“Boundaries Bind Unbinding:” Langston Hughes’ Musical-Archival Practice

by Sophie Abramowitz

A creative polyglot working across the genres of literature, poetry, dramaturgy, criticism, politics, journalism, sociology, folklore, and even illustration, Langston Hughes consistently revisited one genre in particular. In his writing, music is all-pervading. Still, while the ubiquity of blues and jazz music in his poetry has become a commonplace amongst readers, the sheer amount of diverse musical production that he undertook during his lifetime has barely been acknowledged.

This exhibit focuses in particular on Hughes’ work as an archivist of black music. In line with Fred Moten’s theory of conservationand against the grain of the stultifying dominant attitudes of preservationthat dominated ethnography and collection theory during his lifetime, Hughes worked out his experimental formulations of black musical history across media in his archive, which is housed primarily at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Grouped together here in order to expand current understandings of Hughes as a jazz and blues historian, these pieces demonstrate some of the ways that he undertook his non-teleological and highly exploratory approach to black musical history.

As a songwriter, collector, poet, and scholar of black music, Hughes’ processes of amassing and presenting, representing, and re-presenting songs were interactive. Hughes also pitched his original lyrics widely and consistently, repurposing material in hopes of having it performed. It was from these reciprocal movements that Hughes constructed an archival practice; what I would call a “collecting stage” of dynamic and multi-use material wherein process and performance are in constant exchange. Manifest in the wide variety of musical collections that comprise Hughes’ research as well as in many of his publications, Hughes’ archival practice is central to his approaches to music.

Kathy Lou Shultz has argued in her Derridean reading of Hughes’ poetry that Hughes uses his poem “Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem” (1951) to “write back” to the violent obfuscation and destruction of black history by the state. While Shultz’s notion of Hughes’ “poem-as-archive” is a powerful antidote to the archival practices against which he is operating, I would argue that her reading only skims the surface of Hughes’ encompassing and regenerative archival practice. In form as well as in content, one of Hughes’ life’s projects was to create experimental archives of his writing, in the sense of collecting withintexts and songs and oftexts and songs themselves. It would be possible to make this argument in terms of black literature in Hughes’ work, but with the objects that follow, I focus on his expansive archive-building in the genres of black music.

Part I: Documents

What follows is a brief review of Hughes’ heterogeneous practices of musical compilation, both intended for publication and meant only for personal use.

A track list for an untitled tape with songs by Langston Hughes, written and illustrated by Langston Hughes (n.d.).
Box 372, Folder 6075


Excerpt; final 4 pages of paper mixtape: “List of Songs for Possible Inclusion” in The Strollin’ Twenties(1965)
Box 358, Folder 5761

A track list for an untitled tape with songs by Langston Hughes, written and illustrated by Langston Hughes (n.d.).
Box 372, Folder 6075

What appears to be a sheet of folkloric song transcriptions that Hughes would have collected, found in Langston Hughes’ “Untitled notes and fragments” (n.d.).
Box 372, Folder 6076

Excerpts of the list of songs and records recommended by Langston Hughes in The First Book of Jazz(1955)

The First Book of Africa
The First Book of Gypsies
The First Book of Jazz (& The First Album of Jazz for Children) The First Book of Negroes
The First Book of Rhythms
The First Book of Sharing
The First Book of the Caribbean
The First Book of the West Indies
The First Book of the World Prayers

Hughes’ contributions to the First Books series, published by Harper Collins throughout the 1950s with the intent to introduce children to concepts, histories, and media. Not all of the above were accepted for publication and some remain incomplete, but all do attempt in varying method and degree to teach the intersectional histories of black music on a global scale.

Poetry of the American Negro (n.d.)
Anthology of Contemporary Negro Plays (n.d.)
An Anthology of Harlem (1948-54)
A Little Anthology of American Poetry (1948-1966)
Black Magic (1948-1967)
Humorous Negro Verse: An Anthology (1949)
Lincoln University Poets: Centennial Anthology (1854-1954) (1953-54)
Anthology of “Opportunity Poets” (1955)
Anthology of Popular Songs by American Negroes (1956)
An Anthology of American Negro Humor (1956-1958)
Book of Negro Folklore (1958)
Harlem Renaissance Anthology (1961-62)
Cats, Crickets and Stars: An Anthology of Poems For Youngsters By Negro Poets (1966)
The Best Short Stories By Black Writers: the Classic Anthology from 1899 to 1967 (1967)
The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1940 an Anthology (with Arna Bontemps, 1970)

Roughly between the years of 1948 until his death in 1967 (including three posthumous publications of projects he had begun years earlier), Hughes edited and often compiled fifteen anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance and of black poetry, plays, performance, popular songs, humor, and short stories. Five of these anthologies include (and one is centered on) black music. To my knowledge, Hughes’ anthologies have never been compiled in one place (and many of them are out of print).

