:: pours the rum in a circle ::
:: scatters red beans ::
:: lights cigar ::
:: reads the tracings ::
"Again the old 'Hesitation Blues' against the trills of birds..."
We approach ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 MOODS FOR JAZZ slowly. Because the poem breathes so deep, conjures so much, we take care w/ each step, like a woman walking on softboiled eggs.
Before we begin, let us remark, tho,' about how much AYM means to professional readers of Langston Hughes. Those professors label the poem w/ heavy terms -- classic, epic, masterpiece. They use it as a basis to compare Hughes to T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. We have big love for those brothers, but we think the Book of Langston is (obviously) composed on its own terms, a vocabulary distinctive because the author's interesting approach to both audience and multiple media. We note this now, even as we have made this point before, because we believe this is one of the big points in the Book of Langston, and that many readers just plain miss it because they are reading for the wrong thing. The poet laureate of Harlem, just like the King of the Zulus, just means more than most of us currently realize.
And so we start our what we have to say about AYM by remarking that it is conceived as a language experienced both visually (on colorful, carefully crafted pages -- not the first time Langston played for book as object) and as a musical performance* (and as we have been noting, this is an effort in his career that he returns to from beginning to end). In fact, if we think AYM as an LP (thought for a later post), complete w/ tracklist and liner notes, we have a third and highly timebound and mediated take on both of the first two approaches -- Langston knew how to play w/ the dialectic, dig? We always take AYM as all of these experiences and make the most of them to understand it.
Like that great ancestor, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston's has made the visual rendition of music one of the first things the reader sees.† The score stands at the beginning of the book like a veve, conjuring the drinking gourd to guide the book forward.
Like Vachel Lindsay, an ancestor who has fallen to disrepute even tho' he got the jazzy groove and played with the materials of the age as well as any more acclaimed modernist, Langston gives stage directions to guide future performances. The dancers got to know what they're doing when they improvise. There's a limit to everything. Dig?
So will all deliberate speed (ask your Mama about this), we take up Hughes's first direction:
The traditional folk melody of "The Hesitation Blues"
is the leitmotif for this poem. In it and around it,
along with other recognizable melodies employed,
there is room for spontaneous jazz improvisation...
We've been unable to establish a reference version of this tune. In fact the opposite, it's one of those jes' grew tunes that the tin pan alley gangstas (people like Smythe, Middleton and Gillham or Handy who made it, or not, stackin' bundles in the early 20th c. song dealing game) tried to line up property rights to their bankaccounts. From the beginning of rekkids, there's "Hesitation" and "Hesitating." The versions were kicking around dancehalls, vaudeville, the fields and anywhere else cratediggers went looking for their fresh back in the day. The different versions develop different takes on the impatience, but both come around to the question, "Can I get you now, or must I hesitate?" We think this undetermined origin is part of what Hughes wants us to think on, and that the tug of war between different authors for ownership creates a legacy of consequences he wants us to think on, too.
As Handy remembers it in his indispensable Blues Anthology, the early versions of the song are salacious. "Le me be yo' rag doll till yo' tidy come,/If he can hear me raggin,' he got to rag it some, ma honey,/How long has I got to wait?/Oh, can I git you now, or must I hesitate?" Ask your Mama whether the blues starts w/ something sexy. Can we say it again? Good God, y'all. It goes on and on and on and on.
Desire is desire. Delay is delay, the thief of time. So all the wise owls say. It's high time to stop putting off. Tomorrow isn't today. And it is easy for us to go from here to the dream deferred because it is where the poem takes us, and because the deferred dream takes such powerful place throughout the Book of Langston. The song reminds us that we're tired tired of the procrastination. Obviously, bro,' obviously, then as now, we want our freedom and we want it sooner, not later. Ask Max Roach. So we mark this.
Then we mark that there's more. The same book teaches us much about taking and remaking, taking and crossing over, taking and getting a piece of the pie, just as the blues song does, even from the beginning. In this slang rap democracy, however, we're always making new out of old, and we're always moving forward by taking things from the past and fashioning them to new purposes. Paradox? Ask your Mama. We can see from here to freedom in this movement -- stealing from that sexy bandit Jes Grew so you can BMF on copyrighted material, and then bootlegging from the copyrighted material to make collages of future freedom. Like a bird in orbit, mayn.
Here's the formula the poem proposes against the constant delay: Put the tradition to work. Make it out of the things from the past that help reframe the present, so you can see more clearly what is right going forward. Make it out of what what you find. When we take something from the past, even when it is not ours for the taking, and make it into something of our own, we propose our freedom, even when we are not fully free. And because we can propose our freedom, we make visible the limits on it. That's what Handy did, and he was more free for doing so. And even though Smythe, Middleton and Gillham (unbound by the just plain old evil of Jim Crow) were more free than Handy to do so, they made 'Merica more free for freely indulging in one of the true sources of 'Merican originality and putting the people to work on the dancefloor with it.
So it is. With every new take on the song, we get another little piece of what's ours back, and make a little piece of what is ours to be in the future. Let's begin reading from AYM w/ these notes in mind.
Here's a clip w/ hesitatings, hesitations, a procrastination and how longs, each one a give and take in the dialogue that begins with the same question:
I. Early Big Band -- maybe our favorite renditions because they show what was at stake in the early slangrapdemocracy days of the 20th century. Sh*t is on the run.
- "Hesitating Blues," Prince's Band and Orchestra (ca. 1915).
