Langston Hughes’ Bebop and Postwar America

Good morning, daddy!

Ain’t you heard

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:

You’ll hear their feet

Beating out and beat out a –

You think

It’s a happy beat?

 In Montage of a Dream Deferred, Post-WWII Harlem has acquired the experience of a war for freedom that had yet to be won at home. Hughes postwar poetry contained the rage of his work from the 1930’s and the cool delivery of his poetry from the 1940’s. The collection of Montage is relatively multi-directed. The reader is invited into the interpersonal relationships of Hughes’ Harlem. The hypocrisy of America is embraced and the community has moved forward within a shared understanding that focuses on a literal exposition of dominant white culture and the dynamics of that society. While retaining the spiritual voice of the African American community, Montage of a Dream Deferred condenses and embellishes the anxieties and turbulence of urban America though Hughes’ musically centered voice.

Hughes stylizes the shared outrage of having returned from the fronts of WWII only to face ongoing discrimination from white America into a disruptive form of communication. At the dawn of the age of political universalism, Hughes was withdrawing strength from “poverty, job discrimination, housing segregation, limited educational opportunities, and police insensitivity and brutality […to] continue to evoke the mythic status of Harlem as a black ‘Mecca’” (Lowney 362). Through this artistic representation, Hughes’ Harlem reflects the conditions of America.

Montage stresses bebop as a primary influence to his work, his message, and the design and orchestration of his poetic intent. Unlike Hughes’ earlier blues poetry, with its clearer dictation, bebop’s “dissonance relates to the social world it represents” (Lowney 358). Though the focus of the poet’s work was on the communities of Harlem, the cultural transition he sought to explore was both “national and global in its orientation and impact” (Lowney 361). In this sense Hughes “I” as “we” is expanded to a far reaching “us.”

Why Hughes left his earlier constructions of blues poetry was mostly due to the Great Depression and the political and intellectual soul searching that followed. Hughes, like so many others at that time, was in search of a “more just and humane American capitalism” (Farrell 55). As with Hughes’ earlier blues poetry, he is again faced with the challenges of orchestrating his poetry to the semblance of a musician’s hand. As many scholars and critics, such as Shirley A. Willams and Meta DuEwa Jones, have pointed out, blues is meant to be heard but Hughes manages to retain the emotion and experience of the blues musician in written form. Again, like his earlier work Hughes takes the role of a “commercial songwriter [and] is determined to write lyrics more like the blues than the blues themselves” (Chinitz 179). As Hughes political thought evolved, he sought a more dynamic sound to present the problems he addresses.

As with his earlier work, the freedom of musical rhythms present great difficulty translating to a strictly written form and Hughes finds unique ways to compensate what cannot be directly transferred between music and poetry (Chinitz 185). Montage utilizes bebop’s “unpredictable shifts in voice, mood, and dramatic scene to convey a sense of anxiety, fragmentation, and urgency” (Lowney 370). Such as in the poem “What? So Soon!”

I believe my old lady’s

Pregnant again!

Fate must have

Some kind of trickeration

To populate the

Cullud nation!

Comment against Lamp Post

You call it Fate?

Figurette

De-daddle-dy!

De-dop! (398)

Montage’s intimacy demonstrates a “cynical self-awareness that is in tune to the political and social conditions” (Farrell 12). In the poem “Dream Boogie”, Hughes raises the question, “You think/It’s a happy beat? ” which identifies the difficulty in compartmentalizing the genre, and the culture, in narrow terms. This also introduces the complexity of Hughes’ work.

Listen to it closely:

Ain’t you heard

something underneath (388) 

In 1940 Hughes was already attacking mainstream perceptions with his poem “Note on Commercial Theater,” which was certainly a sign of things to come:

You have taken my blues and gone –

You sing ‘em in Hollywood Bowl

And you mixed ‘em up with symphonies

And you fixed ‘em

So they don’t like me.

