Make It Better: “Venus and Mars”

VenusandMarsalbumcover

Venus and Mars by Wings came out in May 1975. At that time, each of the four Beatles was very active, but each was on a separate journey. John Lennon had released his Rock ‘n’ Roll album that February. Rock ‘n’ Roll was all covers of songs he had grown up with and sung in the Cavern and Hamburg. It sounded like a benediction, and it almost was one. He didn’t release another record for five years. George Harrison had released Dark Horse the previous December, which was followed by a tour of the U.S. that didn’t go well because of vocal cord troubles. Ringo Starr had released Goodnight Vienna the previous November. Even though Lennon wrote the title track, it was okay but not as good as Ringo’s previous album, Ringo.

In 1975, Paul was doing quite well. He had recorded some low-key albums such as McCartney. But with the Band on the Run album the previous year, he was starting to ramp things up. Band on the Run had done well both critically and commercially (and John even liked it). He had done some unannounced gigs in college towns around England, but he had not been on a major tour since the Beatles’ 1966 tours. However, he hadn’t played many, if any, Beatles songs at the English university gigs and he didn’t want to make Beatles songs a prime focus of upcoming tours. But he needed more songs for a great stage show. In particular, he needed more hits.

McCartney crafted Venus and Mars with the basic template used for Band on the Run (which happened to share its structure with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). The template consisted of a theme song, a reprise of the theme song, and the general idea of a concept that was never really all that conceptualized. In the case of Venus and Mars, the concept was presumably the interactions of men and women. The album has a consistent sound, but it’s no more thematically consistent than Sgt. Pepper, which isn’t saying much.

Paul and Linda never intended to be John and Yoko. Johnandyoko were an abstract concept—as abstract as Yoko’s art (which I happen to like). Their records together, such as “Double Fantasy,” were not a blend of the two, but were John responding to Yoko’s thoughts and Yoko responding to John’s thoughts. Wings’ songs have something that Beatles records never had, and Paul McCartney post-Wings solo records never had. It was that harmonious blend of Paul’s, Linda’s and Denny Laine’s voices. You can hear it in “Listen to What the Man Said.” That sweet pop song was perfect for 1975, which was a pure pop/AM radio year. You could hear that pure pop sound in 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” (released in 1975), the Raspberries “Go All the Way,” (released in 1972), and “Love Grows” by Edison Lighthouse (released in 1970). There was a whole generation who grew up in the 1970s, missed out on the Beatles, and grew up on AM Top Forty songs.

I believe that it was this generation that McCartney set out to conquer with Venus and Mars, and the massive Wings Over America tour. Wings Over America was planned almost like a WW II invasion. This generation was 10 and still going out for recess when the Beatles broke up. Wings, Monty Python, and every great Top 40 song of the ’70s were ours and ours alone. You can keep your Donovan.

The Venus and Mars album is filled with excellent rock songs and lovely ballads. What’s a better way to open a rock show than with “Venus and Mars/Rock Show”? And he did. “Love in Song” is a haunting ballad. I don’t know what the words to it are. If you can write a melody that lovely, I would say you have the right to use any cliched lyrics you like. People will hum it anyway.  “You Gave Me the Answer” is this albums “Honey Pie.” But much better than “Honey Pie.” “Letting Go” is this album’s “Let Me Roll It.” It’s got that Lennon guitar sound to it. “Medicin Jar” is a hard-rocking song that Paul gave to Jimmy McCulloch to sing. And McCulloch still didn’t learn. He left the band and died a few years later from an overdose.

“Call Me Again” is a killer song. McCartney is a great mimic, but I’m not sure who he is emulating here. It’s not his Fats Domino voice (which you can hear on “Lady Madonna,” or his Elvis, or his Little Richard voice. Maybe it’s something he picked up in New Orleans where he recorded this album and hung out with Professor Longhair.

You can’t fault Paul McCartney for not being John Lennon, although people seemed to for years and years and years. And you can’t blame 14-year-old kids for liking what they hear on the radio. If it were 1975 again and I was 14 and was going to a Wings concert, you can bet that I would like to hear “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Sure, I’ve listened to John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” a million times and loved it. But when I go to a rock concert, I want to hear a rocking song like “Letting Go,” not “My Mummy’s Dead.” (That’s probably not a fair comparison, but, anyway.)

