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

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