Langston Hughes and the Broadway Blues
“Life is as hard on Broadway as it is in Blues-originating-land . . . The Brill Building Blues is just as hungry as the Mississippi Levee Blues,” Langston Hughes wrote in his late essay “Jazz as Communication.” This insistence on the expressive value of commercialized forms of American popular music may surprise those who think of Hughes primarily as a blues and jazz poet. It’s undeniable that the rhythms, forms, and moods of African-American vernacular music pervade his work, but Hughes’s ears were also open to the sounds that blew up to his beloved Harlem from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and the downtown vaudeville houses. Their impact is nowhere more apparent than in Simply Heavenly, the 1957 musical comedy for which Hughes wrote both book and lyrics—a sadly neglected production that illuminates the poet’s long engagement with popular song.
It is unsurprising that Hughes, himself no singer or instrumentalist but gifted with a profoundly musical sensibility, would try his hand as a lyricist and librettist. Throughout his career, Hughes collaborated with a range of composers on freestanding songs, such as “America’s Young Black Joe,” a prideful paean to Joe Louis and other black athletes that doubled as an answer to Stephen Foster’s lachrymose “Old Black Joe,” and the satirical “Mad Scene from Woolworth’s,” included in Duke Ellington’s revue Jump for Joy. He also penned operatic texts for German émigré composer Jan Meyerowitz and for William Grant Still’s Haitian-themed Troubled Island, as well as words to Kurt Weill’s music for the 1947 Broadway show Street Scene, which included “Lonely House,” his best-known and most-sung single lyric by some distance.
By comparison, Simply Heavenly has fallen into relative obscurity, though the show ran on and off Broadway for the better part of a year, briefly in London, and in regional productions later in the decade. As dramatic writing, the work can hardly be called “lost.” Its lyrics can be found in The Langston Hughes Reader, perennially in print, and in the University of Missouri’s massive collected works. But musicals suffer on the page even more than straight plays, and this one had gone largely unheard until the recent appearance of not one but two recordings of its score. A 2003 revival at London’s Young Vic resulted in both a West End commercial run and a cast recording (First Night Records), which may in turn have inspired the U.K. specialty label Sepia to issue the original Broadway cast recording, out of print for decades, on CD for the first time last February.
Despite the show’s postwar Harlem setting and all-black cast, Hughes and composer Dave Martin did not aim to revolutionize the American musical, either politically or aesthetically. Most numbers fulfill time-honored musical-theater functions. “Let’s Ball Awhile” is a pretext for a lindy hop, while “When I’m in a Quiet Mood” is a comic-romantic duet for Melon and Miss Mamie, two squabbling “second leads.” “Let Me Take You for a Ride,” a sprightly come-on studded with then-contemporary pop-cultural references, is solidly commercial Broadway fare, no more or less:
Let me take you for a ride
Make your heartstrings hum like mad
Let me gaze into your eyes
While you make like Alan Ladd
Such writing, deft but conventional, raises the suspicion that Simply Heavenly was a mere potboiler. Hughes’s fame outstripped his fortune at this point in his career, and he privately described himself as a “literary sharecropper” in the 1940s and 1950s, collecting fees and advances for lecture appearances, children’s books, and other occasional work that sapped the energy he might have devoted to more ambitious projects but enabled him to eat. His sarcastic January 1957 letter about the show to a confidante, Arna Bontemps, suggests a lack of serious intent: “What Broadway needs [is] a real good old-time colored singing and dancing HAPPY show, instead of all these sleepy white-orientated problems and half integrated watered down white-scored musicals.”
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Such comments, along with the show’s own generic qualities, may explain its relative neglect. But where Hughes is concerned, the line between artistic and commercial production—like those between “blues poem” and “song lyric,” and between authentic and synthetic black expression—is especially tricky to negotiate. Hughes valued accessibility more than most significant poets of his time, especially with respect to the ordinary black Americans he saw as both the wellspring of his writing and its core audience. He could be scathing about “watered down, white authored” appropriations of black-originated cultural forms. The speaker in the 1940 poem “Note on Commercial Theater” seems to express his views at that time with little mediation—though not without a touch of bluesy repetition:
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.
Later in the poem, he insists that:
[. . .] 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
In presenting ordinary and even “low-down” facets of contemporary Harlem life as matter-of-factly as he did in his poetry, Simply Heavenly marked a step toward Hughes’s career-spanning goal of a theatrical culture in which black authors, himself included, could speak and sing in their own voices—and, not incidentally, reap the rewards of doing so.
Adapted from the so-called “Simple” stories, since 1942 a popular feature of his weekly column for the Chicago black newspaper The Defender, the show follows the exploits of fitfully employed machinist Jesse B. Semple (nicknamed “Simple”) and his fellow patrons at Paddy’s Bar. The plot follows Semple as he tries to secure a divorce from his first wife, estranged in Baltimore, and win the hand of his pure-hearted new love, Joyce, while also resisting the attentions of Zarita, the neighborhood vamp. In the song “(I’m Gonna Be) John Henry,” Simple invokes the black hero of postindustrial folklore to steel himself for the Herculean task of saving five dollars a week—normally spent on nightlife—toward his divorce. The battle for Simple’s wavering soul recalls, intentionally or not, the plot of the most significant “book” musical about black characters up to that time, 1940’s Cabin in the Sky by Lynn Root, Vernon Duke, and John Latouche. Hughes disdained that white-authored work, with its ersatz rural Southern setting and folk-religious supernatural elements; Simple’s heaven and hell, by contrast, are right there on Lenox Avenue, no devils or angels required.
In their original prose form, the Simple stories are comic dialogues that, often as not, serve as vehicles for sociopolitical comment. Simple’s cynicism and gift for exaggeration contrasts with the more measured—and grammatically normative—responses of the stories’ unnamed narrator, a bookish barroom acquaintance that is a slight caricature of the author. Both figures refract aspects of Hughes’s sensibility: the narrator may chide his friend: “You always bring race into everything,” or dryly comment, “Your thinking borders on the subversive,” when Simple wonders what would become of the Jim Crow South if blacks had an atom bomb, but the barroom intellectual always lets his streetwise friend say his piece. Within this format, Hughes could satisfy both casual and radical readers by voicing the less ecumenical side of his views on racism and civil rights without openly subscribing to it.
On the stage, Simply Heavenly mutes much of the stories’ social criticism; the Defender columns’ recurring satire on Joyce’s bourgeois aspirations, for example, is all but absent. What explicit political bite the play does retain is in the script rather than the songs, especially in two monologues closely based on Defender columns and tied only tenuously to the show’s romantic plot. In one speech, newspaper reports of UFO sightings, all by whites, lead Simple to claim that “. . . they don’t even let flying saucers fly over Harlem, just so black folks won’t see them!” This paranoia-tinged claim leavens the more serious charge that “unless we commit murder, robbery or rape, or are being chased by a mob. . . . Negroes can’t even get into the front page news no kind of way.”
A longer set piece, just before the show’s finale, finds Simple taking military integration to its logical conclusion, imagining himself as a general in “World War III,” in command of a none-too-willing white regiment. “Gentlemen of the Old South. . . . I’m willing to let bygones be bygones and forget how you failed to obey my orders in the old days, and right-faced when I told you left, ’cos you thought I was colored. . . . But I’ll forget that because you are me, and I am you, and we are one.” Unusually for musical theater recordings, which then and now cut dialogue to the bone, the 1957 cast album includes these speeches as “numbers” in their own right. As sour martial strains of “Dixie” and “Sewanee River” rise behind lead actor Melvyn Stewart’s delivery of this “Mississippi Monologue,” the complex ironies behind the tall-tale humor are unmistakable—and hardly the stuff of the “HAPPY colored show” Hughes described to Bontemps.
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If this material seems dry and polemical for a Broadway show, well, there were the musical numbers, which were often magnificent. They added escape, affirmation, lament, complaint, and a challenge to the reduction of rhythm to clock-time. The show’s best songs are distinctive, witty, and touching, combining Martin’s idiomatic sense of melody and phrasing with Hughes’s own predilection for “composed” urban blues over Southern “country” styles. “Did You Ever Hear the Blues?” opens with cleverly rhymed “pop” sections (“Did you ever hear the blues / on an old house-rent piano? / Did you ever hear the blues / like they play ‘em in Savannah?”), which give way to more traditional blues stanzas (“Good morning, blues, good morning!”) that exemplify what the earlier sections merely describe. In a way, the song is a formal inversion of W.C. Handy’s venerable “St. Louis Blues,” with its then-innovative hybrid of 12-bar verses and a contrasting 16-bar bridge.