The album ends with “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People,” with another lovely melody. The very last piece is “Crossroads,” which was the theme song to an English television show.

This album comes with two posters, two gummed decals, a flashy inner cover, etc. Just like “Sgt. Pepper”! So “put your wig on straight, don’t be late, we got a date.”, put this record on, forget about climate change for forty minutes, and be fourteen again.

Make It Better: “Venus and Mars”

Blind Review: Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues

jujus

Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is a record by the poet Sarah Webster Fabio. It was released on Folkways Records in 1976. Sarah Webster was an African-American woman, who lived from 1928 to 1979. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee and married Cyril Fabio. This record was released only three years before her death from colon cancer. Ms. Fabio reads her poems over a blues-funk band (leaning more towards funk—despite the album’s title) with heavy and frequent use of “Shaft”-era wah-wah pedal. It’s a fun record. Put the album on the turntable, and it will pick you up and place you down smack-dab in the middle of a 1970s episode of “Soul Train.”

Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is a spoken-word record, but not a rap record. Honestly, I only know two things that I can compare this with. The first is “If Dogs Run Free” by Bob Dylan on New Morning. It’s nothing like “If Dogs Run Free.” (I’m not sure if anything is like “If Dogs Run Free”.). The second is Jack Kerouac’s Blues and Haikus album. However, the music on the Kerouac album is much more sparse. It’s hard to say why this is not a rap record. Maybe because it doesn’t have the percussive vocals of most rap songs. Also, Sarah Webster Fabio declares herself a poet, and she is. I don’t know that any rapper has ever proclaimed himself a poet.

Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is all about community. As the album title declares, alchemy is definitely present. Something brews up out the mixture of the funk the band is playing and the poems Ms. Fabio is reciting. The musicians address each other as “Brother” or “Sister.” (This isn’t simply ‘70s-era revolutionary diction—four people on the album have the last name “Fabio.”) When the members of the band are introduced, even their astrological signs are given. (As I mentioned earlier, this is 1976—many of us wore mood rings at the time.) You can be as cynical or dewy-eyed optimistic as you want about this album and this era. Revolution was (still) in the air. It was then was snuffed in the cradle a few years later. So I would say that cynicism should not be the order of the day.

The poet, Ms. Fabio, has a cool-sounding voice like Clydie King, Bettye LaVette, or Merry Clayton. She sounds like she could let loose and wail with the best of them. (She doesn’t, but she could.) The musicians are all good. They’ve learned from their predecessors. How many funk-blues bands do you know that name-check Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington in their songs? The backing group consists of a guitarist (with extensive use of a wah-wah-pedal), Wayne Wallace; a very funky bassist, Ronald Fabio; a drummer, Lawrence E. Vann; and a multi-instrumentalist, Denianke (Leon Williams), who plays flute, sax, and piano, and whose solos are halfway between King Curtis and hard bop.

It’s hard to find the relationship between the rhythm of the recitation of the poems and the rhythm of the band. I’m not saying this is bad; I’m partly just wondering what should be the relationship between the two on a poetry/backing-musicians record. A funk band certainly can’t play ‘programme’ music.

Poems with an instrumental background are neither fish nor fowl. They peaked in the 1950s when beat poets enlisted bebop musicians to back them. They’re rarely seen nowadays. Is there a reason for that? People are still writing poems, although fewer and fewer people are reading them. Both jazz and the blues are yet being played, although both have become mainly institutionalized, codified, and historicized. (You can argue with me about that, but I’m not going to bother arguing back.). On a weekend evening, though, I could probably find several bars in my neighborhood featuring a blues band and maybe, even, a small jazz combo. If I searched a little bit harder, I could probably find a poetry slam or a poetry reading. But, unless I listen to a record from the beat era (or an album from 1976, in this case), I’m probably not going to find a poet with a backing band playing anywhere in town. (Okay, there’s Andrea Gibson, but I don’t know much about her.)