- "Hesitation Blues," The Victor Military Orchestra (1916).
- "Hesitating Blues," James Reese Europe's 369th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band (1919). We have big love for this version. Dr. Europe's arkestra rules the old school.
II. Hestitatings. We put these down closer to versions closer to W.C. Handy's: a slightly more organized song w/ some drama: Phone line's down & can't reach my baby. My baby's left on the evening train. Shouldna hesitated. Shoulda said yes yes.
"Hello, Central! What's the matter with this Line?"
- "Hesitating Blues," Esther Bigeou (1923). A nominee for the reference version, for sure. It has all of the W.C. Handy song in one place and Esther is a wonderful singer.
- "Hesitating Blues," Lena Horne (1962?). Earns a namecheck in the AYM.
- "Hesitating Blues," Eartha Kitt (1959). "DELIGHTED! INTRODUCE ME TO EARTHA."
- "Hesitating Blues," Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. In his way, Pops flips the tune and flips it again. It's a duet. He's trynta get in touch w/ his girl. She's regretful that she's lost her beau. He's willing to take his place. You see Pops, like Langston, was really never gonna wait. This is the masterpiece of mid20th c. attitude that they both conjured. Each in their own way called on Ogoun, the ironman politician, and made impatience out of patience.
III. Hesitations: These are more like the Smythe, Middleton and Gillham versions, but they remind us that the song cleaves to the principle of "incremental repetition" we hear Zora talk about elsewhere: "It's one of these things that's grown by incremental repetition until it's one of the longest songs in America." There is a press shuffle logic in the versing and chorusing.
- "Hesitation Blues," Jelly Roll Morton (1938). "I kept the sheet music where nobody could see it." We are more than a little fond Jelly to the Roll's patter about staying one step ahead of the copywriters @ the beginning of this joint. and then he leans into the song all gentle and singsongy: "If I was whiskey, and you was a cup, I'd dive the to bottom and never get up."
- "Hesitation Blues," Leadbelly (tracking down the date, but from the Rounder version of the LoC recordings).
- "Hesitation Blues," Sam Collins (1927). We love every track lined and laid down by Sam Collins, but this one, w/ its haunting, sassy vocals has a special place in our hearts: "My gal grinds her meal at home."
- "Hesitation Blues," Taj Mahal. Strangely, we have no date on this. Nevertheless, the song introduces a thought we cannot quite find in others -- that the hesitation was a dance step.
IV. "Procrastination is the thief of time..."
- "Hesitating Blues," Big Maybelle (?). She takes the tune to the bridge and stays there, making it something else. She gets a namecheck in AYM, too.
V. "How long, babe, how long has that eveining train been gone?" Here's where we go from incremental repetition to speculation, but, as Eric Lott is quick to remind us, this is a world of love and theft, and Leroy Carr's been known to take a little bit of what he loves and flip it into a moneymaker of his own. Each of these tunes, which takes another step into the distance from Handy and Smythe, Middleton and Gillham, come back to the same deferred desire. No longer the subject of Langston's namechecks and stage directions, though, they prove the point that incremental repetition is a step in the direction of freedom, the dialectic that Langston plays over and over, on and on.
- "How Long -- How Long Blues," Leroy Carr (1928). We have no reason to dispute the speculation that Leroy Carr, always the opportunist in an opportunistic mode of production, took both the evening train and the lonely chorus of this song from one or another version of "The Hesitating/ion Blues." No big, tho,' because as we already noted, he was stealing from jes' grew, which isn't like stealing chickens from a rich man. Carr's his own versionologist and he incrementally repeated (took from and made new) "How Long -- How Long Blues" five more times before he died. As the years pass, his versions begin to address the hard times -- greenbacks hard to see in the depression. (We must recognize: Elijah Wald is the teacher, blues is the preacher in this case. We benefit from much science about Leroy Carr and the pre-war blues business from Escaping the Delta.)
- "How Long," Frank Stokes (1928). No evening train, but no loving since his baby's been gone, too.
- "My Road is Rough and Rocky (How Long, How Long)," Sam Collins (Before 1932). Now a straight, no chaser blues song, 'cept three's someone chasing. "Chickens on my back and hounds on my track."
- "How Long How Long," Kokomo Arnold (1935). The looming future regret caused by deferring the dream. "Some day you're going to be sorry you done me wrong."
- "How Long," Sister Ola Mae Terrell (1948). Desire for love now flipped into desire for salvation. "How long, you gonna live in your sin, great God, how long?"
- "How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)," The Pointer Sisters (1975). Flipped again. Desire deferred is a woman's right for suspicion. "It might hurt me for a while, but of one thing I am sure. I'll get over you."
- "How Long Jah (Extended)," Trinity (1976-78). The chorus is still really the same thing we've been working on the whole time. But the song is now full of the ironman's fire: redemption and salvation are part of the same political/spiritual passage. AND THE TOLLBRIDGE FROM WESTCHESTER/IS A GANGPLANK ROCKING RISKY.
- "How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?" Sharon Dap and the Daptones (2005). Flipped more gently than the Pointers, and very much reprising a version of the old hesitating blues.
- "How Long Can U Front," Kool Keith & 54-71 (2009). Flipped out. Because it takes on the recession, signifying on the hardtimes blues of Leroy Carr, we could not help but keep it in the clip.
-----------* See The Langston Hughes Project, whose effort to perform AYM should be brought to disc.