LANGSTON HUGHES, TOO, SINGS AMERICA

Who But The Lord – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi


I looked and I saw
That man they call the law
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head of being laid out cold and dead
Or else murdered
By the third degree
I said
O Lord, if you can save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick
The law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!
Now I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality
Being poor and black
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me
We’ll see

The above words were written by Langston Hughes in the 1950s. It angers me that they still speak so closely to the struggles we are witnessing today, even more so than I was aware of when I set them to music in 2012.

Langston Hughes died the year I was born, 53 years ago. When I chose to set many of his poems to music for the Harlem Renaissance Festival being conducted at the Metropolitan Playhouse in NYC January, 2013, I thought of the project as a historical musical revue chronicling the 20th century African American experience, as witnessed and poetically narrated with great immediacy by Langston Hughes. I read all of Hughes nearly 1000 poems, found 200 that “sang” to me, and set over 60 in a cycle of 39 songs, that travel from the Jim Crow South, through the Great Migration, to the North, Harlem, World War 2 and Civil Rights, also illuminating the themes of Dreams Deferred, Love and the Spirit. Hughes words and ideas dictated the structure of the musical review. I hoped it would be experienced as a documentary as much as a musical.

Back when we with little rehearsal time put together a concert performance of what is now called “I Too Sing America – the Blues According to Langston Hughes”, I perhaps thought of the project mostly as a look back to where we have come from. Not a direct reflection of where we are today. But the words to “Who But the Lord?” could just as well have been written this week.

So I will share some songs from “I Too Sing America” with you today. Particularly three that are part of the larger “Civil Rights” segment. The second song in this trio, “Song of Adoration” sets one of Hughes’ most bitterly satirical poems. In today’s parlance, it is very much about “White Privilege”, the white privilege to oppress minorities. “The White Ones” completes this trio as well as the Civil Rights segment of the revue.

(I almost didn’t share this song because I am not happy with the quality of the recording, but it needs to be included to complete the trio. Hughes’ words may refer to specific socio-political events and parlance of his time, but the wider implications hold too damningly true to today.)

Song of Adoration – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi


I would like to be a white man, wouldn’t you?
There’s so many lovely things that I could do
I could lynch a Negro
And never go to jail, you know
I would love to be a white man, wouldn’t you?

I would love to be a white man, wouldn’t you?
So many tasty things that I could do
I could tell the starving Indian nation
To go straight to damnation
Oh, I would love to be a white man, wouldn’t you?

I would love to be a white woman also, too
There’s so many cultural things that I could do
I could belong to the DAR
Tell Marian Anderson stay out the DAR
I could adore being a white woman, wouldn’t you?

I’d love to be a white congressman, too
There’s so many helpful things I could do
Just to get the Negro’s goat
I wouldn’t let no soldiers vote
I would love to be a white congressman, wouldn’t you?

Oh I’d love to be a white Christian, ain’t it true
I’d act just like my fellow Christians do
For Jesus I would search
With no black folks in my church
Amen, I’d love to be a white man, wouldn’t you?
Halleloo! O Halleloo! Halleloooooooo
Langston Hughes

The White Ones – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi


I do not hate you
For your faces are beautiful too
I do not hate you
Your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor too
But why do you torture me
O white strong ones
Why do you torture me?

“I, Too” is perhaps Langston Hughes’ best known poem. It ended up giving this musical revue its main title, after a friend of mine wisely pointed out that the original title, now relegated to a subheading, “The Blues According to Langston Hughes”, doesn’t fully encompass the variety of emotional and musical hues in the piece.

I, too – Words: Langston Hughes ; Music: Danny Ashkenasi


I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes
But I laugh
And eat well
And grow strong
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table
When company comes
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me
“Eat in the kitchen”
Then
Besides
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed
I, too, am America

Finally, I want to end this blog post with the finale of “I Too Sing America”. I found that Hughes, even with all the anger and despair he would righteously muster, ultimately was optimistic, believing in (racial) harmony, and the ultimate good. Even if, or because, it it is “always just ahead”.

Something to remember, and hold onto, in these difficult times.

The Promised Land – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi

(Combines the poems “The Promised Land” and “There”)


The promised land
Is always just ahead
You will not reach it
Ere you’re dead
But your children’s children
By their children will be led
To a spot from which the
Land still lies ahead

Where death stretches its wide horizons
And the sun gallops no more
Across the sky
There where nothing
Is all
I who am nobody
Will become infinity
Even perhaps
Divinity

I who am nobody
Will become infinity
Even perhaps
Divinity
(section repeats as canon)

The promised land
Is always just ahead
You will not reach it
Ere you’re dead
But your children’s children
By their children will be led
To a spot from which the Land
Still lies ahead
Lies ahead
Lies ahead
Lies ahead
Lies ahead

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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