What do we expect to find in such a record that a written poem or a blues or jazz tune alone can’t give us? With traditional songs, as opposed to written poetry, a lot of the sentiments of the lyrics can be offloaded to the melody.  This is true of even the best lyricists. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with poetry backed by a musical combo. You get the feeling that the poems were written first without any or much thought about the musical backing. The music isn’t an afterthought, but the poem is fundamental. Of course, with songs, the lyrics are often written before the music, but always with the idea that they will be set to very structured music (verses, choruses, perhaps a bridge, and so on).

Of course, poems have their own rhythms. And many poems are considered “lyric.” If you remove the backing music from an album like this, you’re left with recitations of poems. Recordings of recitations of poems were also once common. Sometimes the recitations were by the poets themselves, and sometimes by actors, such as Alec Guinness (who could recite T.S. Eliot much better than T.S. Eliot could) or Laurence Olivier. Then, of course, some poems exist strictly on the page. This is the most abstract form, but is it in some sense the most “literary” form? Well, yes, a poem existing strictly on the page is obviously more literary than, say, a pop song. But does that make the naked poem that succeeds on its own terms, without melody or musical backing, somehow more of an artistic accomplishment? (But I don’t want this to devolve into the should-Dylan-have-won-the-Nobel? argument.)

In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s (and Gertrude Stein‘s) poems and Bob Dylan’s songs succeed in different ways.  Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues also accomplishes its goals in its own way.  You can concentrate on the poems, or you can focus on the music, or you can concentrate on some convex combination of the two. In all cases, you’ll be satisfied. Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is more than the sum of its poems and its music, because, well, because there’s just more there (if that makes any sense).

[This is a ‘blind’ review in that I had never heard this record before this week and had never heard Sarah Webster Fabio at all.  You can buy a copy of Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues from Folkways Records. Cheryl Fabio made a film, Rainbow Black, about the making of this music.  This record is also available through Vinyl Me, Please.]

Blind Review: Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues

The Just God of Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom”

day-of-doom

You hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the all-great; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.

—Bob Dylan in an interview with Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001.

Religion, Then and Now

New England Puritans’ belief in predestination and eternal hell for the Reprobate is foreign to the modern mind and even to the modern Christian mind. New England Puritans believed that after death one’s soul spent eternity in heaven or hell. Among those who would be subject to eternal damnation were “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men who did not have access to the written Word. Eternal damnation today strikes us as a mark of a barbarous god. However, must God, if there is a God, be beneficent? Perhaps, as Bob Dylan once said, “God is arbitrary.” Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pestilences happen. If God is not necessarily good, then there is no contradiction to resolve when He drops a still-born babe into the eternally burning Lake of Fire. The Reverend Michael Wigglesworth was a sincere, intelligent, and well-educated man, and The Day of Doom was a serious book. It is easy to write off the book as a curious period piece. It is much harder to try to understand the ideas of Original Sin and Damnation as seen through the eyes of Wigglesworth and his fellow Puritans. However, it is worth the effort. We can learn as much about ourselves in this task as we learn about the Puritans. In Day of Doom, using the simplest of meters and rhyming schemes, Michael Wigglesworth wrestles to reconcile the beneficence of God with eternal damnation.

Sin and God

Modern people do not think much about sin. Most people today believe that they are innately good. Most people believe that people are born innately good. Also, modern people do not think much about hell. When they think about the afterlife, they assume, if there is an afterlife, that it will be a pleasant state. Most Americans today profess to a belief in God. However, their belief is in a watered-down God, a god who wishes them the best. Today’s God is a personal god to some, a deistic god to others, but a beneficent and merciful God to all. The New England Puritans, including Michael Wigglesworth, had very different views on sin, God, and heaven and hell. The Puritans believed that Man was inherently depraved and sinful and that we all share equally in Adam’s Fall. Thus, the Puritans believed that everyone deserved hell. However, the Puritans believed that God had decided that some men and women were of the Elect and were destined for heaven. The Puritans attributed this dispensation for some to the goodness of God. After all, we are all sinful. Letting some go to heaven is more than anyone deserves as Wigglesworth says in stanza XLIII (in the voice of Christ):

“My grace to one is wrong to none;
  none can Election claim;
Amongst all those their souls that lose,
  none can Rejection blame.["]

To modern men and women, this division between the saved and the damned sounds arbitrary. The Puritan’s God, as we will see, was foremost a god of justice.