Yep, you done taken my blues and gone. (215)

Bebop was the answer to many artists’ questions about postwar jazz (Lowney 366). To some it was becoming synonymous with anti-establishment; “revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, sop rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley – against commercial music in general” (Johnson 57). This spirit of revolt resonated with the African American community as a war cry and slow beat towards confrontation with economic exploitation. Alternatively, as a means of economic expression, musicians wanted to create a sound whites could not play. The development of the sound “demand[ed] a mastery of jazz idioms only blacks could achieve” (Johnson 58). Just as with his blues poetry, for Hughes the music represents an “expression of the resilience and tragedy of the African-American lower class” (Chinitz 178).

            Ralph Ellison wrote about the atmosphere of experimentation that led to the evolution of bebop, and “the first attempts toward a conscious statement of the sensibility of the younger generation of musicians as they worked out the techniques, […] a revolt of the younger against the established stylist ” (247). Hughes embraced this sensibility in every venue. In a 1944 edition of Negro Digest, Hughes denounced those who looked down on the ambitions of the lower class,

It is, I should imagine, nice to be smart enough and lucky enough to be among Dr. DuBois’ “talented tenth” and be a race leader and do to symphony concerts and live on that attractive rise of bluff and parkway along upper Edgecombe Avenue overlooking the Polo Grounds, where the plumbing really works, and the ceilings are high and airy. (Johnson 59)

Montage was constructed through the lens of bebop “for its greater emphasis upon polyrhythmics. It differs emotionally from swing rhythm, creating greater tension, thereby reflecting more accurately the spirit and temper of contemporary emotions” (Johnson 59). Langston Hughes’ poetry during the war consistently strove to outline the enduring hypocrisy of inequality in the United States. His poems from the 1940’s stepped aside from his more bellicose work of the 1930’s as his political inclinations seemed to relax and gauge towards a pragmatic sense of being. Poems from the 1940’s such as “Southern Negro Speaks,” “Southern Mammy Sings,” “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,” and “Will V-Day be Me-Day too,” drew the contrast of American value’s overseas and Jim Crow at home.

I reckon they must have

Forgotten about me

When I hear them say they gonna

Save Democracy

Funny thing about white folks

Wanting to go and fight

Way over in Europe

When right here in Alabama –

Lord have mercy on me! –

They declare I’m a Fifth Columnist

If I say the word, Free.

Jim Crow all around me.

Don’t have the right to vote.

Let’s leave our neighbor’s eye alone

And look after our own mote –

Cause I sure don’t understand

What the meaning can be

When folks talk about freedom –

And Jim Crow me? (238)

            Montage is often viewed inside the context of his collective works. Simply put, Hughes uplifts the voice of Harlem through the diction of her own vernacular that often becomes intertwined with the tone. The character and setting is always a socio-political representation of one group pitted against the other. With some poems in Montage, African American frustrations are less direct and more implied, revealing a “day-to-day awareness of the invigorating effects of war on the American economy” (Farrell 12). Such as the poem “Tomorrow,” where the speaker is noting disenfranchisement through the economic delegation of a cigarette machine. Perhaps with any other author there would be no hint of subtly and if the reader steps away from Hughes as the blues poet, a transcendental Harlem becomes clear.

                                                Tomorrow may be

                                                a thousand years off:

                                    TWO DIMES AND A NICKEL ONLY

                                                says this particular

                                                cigarette machine.

                                    Others take a quarter straight.

                                                Some dawns

                                                wait. (405)

The reader is, unwittingly at times, invited into the shared experience of the speaking character. In poems such as “Sister,” “Preference,” “Movies,” and “Numbers,” the reader is offered the private thoughts of an unknown member of Hughes’ community. The scene is set up by other poems, which the characters seemingly explore, such as “Neon Signs,” “Café: 3 a.m.,” “125th Street,” and “Subway Rush Hour.” And the revolving atmosphere is shouting from the streets through such poems as “Parade,” “Children’s Rhymes,” “Not a Movie,” “Ballad of the Landlord,” and “Night Funeral in Harlem.”

