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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Langston Hughes: For livin' he was born

Postcard from Langston Hughes to Moses Asch, undated.

The funny thing about legendary figures is that it can be easy to forget that they are still just people.
We tell stories about these individuals and reference quotes about the great things they said, until the fact that they walked the earth, had friends, and schedules to keep seems to be lost. It's not anyone's fault; legends are just so incredibly good at staying relevant that we have no choice but to name places after them and write blog posts (belatedly) honoring their birthdays, so we can continue to remember them long after they stopped walking the earth.

Letter from Langston Hughes to Marian Distler, mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, circa 1955 [?]

This is the way I think about Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967) when I go through his correspondence and related ephemera tucked in a collection filled with the breadcrumbs of so many inspiring people. The things legends leave behind help us understand what it was that made them so iconic, but they also show that they had their share of dreams and disappointments.

Langston Hughes recorded, produced, and/or participated in many albums for Folkways Records, and the Moses and Frances Asch Collection contains many years of letters, production notes, and promotional materials detailing his fruitful work with Moses Asch, the record company's director. It is clear from his letters that he and Asch had a great deal of respect for each other, but they also show that they were friends. Hughes' letters often mention his extremely busy schedule ("I'm nothing but a literary sharecropper," he jokes in a letter from March 2, 1953) and his looking forward to carving out some personal time ("Only one more out of town date this season, gracias a dios, in Massachusetts this weekend. Then I'm through traveling and can stay home and create," from a letter dated April 25, 1953). And then there's this mischievous line from a January 14, 1955 letter, "(And remind me to tell you, when I see you, why [George Washington] Carver had such a high voice)."

It is absolutely clear from these materials that he was a brilliant, endlessly talented man. I love the note he writes to Asch on the sheet music to a song he composed:

Note from Langston Hughes to Moses Asch, on sheet music for "Freedom Land," 1963-1964.

Not surprisingly, Hughes had a very clear understanding of Moe's vision for Folkways:
In November, a novel of mine called, TAMBOURINES TO GLORY, with a background of Harlem gospel churches is being published by John Day. The same month, THE BOOK OF NEGRO FOLKLORE, which I co-edited with Arna Bontemps will be published by Dodd Mead. Both of these books contain a number of gospel lyrics. Gospel songs, in my opinion, are the last wellspring of Negro folklore as expressed in words and music. So far as I know, Folkways has not recorded any gospel songs. Since this is a contemporary folk expression and a field in which I have been working intensively for the past few years, I am wondering if you would be interested in doing a long playing record with a gospel folk group...of my own gospel songs* which I have written with a talented Harlem gospel musician, Jobe Huntley.
*I heard Mahalia Jackson rehearse two of these songs of mine she likes and says she will eventually record. They really jump!
 This letter was written on September 22, 1958. The album Tambourines to Glory was recorded on October 3, 1958--an extremely rare turnaround for the consistently short-staffed Folkways Records.

All of these words help me paint a better mental picture of the man behind "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Langston Hughes--one of the first Great Poets I learned about as a child, was a real person before he was an icon, and he didn't operate in a vacuum. From the recording below, it is clear that Hughes went beyond poetry to confront the critical issues of his time (issues that, frankly, we still face today). In this excerpt from a recently digitized interview in the Asch Collection, two unidentified educators (or education specialists) speak with Hughes in his home about how to encourage creativity in schools.

The wonderful thing about archival materials is that they make it possible for us to explore history in ways books (or blog posts) couldn't possibly replicate. In these materials, Langston Hughes comes alive and shows us what it means to be born for living.

 -Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections


  1. Incredibly insightful and revealing post. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this. Amazing to see those notes. Asch and Hughes are both personal heroes and this is phenomenal (and enlightening) to see.

  3. Watch as students from I.S. 44 Manhattan learn a famous poem by Langston Hughes in sign language!!