Langston Hughes is one of the best know African –American poets. He was prolific from 1926 to 1967. During that time Hughes produced 60 books, including poems, novels, short stories, plays, children’s poetry, musicals, operas, and autobiographies. The majority of his work centered on the lives of African-Americans and the conditions that they lived in. Hughes was part of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement centered out of Harlem in the 1920’s. Hughes championed his fellow artists to look to their own cultural heritage to create art. “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid too what he might choose” (Hughes 1926). Drawing on all aspects of Afro-American culture: rural, urban, highbrow, low brow, male and female, Langston Hughes found rich material for his work.
One aspect of African-American culture he used in his work was music. Hughes employed jazz and blues syncopated rhythms to evoke a mood in his work. Hughes used blues structure and imagery in his work. Hughes remembered hearing the blues growing up in Lawrence, Kansas. The blues heard around Kansas came from the traditions of slave and work songs. Used as a coping tool, African-Americans sang the blues to deal with the trials and tribulations of day to day life. Many scholars believe that blues music appeared sometime after 1863, with the Emancipation Act .Others put the time period around the time when African-Americans made the transition out of slavery.
Hughes also heard the blues in Harlem during the 1920’s. He enjoyed the blues singer Bessie Smith and folk singers such as Leadbelly. Hughes was also friendly with W.C Handy, who was also known as the father of the blues. Handy ‘s most famous composition was the St. Louis Blues. Hughes used the song in his play St. Louis Woman. The feeling of respect was mutual. Handy said of Hughes poem Hope “Said in four lines what it would have taken Shakespeare two acts and three scenes to say (Tracy 79) .
At that time, blues music was basically ignored by the music industry and main stream audiences. Hughes disagreed with this assessment. For Langston “The real negro blues are as fine as any other folk music we have.” He described the blues tradition as “Usually sung by one man or a woman alone. They are song folk made up when their hearts hurt… sad funny songs. Too sad to be funny, and too funny to be sad. ” (Tracy 79). Hughes named one of his early books The Weary Blues.
Langston‘s taste in music inevitably lead him to the music of Nina Simone. Hughes wrote a fan letter to Simone in the early 1960’s. In his weekly column called “Week by Week,” Hughes wrote of Simone,
“ Why should anyone like her because she plays piano well? So do lots of other people. But she plays piano FLUIDLY well, SIMPLY well, COMPLICATEDLY well, THEATRICALLY well, DRAMATICALLY well, INDIVIDUALLY well, and MADLY well. Not just WELL. She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks.” He continued: “You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!” ( Cohodas)
This letter ran in the November 12 edition of the Chicago Defender, and then it made its way around to other newspaper. For Simone to receive this kind of attention from one of the African-American literati was impressive. The two met briefly in 1949 when Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was attending the Allen School in Asheville, North Carolina. The Allen School was one of the best private schools in America for African –American young women. Simone helped to put on a program and was instrumental in bringing Hughes to speak to all the African-American students in the area.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, Simone had made a name for herself around the clubs in Harlem and Greenwich Village as a pianist and vocalist. Her style was unique and hard to classify because she blended jazz, folk and show tunes with classical styling. When the two met again, Hughes took Nina under his wing and became one of her mentors. During this time Langston Hughes became active with the Civil Rights’ Movement. Hughes introduced her to some of the preeminent African-American artist and intellectuals of the era. Through Hughes, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry became close friends of hers. These encounters affected her music. By 1964, Civil rights protest music became a mainstay of both her recording and live performances.
Hughes had written songs throughout his career. He collaborated with musicians such as Kurt Weill and Duke Ellington. Hughes wrote the poem The Backlash Blues for Simone in 1967. It appeared in his last book of protest poems called The Panther and the Lash. Since Hughes died in the same year,she took Hughes’ words and put them to music.
The theme of the poem is the backlash against the strides made by African-Americans and other oppressed people during the civil rights area. Hughes was expressing his feelings about the lack of fair opportunities for education and employment and the Vietnam War. “You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, and send my son to Vietnam!” All that the African-Americans and the poor received was more “blacklash”. Black lash is also a reference to the slavery, the physical lashing and whipping on their backs.The song appears on Nina’s recording Nina Sings the Blues and a stirring live rendition on Nuff Said.
During a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, to her audience she said of Hughes, “Keep him with you always. He was beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with of, of course.” (Cohodas 200 )
This video of “Backlash Blues” by Nina Simone was recorded at the Harlem Renaissance Festival on August 17, 1969 in Harlem, NY
The Special Collections department owns a copy of a broadside of this poem. Broadsides are printed on one side. They were not intended to last, and were used as posters or hand bills. In contemporary times, they are used by fine press to publish works of art or as in the case here, poetry.
“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926).” “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). Accessed February 08, 2016. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.
Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.
Garner, Dwight. “Under a Strange, Soulful Spell.” The New York Times. 2010. Accessed February 08, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/books/19book.html?_r=0.
“Art Works Blog.” Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes. Accessed February 08, 2016. https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2014/jazz-poetry-langston-hughes.
“Langston Hughes: An Example of Musical Imagery and Symbolism in Poetry.” Russia Robinson. 2015. Accessed February 08, 2016. https://russiarobinson.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/langston-hughes-an-example-of-musical-imagery-and-symbolism-in-poetry/.
Tracy, Steven C. “To the Tune of Those Weary Blues: The Influence of the Blues Tradition in Langston Hughes’s Blues Poems.” Melus 8, no. 3 (1981): 73. Accessed January 20, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/467538.
Wikipedia. Accessed February 08, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues.