Who But The Lord – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi
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
The White Ones – Words: Langston Hughes; Music: Danny Ashkenasi
“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
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”)