Edited by Azizi Powell
This post presents a sound file of & words to Langston Hughes poem "Notes On Commercial Theatre". This post also includes an excerpt of a Wikipedia analysis of that poem, and my analysis of that poem which includes comments about the 2013 internet video craze "The Harlem Shake".
The content of this post is presented for historical, sociological, and aesthetic purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
FEATURED SOUND FILE: LANGSTON HUGHES POETRY RECITAL c.1945 Part 4 of 4
cdbpdx,Uploaded on Jul 19, 2009
In 1945, ASCH records recorded a 78 rpm 4 record album set with Langston Hughes reciting his own poems. This is part 4 of 4 parts from that album, each part being both sides of one of the records in the album.
This record contains:
THE BREATH OF A ROSE
IN TIME OF SILVER RAIN
BALLAD OF THE LANDLORD
NOTE ON COMMERCIAL THEATER (good!)
This is an historic compilation. Enjoy!
"Note On Commercial Theatre" is the last recitation on this sound file and begins at 5:06.
WORDS TO NOTES ON COMMERCIAL THEATRE
You've taken my blues and gone--
You sing 'em on Broadway
And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed 'em up with symphonies
And you fixed 'em
So they don't sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in MacBeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what's about me--
But someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me--
Black and beautiful--
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be
Yes, it'll be me.
ANALYSIS OF LANGSTON HUGHES' "NOTES ON COMMERCIAL THEATRE"
"Langston Hughes was a prominent writer during the Harlem Renaissance, which is obvious in most of his poetry. Hughes writes about the issues of the day, and “Note on Commercial Theatre” is no different.
Roots vs. novelty
During the Harlem Renaissance, one of the main controversies was that African American culture became the “vogue” of the day. This included interest not only in black writing and art, but in the rising jazz and theatre scenes as well. Harlem became the hot spot for this new black culture; both black and whites explored and became immersed in it. Because it was so popular, many white people attempted to infuse their own art with the new African American styles, resulting in hybrid music and theatre (for example, a swing version of The Mikado, a comic opera).
Hughes was a huge proponent of creating a separate black identity and art, hence the extreme antipathy within “Note on Commercial Theatre” to black culture being absorbed by whites. This is reflected in his use of an experimental form for his poem; there is a lack of rhyme scheme and no discernible rhythm to the lines. Other black writers of the time, such as Countee Cullen, experimented within specific forms, but Hughes rejects form in this poem; he rejects the absorption into any other style but his own."...
EDITORIAL COMMENT, INCLUDING COMMENTS ABOUT THE HARLEM SHAKE MEME
I wonder if Langston Hughes's poem "Notes On Commercial Theatre" wasn't just concerned about "white attempts to infuse their own art with the new African American styles" or concerned about "black culture being absorbed by white". I wonder if Langston Hughes was also reflecting on how mainstream White society often failed to acknowlege Black people while loving Black cultural products.
Furthermore, I wonder if the impetus for Langston Hughes' "Note On Commercial Theatre" was also driven by the common practice then of White people reaping the economic benefit of Black creative products through the production & promotion of often watered down versions of that product - for instance, White singers recording "covers" of Blues songs composed by Black people.
It seems to me that in this so-called post-racial America more than 60 years after Langston Hughes wrote "Note On Commercial Theatre", there's still considerable reason for Black people to be concerned that we aren't given the credit for our artistic accomplishments. Not only is "White" still the default race, but also terms such as "traditional American" and "vernacular American" are used to categorize a number of Black art forms, including old time music/songs, and Swing dances.
To a considerable degree, that history & these present day realities may explain why some Black commentators & some non-Black commentators have expressed concerns about the recent Harlem Shake internet craze. Each of those numerous videos that have been uploaded to YouTube show groups of people, sometimes in diverse "Halloween" type costumes, wildly dancing in various ways to a song called "The Harlem Shake" that was released last year by a producer known as Baauer. Although each of these videos are entitled "The Harlem Shake", the dances performed by the people in those videos are have no resemblance to the Harlem Shake of the 1980s, and its popularized version in 2001. I think that the point of those new Harlem Shake videos is to show groups of people in specific settings letting down their hair, and being crazy for a change. And I find some of those videos funny. But I can also understand why Tamara Palmer, a commentator for The Root.com wrote that "a silly viral video craze [has] completely overshadowed the origins of a beloved old-school dance". I can also agree with Tamara Palmer's position that in those videos the Harlem Shake "has been all but stripped of its cultural context and meaning." http://www.theroot.com/views/harlem-shakedown?wpisrc=root_more_news.
And yet, in his poem "Notes On Commercial Theatre", Langston Hughes indicated that it was Black people's responsibility to share our stories. As such, the Harlem Shake internet video craze provides opportunities to talk about the history of White exploitation of Black people's cultural products, even though that may not be what is going on in those videos. The Harlem Shake internet video craze also provides opportunities to share information about Black dances -including the old Harlem Shake, and the Ethiopian Eskista dance which is said to have inspired that African American dance, though I don't believe that is actually true. And the Harlem Shake internet videos provides an opportunity for me to share one of my favorite Langston Hughes poems, Notes On Commercial Theatre" which since I first read it, I've always referred to by its first line "You've taken my Blues and gone".
http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-origins-several-examples-of-harlem.html "The Harlem Shake (Origins, Old School Examples, & Internet Meme)"
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND THANKS
Thanks to Langston Hughes for his cultural legacy. My thanks also to the author of the articles that are quoted in this post, to the transcriber of this poem, and to the uploader of this featured sound file.
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