Part II: Performances

A product of a longer history of vaudeville, variety shows, minstrelsy, and burlesque, the song revue ran as a compound of disjointed bawdy and often satirical skits, songs, and dances that dealt with irreverence with current affairs. At its loosest and most popular in the 1920s, the composite character of the song revue provided opportunities for emerging songwriters that were unavailable in musicals. According to Laurence Maslon, this leniency made the song revue “the greatest conservatory for popular music the world has ever seen.”

Hughes embraced this form throughout his career, taking advantage of the billing opportunities in revues including “Dance Me A Song,” which premiered on Broadway on January 20, 1950 after having dropped his song, “Dorothy’s Name is Mud,” during the tryout (Dietz 9). Experimenting with the genre primarily in the 1940s and early ‘50s, Hughes’ song revues coincided with what I would call the beginning of his growing investment in and engagement with the genre of musicals more broadly. Hughes’ musicals provide a more generically unified presentation of black musical history—focusing on jazz and blues—but even a brief review of his musicals from 1939-1941 put his intention to engage the diverse reach of black music across genre and medium. I list these musicals below:

In 1939, Hughes works as a librettist to Clarence Muse’s music for the Hollywood film Way Down South and writes De Organizer: A Blues Opera in One Act(Rampersad 132). 1940 marks a year of three unaired musicals: “Blues Sketches,” a group of blues song-poems strung together into a short play that included one song—“Third Floor Airshaft Blues”—that he placed in “Run, Ghost, Run” a year later; and “Jubilee: A Cavalcade of the Negro Theatre,” which Hughes wrote with Arna Bontemps for the Chicago American Negro Exposition with “Tropics After Dark,” a song revue engaging with popular forms of entertainment alongside the form of the blues (The Collected Work of Langston Hughes 149). In 1941, musicals include: The Amazon Queen(a dance survey), Bill of Rights (a script of broadcast about W.C. Handy for CBS), Carmelita and the Cockatoo; A Ballet LibrettoThe Saint Louis Blues: A Ballet Libretto, and Run, Ghost, Run

What follows is a brief glance at Hughes’ song revues, followed by his riff on the genre towards the end of his career with Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. (In my dissertation, I focus on Run, Ghost, Run).

First two pages of “Hot Cinnamon: An Intimate Revue in Color” (1949-50) in a later (though not final) iteration.
Box 303, Folder 4895.

Proposed Table of Contents for Langston Hughes’ Humorous skits, sketches, and songs for an intimate Negro revue of social and satirical nature(1941). The scan is from the first and longest version of the show, which he distributed widely in hopes of it being staged before trimming and reformatting the performance in the versions that followed (1941).
Box 371, Folder 6022

Title pages for the first and second (final) versions of “A Whole Lot More,” which Hughes describes as “Preliminary ideas for a war-time revue” and “Production number for proposed Café Society revue, respectively (1943).
Box 371, Folder 6021.

“Part Outline for Negro Tropical Revue” (n.d.).
Box 372, Folder 6061.

Selections from the early drafts of “Social Revue” (1947). The slight overlap between this revue and Run, Ghost, Run, is legible within the framework of Hughes’ persistent circulation of his material for performance. I differentiate it from Run, Ghost, Runbecause the songs and sketches are otherwise quite varied and propose a different set of narratives, and because Hughes calls the piece Revue Materialand Social Revuerather than the myriad pieces that are titled Run, Ghost, Runin his drafts.
Box 371, Folder 6025.

And finally, Ask Your Mama…

Cover page and sample text from Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz(1961). Page 55 below interrogates the imperialist collection practices of the Library of Congress, and one function of the text as a whole is to suggest new formal historio-musical practices to capture the protean, resonant being of black musical history.