Poetic Scheme of the Day of Judgement

We first examine the poetics of Day of Doom. Wigglesworth uses an unobtrusive poetic scheme for The Day of Doom. The stanzas are in a simple meter with internal rhymes. Consider the first stanza:

Still WAS the NIGHT, se-RENE and BRIGHT, when ALL men SLEEP-ing LAY; (14-A)
Calm WAS the SEA-son, & CAR-nal REA-son thought SO 'twould LAST for AY. (14-A)
Soul TAKE thine EASE, let SOR-row CEASE, much GOOD thou HAST in STORE; (14-B)
This WAS their SONG their CUPS a-MONG the EV-e-NING be-FORE. (14-B)

The lines are in iambic heptameter. (Professor New says that these lines are in trochaic meter, and they can certainly be read that way, also.) The stanza has two rhyming couplets. Also, note the internal rhyme in each line:

  • “night”/”bright”
  • “season”/”reason”
  • “ease”/”cease”
  • “song”/”among”

The rhythm and rhyme are quite regular, easy to read and recite (assuming you read it as iambic meter, rather than trochaic), and, probably, easy to memorize (at least at the stanza level). As John Ward Dean, 1815–1902, states in his memoir of Wigglesworth, “[The Day of Doom] commended itself to those zealous Puritans, who had little taste for lofty rhyme or literary excellence.” Nonetheless, the poem does contain quite memorable imagery, such as these lines from Stanza 192.

And by and by the flaming Sky
  shall drop like moulten Lead

A poem was more fun to read than a sermon.

A verse may find him who a sermon flies,
Saith Herbert well. [...]
—J. Mitchel, in "On the Following Work and its Author"

There is no reason why Wigglesworth could not have written the poem’s message in a prose sermon (and was—–many, many times in Puritan, colonial America). However, by writing it in verse, Wigglesworth is increasing its accessibility to the casual reader of the time.

A Just God

The God of “The Day of Doom” is not a God of goodness, compassion, or mercy, necessarily, but a God of justice. We read in Stanza CXLIII:

“God hath no joy to crush or ’stroy,
  and ruin wretched wights;
But to display the glorious Ray
  of Justice he delights.

This god is a just god, a judge on high. We see this judicial view of God in many places in Day of Doom:

  • “[…] adjudging him to pain […]” —from Stanza 200
  • “[…] just are all his ways.” —from Stanza 219

There are many more examples in the poem. Not only that, but the subtitle of the book is A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgement. It is much harder to find God described as beneficent or merciful in Day of Doom. The most difficult cases for Wigglesworth to argue are the damnation of “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men.

“Heathen” Men

Wigglesworth’s marginal note to stanza CLVII reads, “heathen men plead want of the Written Word.” The Puritans interaction with Native Americans, such as the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, was frequent, often fraught with tension on both sides, and, periodically, broke out into violent skirmishes with deaths on both sides. When Wigglesworth writes of “heathen” men, he is not talking in the abstract. Nor is he talking of remote tribes in, for example, the Congo. He is speaking of people living in the “howling wilderness” right outside the borders of his town. Stanza CLVII reads:

Whose wicked ways Christ open lays,
  and makes their sins appear,
They making pleas their case to ease,
  if not themselves to clear.
“Thy Written Word,” say they, “good Lord,
  we never did enjoy;
We ne’er refus’d, nor it abus’d;
  Oh, do not us destroy!“

It is clear from this stanza that Wigglesworth believes that men and women who never heard or read the Christian Bible must make their case for salvation.

“Reprobate” Infants

In stanza CLXVI, “Reprobate Infants plead for themselves.” The Puritans believed that even infants were guilty of Original Sin. The fact that they had not even had the chance to sin did not matter a whit if they were not one of the Elect. If one was damned, one was damned. There was no getting around it. Stanza CLXVI reads:

Then to the Bar all they drew near
  Who died in infancy,
And never had or good or bad
  effected pers’nally;
But from the womb unto the tomb
  were straightway carriéd,
(Or at the least ere they transgress’d)
  who thus began to plead:

“The Easiest Room in Hell”

It is tempting to think that Wigglesworth’s God is like a human judge who is most exacting in his or her determination of guilt, yet willing to be lenient in his or her punishment due to extenuating circumstances.

