’m glad you liked the Dupree Blues I sent you. The fellow that I heard sing it is now in the penitentiary for life for hitting a man on the curb and knocking him out in the street where he got run over and killed by a passing car.
[…]
P.S. Some of the verses that I’m sending you have already been used in various of my stories, articles, or skits. And possibly sometime I may so employ some of the others—so in case you should publish any of them, please be so kind as to indicate their source so people won’t maybe think I shall have robbed the Am. Ballads should they come across them in a script of mine.

In his letter, Hughes positions himself as an expert of black folklore by displaying the breadth of his personal collection and his depth of knowledge about (and, judging by his extended description of “Dupree Blues,” enjoyment of) each piece. Actually, this is not the first time Hughes mentions his “trunk full of papers,” though it is the first time he lets Lomax in on the secret. Writing to Edward H. Dodd, Jr., at the publisher Dodd, Mead & Company seventeen years after this correspondence, Hughes describes his collection:

Once I started looking through my files and on my bookshelves, I was surprised at how much folk material I have at hand immediately, and how large my own personal collection has become over the years—some of which I’ve used in my Simple books, but most of which is unpublished.

Detailing the contents of his “folk material,” Hughes claims that about half is unpublished, “gathered or so acted by” Hughes and Bontemps, “some like the urban and contemporary stuff, completely new.” These paired correspondences between Hughes and Dodd and Hughes and Lomax, written nearly 20 years apart, exemplify the depth of Hughes’s commitment to folklore; first as a disciplinary participant, and again as a defender of “the urban and contemporary stuff,” of folklore in the making.

When Lomax responds to Hughes in February of 1939, he is affirming and brief. “The songs are very superior. Some I had and some I didn’t. So far as I am concerned we can’t get too many blues into the Archive.” No specifics, and no mention of his earlier promise to incorporate Hughes’s collected variations of “Dupree Blues” into American Ballads and Folk Songs. While the first volume of American Ballads was published roughly five years before Lomax and Hughes’s correspondence, Volume 2, Our Singing Country (1941), does contain a version of “Dupree Blues” called “Dupree,” attributed to “Langston Hughes, who heard it in Cleveland in 1936.” Yet in the Beinecke’s enormous archive of Hughes’s papers, there is no copy of “Dupree Blues.” What happened to the song, and to the others he claims to have sent?

I found Hughes’s collected folk songs in one of Lomax’s self-labeled miscellaneous folders in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection. Titled “American Negro Blues/ Collected By Langston Hughes” with “I” and “II” across the respective headers of the first two pages, Hughes’s first transcription seems to be either of a performer synthesizing a number of blues refrains or of Hughes patching them together into his own song—the second, a collection of song fragments with ethnographic locations bisecting them from each other. The third page, titled “BITS OF NEGRO FOLK SONGS/ Collected by Langston Hughes,” is fragmentary and brief; evidence of the high premium that Hughes places on even a fraction of black vernacular poetry. Different songs and phrases on each page are separated by “#########;” a formatting technique that I’ve also noticed Hughes deploy in his song transcriptions and, importantly, his own drafts of songs, in his miscellaneous papers at the Beinecke. Appearing unsigned and undated sporadically throughout the Beinecke’s vast collection of Hughes’s work, these transcriptions and brainstorms speak to the generative creative exchange he produced between his songwriting and song collecting. While the original transcription of “Dupree Blues” seems to be lost, this collection is probably only a fraction of the work that Hughes collected but did not catalog throughout his life.

Hughes’s text of “Dupree,” as printed by the Lomaxes in “Our Singing Country.”

Because it’s not easily categorizable, Hughes’s complex engagement with folklore within and across his diverse and extended writing career has been under-recognized. Calling Langston Hughes a folklorist pays respect to the work to which he was committed for the majority of his lifetime, but it doesn’t tell his entire story. Even more important than recognizing Hughes’s contribution to the field of folklore is to recognize his method of creative conservation of black folklore in his own writing. The black folklore that he researched and collected was not only in the service of producing source material; it was the inspiration for his work in form and in spirit.

