Experiencing the Writing of Langston Hughes Through Jazz
As we read Langston Hughes’ short story, Thank You, Ma’am, you might notice certain twists of language, rhythms and repetitions that seem unusual: willow-wild and There was a long pause. A very long pause.
The rhythm of Hughes’ writing — his poetry, fiction, and plays — was influenced by the sounds of jazz and blues music. In fact, he even performed many of his poems with jazz musicians providing accompaniment. This clip at left was filmed in 1958, the same year Hughes published Thank You, Ma’am. Notice how the words of the poem weave in and out of the the jazz phrases, and how the jazz seems to do the same for the poetry. That is because the poet and the musicians are listening carefully, making changes right in the moment to suit one another’s rhythms. This is called improvisation.
Now, try your own improvisational reading. Below you will find an excerpt of Thank You, Ma’am and at right two jazz performances by the great saxophonist, John Coltrane.
Pick the song that works for you. As the music plays, practice reading this bit of Thank You, Ma’am aloud. This is your reading. You can pause, emphasize certain words, change the speed — whatever the jazz may inspire you to do. When we return in January, you will have a chance to share your reading with the class.
For more information about Langston Hughes, I’ve included a short biography from Scholastic.com below.
Have a wonderful break!
An Excerpt from Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes
She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, intsead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. the large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.
After that the woman said, “Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and give it here.” She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, “Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.” The woman said, “What did you want to do it for?” The boy said, “I didn’t aim to.”
She said, “You a lie!”
By that time two or three people passed, stopped, turned to look, and some stood watching. “If I turn you loose, will you run?” asked the woman.
“Yes’m,” said the boy.
“Then I won’t turn you loose,” said the woman. She did not release him.
“I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry,” whispered the boy.
“Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”
“No’m,” said the boy.
“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.
He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.
A Short Biography of Langston Hughes from Scholastic.com
Langston Hughes wrote from 1926 to 1967. In that time he wrote more than 60 books, including poems, novels, short stories, plays, children’s poetry, musicals, operas, and autobiographies. He was the first African American to support himself as a writer, and he wrote from his own experience.
Langston Hughes, whose full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes, was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was the only son of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston. His parents divorced when he was young and his father moved to Mexico. Because his mother traveled a lot to find work and was often absent, his grandmother raised Hughes until he was 12. His childhood was lonely and he often occupied himself with books. It was Hughes’s grandmother, a great storyteller, who transferred to him her love of literature and the importance of becoming educated.
In 1914 he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her new husband. It was here that he started writing poetry he wrote his first poem in the eighth grade. A year later the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. Despite all the moving around, Hughes was a good student and excelled in his studies. He was also good looking and popular with the other students, during his senior year at Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, he was voted class poet and editor of the yearbook.
After high school, Hughes traveled in Mexico, Europe, and Africa sometimes by working on freighters. By 1924 he had settled in Harlem, New York, and was an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that focused on literature, music, theater, art, and politics. One of his favorite pastimes was to sit in clubs and listen to the blues as he wrote his poetry.
Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York, NY. Some of his books for children and young adults include: Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, and Don’t You Turn Back.