“Heathen” Men

Stanza CLVIII reads,

“You ne’er abus’d, nor yet refus’d
  my Written Word, you plead;
That’s true," quoth he, “therefore shall ye
  the less be punishéd.
You shall not smart for any part
  of other men’s offense,
But for your own transgressi-on
  receive due recompense.“

Thus they are punished only for their sins, not the sins of others, while still punished for Original Sin.

“Reprobate” Infants

In stanza CLXXXI, God seems to offer some mercy by allotting to the infants “the easiest room in Hell.”

"A crime it is, therefore in bliss
  you may not hope to dwell,
But unto you I shall allow
  the easiest room in Hell."
The glorious King thus answering,
  they cease, and plead no longer;
Their Consciences must needs confess
  his Reasons are the stronger.

Wigglesworth’s God is shown to be lenient in his punishment in these two stanzas. However, eternity is still eternity. So, it is a stretch to consider Him merciful. Damnation is where the modern conception of the Christian God differs the most from that of the Puritans. God rules by the letter of the Law and judges guilty those whom today would be considered innocent. Although there is a lessening of punishment, eternal damnation is a difference of kind, not degree.

Conclusion

Understanding the New England Puritan’s beliefs on Man, God, Sin, and Heaven and Hell is quite tricky. These beliefs are mostly foreign to the beliefs of modern men and women and even modern Christians. For example, the Puritans believed in both free will and predestination. These beliefs, at first glance, seem contradictory. However, if God is omniscient, he can surely predict a person’s behavior. Moreover, one cannot do what one is not going to do. Hence, there is no contradiction. One has to immerse one’s self in Puritan theology for weeks to merely begin to understand it. Such immersion reveals a beautiful internal consistency to Puritanism. Whether it is true is another question. (In my opinion, it’s an unanswerable question.) The god of Day of Doom is a just god, and the world of Day of Doom is one of predestination. One cannot become one of the Elect through good works. In the Puritan view, there is nothing a person can do to earn salvation. God’s selection of the Elect may seem arbitrary to us. Perhaps God is arbitrary. The seeming lack of mercy modern people find in the God of Day of Doom is not a contradiction with the idea of a beneficent God. The Puritans considered all men and women to be guilty of Original Sin. Stanza LXVI reads,

All have transgress’d, even the best,
  and merited God’s wrath,
Unto their own perditi-on
  and everlasting scath.

God’s mercy and goodness, in the Puritan view, is evident in Christ dying for Man’s sins, and in Christ’s allowance of any man, woman, or child to be saved.

References

For background information and elucidation on the religious beliefs of the Puritans, I consulted:

  • Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction by Francis J. Bremer.
  • God in America, a television program by PBS.

This essay was originally written for ENGL E-182A.

The Just God of Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom”

From Bach to Bessie to Bop

How African-American Music Changed America

While others had earlier described jazz, often at a remove—notably Carl Sandburg in his “Jazz Fantasia”—Hughes knew that with jazz the form is the feeling.
—Kevin Young in a foreword to The Weary Blues

1. Introduction

Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was first published in the Spring 1949 edition of Common Ground. Its story takes place sometime between 1942 (the start of bebop) and 1949. The poem is ostensibly an essay written by the poem’s speaker for a college English course. The poem is partly about the student’s love of jazz music, and the sound of the poem’s verse reflects the sound of jazz.

Langston Hughes loved and listened carefully to music, wrote about it, wrote song lyrics, and even recorded music appreciation records for the Folkways label. From 1920 through 1942, American music went through a profound change. These changes were a result of the infusion of the sorrow and joy of black blues and jazz music into popular white music, which was sentimental, albeit lovely, parlor music. More generally, African-American music was the vanguard of the integration of black and white cultures.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” uses the example of blues and jazz music to illustrate the interweaving of black and white culture.