While Montage has been recognized as an experimental masterpiece of the postmodern era, it builds on traditional themes and structures with the interruption of characterization and what Meta DuEwa Jones refers to as “neon vernacular” (8). One can easily imagine the last word in Montage’s introductory poem, “Dream Boogie”, glowing over Hughes’ weary Harlem as a confirmation that the reader is being lead in to the city through a door custom made and possessing all the intent and ambition that “Y-e-a-h!” could possess. The reader is mercilessly handed over to the on-going endurance of Harlem in “Parade,” and    

                                                Marching…marching…

marching…

noon till night… (389)

            What Jones refers to as “neon vernacular” is not so much the dress of speech the characters of Harlem bring to the printed page, but the interruption of the author reminding the reader that this is a poem and not a place. In the poem “Sister,” Hughes interjects “Comment on Stoop,” giving the reader the sense that they are being passed on a precious insight that can only really be held with this Montage. Perhaps Hughes is revisiting what “he takes to be the quaint humor and naive simplicity” of the “African-American proletariat” and is “drawing unconvoluted wisdom from their very lack of sophistication” (Chinitz 3-4). Perhaps, as a centering of bebop would imply, he has progressed his agony into an immutable complexity. Scholar Onwuchekwa Jemie considers Hughes’ later work as a gift to academia, proffering “complex surfaces to puzzle over” (Jones 9).  

            Other interjections of Hughes’ “neon vernacular” appear in “Question[2]” and “What? So Soon!” that pair each other with a female speaker and a male speaker with the terms “Figurine” and “Figurette,” respectively. Hughes trademark humor has crossed over into a great cynicism, confronting the “overall feeling of disenchantment, of frustration, bewilderment and despair that informed the music – the very life impulse – of postwar urban life in America, as Langston Hughes knew” (Farrell 17).

Langston Hughes understood bebop as the articulation of the defiant postwar mood within the African American community. Montage presented perhaps a greater challenge as Hughes sought to emulate this style. However, the genre lends itself to a poet as bebop, unlike some more traditional jazz, allows for greater emphasis on the individual apart from the group to lead the audience into the imagery and ideas being presented. It is the manipulation of the individual that gives Montage its greatest strength. The reader is taken through the crowds of Hughes’ voice, Hughes’ Harlem, and Hughes’ America, to consider the complexity of the shared experience of community. Nowhere else can such complexity be found but through music, particularly jazz, as it is a continuing conversation between the listener and the speaker. For Hughes, whether our voice is heard or not, we are all participants in the music of the democratic experiment and we all participate in the shaping of the outcome. Montage of a Dream Deferred compliments the postwar environment by adequately presenting the complexity of being American.

Chinitz, David. “Literacy and Authenticity: The Blues Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Callaloo. Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 1996) 177-192. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2010.

Ellison, Ralph. “The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.” New York: The Modern Library. Print.

Farrell, Walter C., and Patricia A. Johnson. “Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston Hughes and the ‘Bebop’ Era.” MELUS. Vol. 8, No. 3 (1981) 52-72. The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

Hughes, Langston. “The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.” Arnold Rampersad ed. New York: Vintage Books. Print.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Listening to What the Ear Demands Langston Hughes and his Critics.” Callaloo, Vol. 25 Num 4. Fall 2002. 1145 – 1175. John Hopkins University Press. Project Muse. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

Johnson, Patricia A, and Walter C. Farrell. “How Langston Hughes Used the Blues.” MELUS. Vol. 6, No. 1 (1979) 53-63. The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.  JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

Lowney, John. “Langston Hughes and the ‘Nonsense’ of Bebop.” American Literature. Vol. 72, No. 2 (2000) 357-385. Duke University Press. Project Muse. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.