Notes

  1. This story has become somewhat iconic among the Washington, D.C. community, and is the source of the name of a local chain of bookshops/cafés/restaurants called “Busboys and Poets.”
  2. It is difficult to generalize the two vantages of the Harlem Renaissance, because the older black intellectual community of the “New Negro” movement also embraced its younger artists who experimented with black “folk” and vernacular sources in new ways. In 1925, for example, Alain Locke dedicated The New Negro Anthology to “the younger generation,” but did not include any writing on the blues—an extremely popular genre—in his section on black music. On the other hand, just a year earlier Locke had visited Langston Hughes while Hughes was destitute in Paris to tour Hughes through the extravagant spaces of the city, then helped introduce him to the black literati who would quickly become his peers in Harlem.
  3. Hughes is explicit about distinguishing his mode of folklore from what he sees as the dominant practices, comparing the collecting work of “Folkways,” “Moe Asch,” and “Alan Lomax” to that of a “safari” (Ask Your Mama, “Is It True?,” 55).

Bibliography

Secondary Sources

Brady, Erica. A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999. Print.

Harney, Stephen, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013. Online.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Listening to What the Dear Demands: Langston Hughes and His Critics.” Callaloo 25.4 (2002): 1145-1175. Online.

Lamothe, Daphne. Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Print.

Levering-Lewis, David. When Harlem Was In Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Press, 1981. Print.

Lowney, John. “Jazz, Black Transnationalism, and the Political Aesthetics of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama.” American Literature (2012) 84 (3): 563-587.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Vol I: I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Vol II: I Dream A World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Whisnant, David. All That is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Print.

Zumwalt, Rosemary Lévy. American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Folkloristics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Print.

Primary Sources

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps, editors. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1958. Print.

Hughes, Langston. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1959. Print.

Hughes, Langston. “‘-Song Ideas-‘ in Unidentified Drafts and Ideas For Songs.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 402, Folder 8116 (n.d.).

Hughes, Langston. “‘1927 N.O. — Havana,’ in 1927 Trip South: Memphis, New Orleans, Havana, Mobile, Tuskegee, Zora, New York.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 492, Folder 12433 (1927).

Hughes, Langston. “A diary of Mexican adventures (if there be any).” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 492, Folder 12432 (1920).

Hughes, Langston, collector. “American Negro Blues I-II/ Collected by Langston Hughes.” (n.d.). Archive of American Folk Song collection (AFC 1933/002): Box 05, Folder 058 “SONG MS – TO BE FILED,” American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Hughes, Langston. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Knopf, 2009. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1986. Print.

Hughes, Langston, collector. “BITS OF NEGRO FOLK SONGS/ Collected by Langston Hughes.” (n.d.). Archive of American Folk Song collection (AFC 1933/002): Box 05, Folder 058 “SONG MS – TO BE FILED,” American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Hughes, Langston. “Blues Heard on Lenox Avenue, July 1957.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 390, Folder 7300 (ca. 1950-59, n.d.).

Hughes, Langston. “Letter to Alan Lomax, December 8, 1939.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 105, Folder 1979.

Hughes, Langston. “Letter to Dodd, Mead + Co, December 4, 1956.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 19, Folder 418.

Hughes, Langston. “Little Song I Heard Somewhere.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 396, Folder 7661 (1959, n.d.).

Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf, 1926. Print.

Lomax, Alan. “Letter to Langston Hughes, ca. 1939 summer.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 105, Folder 1979.

Lomax, Alan. “Letter to Langston Hughes, February 7, 1940.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 105, Folder 1979.

Hughes, Langston. “Song transcriptions[?] in ‘Untitled notes and fragments’.” James Weldon Johnson Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Box 372, Folder 6076 (n.d.).

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Letter to Langston Hughes, April 12, 1928.” Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Collected and Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Print.

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