2. The young, black man in mid-century America

I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.

—from “Theme for English B”

The poem’s speaker’s move from the South to the North, from Winston-Salem to Manhattan, from a formerly Confederate state to a once-Union state mirrors the postbellum African-American diaspora.

The speaker represents many urban, young, black American men during the 1940s and 1950s. They went to college or were self-educated, were well-spoken and well-read. Undoubtedly they encountered racial obstacles but endeavored to overcome these obstacles with the belief that the face of dignity could over time dissolve racial prejudices. They did their best to be “[c]ool, calm, and collected,” as Hughes said in Ask Your Mama. They “like[d] to work, read, learn, and understand life.” They were not white, but they were American.

You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

The student and the teacher learn from each other. The personal, cultural changes in a black student and a white professor is merely an example of what was playing out in the Harlem Renaissance, in general, and in music, in particular.

With the Harlem Renaissance, a mighty river started overflowing its banks. This river washed away long-standing levees in the process. Its broad, soulful waters and the dark, pulsating rhythms of its currents spilled into another stream. This stream’s banks had become parched in the long, hot day of the Civil War and the long night of the Reconstruction had corrupted its water. With the Harlem Renaissance, the streams of black music and white music began merging into a type of music that was uniquely American.

3. “Bessie, bop, or Bach”

I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.

Consider Bessie, bop, and Bach. Hughes did not select them merely for their alliterative qualities. They cover the spectrum from black to white, from a tent show in Tennessee to Symphony Hall in Boston, and from Harlem to Greenwich Village. Using your imagination and a gramophone, you could hear the whole of America, in some sense, from a small collection of shellac discs.

3.1. Bach

I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.

—Langston Hughes in The Big Sea

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a German, Protestant composer of classical music and about as white as one can be.

3.2. Bessie

Never so famous in her lifetime as she became after death, Bessie Smith sang mostly for Negro audiences. […] She was a great favorite with the simple people of color. She sang their songs, the blues.

—Langston Hughes in Famous Negro Music Makers

Up to the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, blues music was mainly played by African-Americans for other African-Americans. Blues music grew out of plantation spirituals, work songs, and field hollers. Blues music contained “the soul of the Sorrow Songs” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it. But blues music was also a way to—at least temporarily—free yourself of the blues. Like the speaker of the poem, the rural, country blues originated in the South, then moved North and became urbanized. Also, like the speaker of the poem, blues music was not entirely ’black’, but also partly ’white’. For example, the blues used European harmonies and variants of European scales with ’flatted’ blue notes. Blues music used the 4/4 time signature of Western classical music but added African polyrhythms.

Bessie Smith (about 1896–1937), a ’classic blues’ singer, was about as black and soulful as one can be. As shown in the movie Bessie, a common requirement for a black woman back-up singer at the time was the “brown paper bag test”. The candidate’s skin had to be as light as or lighter than a brown paper bag. Despite her musical talent, Bessie Smith always failed this test. When she became successful enough to lead her own band, her backup singers were required to pass the reverse paper bag test. That is, they had to be darker than a brown paper bag.

Out of blues music and ragtime grew jazz.

3.3. Bop

Unfortunately, in the old days there was in jazz music, as in most of American life, a color line. White musicians and Negro musicians did not play together. Nevertheless, each learned from the other. And the large number of exciting Negro jazz musicians greatly colored all of American popular music. […] It was in the 1930’s that the clarinetist and band leader, Benny Goodman, formed his famous inter-racial quartette as a part of his band. From then on the color bar in the performance of popular music began to disappear. […] When be-bop came in around 1942, none of the younger jazz players thought of the color line any more. The great bop musicians, white and Negro, played together.

—Langston Hughes in Famous Negro Music Makers

In the middle, between white and black forms of music, we have bop (or bebop)—a style of jazz music. Bebop was a sophisticated form of music that could be played well by only the most technically and musically adept and the most creative artists. Bebop’s complexity allowed for a racially integrated meritocracy to emerge.

Like Modernist poetry, bebop was not polite and did not try particularly hard to be your friend. Bebop musicians played for other bebop musicians. Like the Modernist poets, they were not particularly concerned about their popularity with the masses.

