Guest blog by Eric Bronson:
The black poets of the Harlem Renaissance wrote jazz. Blues too, and sometimes even Gospel. It was tough sounding, edgy and sweet, like the music they heard in the late-night clubs of New York City. I love Langston Hughes' poem, "The Weary Blues."
"And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead."
Hughes was a great American poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman. He also read Paul Laurence Dunbar. Something about the old-timey style appealed to Hughes. It was of the ragtime era at the turn of the twentieth century, a time many of the new black poets and artists were anxious to put behind them. Too hokey, they thought. Too much slave-speak. Take Dunbar's "Banjo Song," for example:
"Now, de blessed little angels
Up in heaven, we are told,
Don't do nothin' all dere lifetime
'Ceptin' play on ha'ps o' gold.
Now I think heaben 'd be mo' homelike
Ef we 'd hyeah some music fall
F'om a real ol'-fashioned banjo,
Like dat one upon de wall."
The happy strains of the ragtiming banjo didn't quite fit with the America of the 1920s. Artists demanded more serious stuff.
It's ironic because if you dig a little bit into the ragtime era you'll find a wealth of examples of serious music that didn't survive because back then America only wanted goofy stuff from its colored musicians. The king of all ragtime composers, Scott Joplin, wrote a ballet and an opera on racial injustice that never sold. Comedian Bert Williams gave up serious acting because he couldn't make money that way.
When John Philip Sousa was leading the U.S. Military Band in inspiring music inside the Chicago Fairgrounds in 1893, colored musicians were nowhere to be found. "Their" serious music was restricted to the fringes, the brothels and sporting houses of the red-light district. And they died young because of it.
Fifty years later America was ready for serious music and black musicians like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday flourished. But President's Day shouldn't always be about Presidents. Langston Hughes writes of the uneducated slave, and reminds us, "I, too, sing America."
Next time you hear an African-American sing clear through a car radio, remember all the forgotten musicians who played for no one at all. Their music, like their names, are long gone. But during Black History Month this February, let us also remember, they, too, sing America.
King of Rags follows the life of Scott Joplin and his fellow ragtime musicians as they frantically transform the seedy and segregated underbelly of comedians, conmen and prostitutes who called America’s most vibrant cities home. Inspired by Booker T. Washington and the Dahomeyan defeat in West Africa, Joplin was ignored by the masses for writing the music of Civil Rights fifty years before America was ready to listen.