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Did You Hear That? An Ensemble Riff: Langston's Long Page

The more we read from the book of Langston, the more we are compelled to add to the public record.

First, like Pops, he exceeds critical efforts to describe him in terms of genre or media.  Langston Hughes worked opportunity, not "the novel," or "poetry," or "autobiography."  It is in this light that we should make a conscious effort to explore all of the objects in the archive.  You can see this, as we have noted before, in R&'s most excellent record of the poet's life, where apparently trivial tasks, like making the musical Simply Heavenly, spill way more ink on his pages than making the book Montage of a Dream Deferred."  We are averse to aesthetics (much room for misjudgment), and therefore leave it to others to determine which project deserves more attention and love."  But we care deeply about the ways we remember our ancestors, and therefore will make every effort we can to document these projects as thoroughly as possible.

Second, we take note of the fact that Langston left behind so many efforts at an historian.  "History's long page/Records the whole vast/Prelude to our age." We should assume someone as practiced as he his has a working historigraphy, and that it is worth our attention.

Thus, third, we take up with interest this project he whipped up for Moses Asch.  Under no circumstances should work that contains the line "with them came their rhythms" be passed over as a trifle.  Although much of his version of the jazz story bends under facts we have had the privilege to learn since the record was made, we are convinced by nothing more than the power of his voice when he creates the story of "the Mississippi, mighty river, bearing cotton, and music and dreams."  He establishes jazz as ultimately but not originally 'Merican, and blends it with more than just the drums of west African and the blood of slaves, but also with the French, Spanish and West Indian roots it owns, too.

Langston rewrote the word 'Merican from an identity into multiple identities throughout his career, and this is one more time he makes that rewrite sound like child's play, an understatement that intentionally belies how profoundly true the statement is.  Langston's gift for understatement needs to be more fully explored.  When he says "The people of New Orleans heard all of this music," he is not reciting a fact, or an assumption that passed from one mouth to another, from one page to another in jazz historiography.  He is reciting a cosmopolitan creed.  "They began to put it together into a music of their own, always syncopating the rhythms a little bit more, always a little bit more, influenced no doubt by the congo drums."

He acted on his cosmopolitan beliefs and asked others to do the same throughout his career.  It is the source of his impulse to put into writing the words of the blues again and again.  And it is the source of his advice to Nicolás Guillén and Jacques Roumain to write down what they heard.  It is an impulse he knows that he is not making up, but passing on from one person to another in the same way that Louis Armstrong takes the blues from "traces of the work songs, field hollers and plantation cries of the deep south."

It is not a simple childish act to imagine that "Maybe one hot day a man was working in a rice field, and a song came to his head, then out of his mouth."  Nor is it a simple declaration of origins.  Remember, on this record, Langston makes up one origin after another.  It's Langston's own artistic ontology, packaged up into a little project by Moses Asch.  It's also an historiography of compound re-origination.  Later in the rekkid he tosses off another sentence, one about how white players taught themselves to play like the New Orleans players who followed the money and the soul north, "They tried to learn to play as they played."  Ripped out of context, this sentence gives us so much more.  It's almost as if Langston imagines the economy of influence, but without Bloom's anxiety.  "People listen to jazz for fun, dance to jazz for fun and play jazz for fun."  In the end, its "Boys making up their own music, just like the old timers did.  Improvising, just for fun."

Here's the rekkid. Make more of it than you are at first tempted to.  There's much more there.