Not only does Hughes write about these musical changes in his poem, but also the sound of the poem further emphasizes them.

4. The musical language of “Theme for English B”

Most of “Theme for English B” is free verse, with two odd exceptions. The first is the professor’s instructions to the students.

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—–
Then, it will be true.

These are iambic couplets (or close enough for jazz)—not something one would expect for essay requirements. The voice of the remainder of the poem is that of the student. In contrast to the professor’s lines, the student’s lines are free verse. However, there is one exception—the last line, written by the student, is iambic:

This is my page for English B.

Not only is it iambic, but also it rhymes with the preceding line:

and somewhat more free.

The student shows his professor that he, the student, can write in strict poetic forms if he wants to. But his natural voice is freer, artfully contradicting the literal meaning of the penultimate line, which is that the professor is “more free”.

Hughes wanted to bring the rhythms and the feel of the blues and jazz into his writing. One feature of jazz is the break: a very brief, often improvised, passage between musical phrases.

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

One can hear Dizzy Gillespie’s “Oopapada” (a favorite of Hughes, which he featured on a Folkways record) in these lines. The repetition of short, mostly one-syllable words is like the beat of a bass drum. One can hear the call-and-response of a New Orleans band in the internal rhymes and hear melodies in the assonance of the long ’e’s and the “oo” sounds. One can discern New York musicians riffing back and forth after hours in a club on West 118th Street. We hear the sound of white musicians from the Village and black musicians from Harlem building something together. Egos dissolve (“Me—who?”), and race distinctions fade in the early hours of the morning.

Note that the speaker talks of Harlem and New York as being separate cities, although Harlem geographically is a part of New York. Harlem represents African-Americans and their culture in this poem, while New York (meaning lower- and mid-Manhattan) represents white Americans and their culture. As with the geography of the city, the black population was part of the city’s population, but the white community and culture surrounded it with an increasingly permeable border.

This musical call-and-response is echoed later in the poem by a more general description of the interplay between the cultures of the young, black student and his older, white professor:

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

Musical change is but one part of the more substantial cultural shift happening in America at the time; this is Hughes’ implied, but most significant, point.

5. Conclusion

In this poem, Hughes has shown us how African-American musical culture became integrated with white musical culture during the 1940s and 1950s. He has also demonstrated the cultural interplay between individuals using the example of a black student and his white professor. Langston Hughes not only describes the integration between whites and blacks in his poem but also uses the rhythm and sound of African-American jazz music to emphasize his point. He moves from the personal level to the level of music and, by implication, to the level of American culture in general.

6. References

The Weary Blues. Langston Hughes. Introduction by Carl Van Vechten. With a new Foreword by Kevin Young. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2017. Originally published in 1926.

The Big Sea. An autobiography by Langston Hughes. Introduction by Arnold Rampersad. Hill and Wang, New York, 1993. Originally published in 1940.

“Theme for English B” Langston Hughes. Common Ground, Spring, 1949.

The Story of Jazz. Written by Langston Hughes. Narrated by Langston Hughes with Documentary Recordings. FC 17312, Folkways Records & Service Corp., N.Y. 1954.

Famous Negro Music Makers. Langston Hughes. Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1955.

The First Book of Jazz, Updated edition. Langston Hughes. Franklin Watts, New York and London, 1976. Originally published in 1955.

Ask Your Mama. Langston Hughes. 1961.

Bessie (2015). Directed by Dee Rees.

Bessie Smith and others. Blues Women. Compiled by Neil Record. Sleeve Notes by Neil Record. Music Rough Guides RGNET1352LP.

From Bach to Bessie to Bop

Data science analysis of Bob Dylan’s lyrics

I applied my day-job skills to Bob Dylan’s lyrics.  You can take these articles with as much seriousness or skepticism as you wish.

I’ve been taking the results of the first article and creating haikus for each of Bob Dylan’s albums.  I’m starting to think of this as an interesting, but failed, experiment.  I might continue to soldier on with it, though.  Only 47 or so albums to go.

Data science analysis of Bob Dylan’s lyrics