Similarly, “Good Old Girl,” assigned to salty, middle-aged Paddy’s regular Miss Mamie, is Hughes’s tribute to the female vaudeville “shouters” of the ’20s and ’30s—and, in particular, to the character’s namesake Mamie Smith, whose 1920 disc of “Crazy Blues”/“It’s Right Here for You” is generally accepted to be the first blues recording by an African-American. (Broadway’s Miss Mamie, Claudia McNeil, was a cabaret veteran who later found fame in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, its title drawn from one of Hughes’s most enduring lines.)
“Broken Strings” is the score’s undiscovered gem. Its lyrics, in full:
I’ve got something to tell you, if it’s news to you
If you ain’t got five strings, let four strings do.
If you ain’t got four, play on three
That is what the blues has taught to me.
If you ain’t got three, then pick on two
That is what the blues can do to you.
If you got ain’t two, then pluck on one.
If you got one, then hum it with none.
That is what the blues has done, done, done
That is what the blues has done, done, done.
Set by Martin to a four-bar strophic melody even more compressed than most traditional blues forms, the song’s simple form and vocabulary belie its elegant construction and pitiless “blues logic.” The key image—really, the only image—is that of the singer’s own accompanying instrument, which, as the song begins, is already a string short (“five”) of a full complement. As the available means diminish, the singer responds by discovering new actions (“pick,” “pluck,” “hum”) that fulfill his imperative toward expression; the inexorability of the song’s movement is emphasized by the repetitive finality of “done, done, done.”
On the 1957 recording, the song is sung by Brownie McGhee, who joined the show when it was moved to the 48th Street Playhouse from an uptown theater after a string of safety violations. (An amused Hughes told the Herald Tribune, “In Simple’s case, the Fire Department kicked him right square into Broadway.”) McGhee’s background would satisfy any blues purist. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he took up music after a childhood bout with polio left him unfit for fieldwork; an uncle improvised McGhee’s first instrument from a marshmallow tin. Later a part of the New York circle of left-leaning folk and blues musicians that also included Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, McGhee wasn’t a Broadway neophyte: Along with harmonica player Sonny Terry, his longtime touring partner, he had been part of the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At once earthy and polished, McGhee’s performance of “Broken Strings” is audible evidence of Hughes’s connection to “the blues line”—and of that lineage’s ongoing commerce with other musical styles.
If more of Hughes and Martin’s score had merged these streams this affectingly, Simply Heavenly would likely be better known today. The original production failed to generate the profitable run for which Hughes hoped, and none of its component songs took on a life outside the show. (The current reissue includes Claudia McNeil’s “pop” vocal version of “Did You Ever Hear the Blues?,” an unsuccessful bid for radio and jukebox play.) Tellingly, Hughes never worked in quite this vein again. Though Jesse B. Simple found a home in his prose into the 1960s, Hughes’s late poetic works (Ask Your Mama, The Panther and the Lash), partaking of the license of the time, treated political and social concerns with an outspokenness their author had not found possible since the ’30s. Two late theatrical works, 1961’s Black Nativity and 1964’s Jericho-Jim Crow, took their musical cues from spirituals and gospel rather than the secular blues, with elements of folk-pageantry replacing “well-crafted” plot construction.
Those productions anticipated such later shows as The Gospel at Colonus and Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. But the legacy of Simply Heavenly is more difficult to discern. Black-themed musicals, such as Ossie Davis’s Purlie! and the white-authored Hallelujah, Baby!, did appear in the ’60s and ’70s, but few if any attempted Hughes’s wholesale fusion of Broadway conventions with blues and jazz traditions. When those traditions have been celebrated, it has most often been in revue-type shows such as Eubie! and Ain’t Misbehavin’, which mined the song catalogs of important African-American songwriters of times past; with its emphasis on up-tempo production numbers in what is by now a period style, even the London revival of Simply Heavenly has one foot in this subgenre.
Few recent writers have taken up Hughes’s mantle, perhaps because his attempted compromise with the arguably assimilationist form of the Broadway musical has come to seem a less attractive prospect. A recent production like Passing Strange, by the iconoclastic black rock musician Stew, derives much of its energy from a disdain for show-tune norms too open to be called subversive. On the other hand, the tensions and ambitions that animated Simply Heavenly are clearly recognizable in another current Broadway production—Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony-winning In the Heights, which employs salsa and up-to-date Latin pop to explore and celebrate the authors’ Dominican-American community. Life is as hard in Washington Heights, Hughes might well have agreed, as it ever was in Harlem.
Franklin Bruno is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, most recently Policy Instrument (Lame House), and a critical monograph on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (in Continuum's 33 1/3 series). His essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Believer and Village Voice, and online in Slate and Salon....