Making Modernism

John Alden Carpenter’s Song Settings of Langston Hughes’ Poetry

In this 1926 letter, poet Langston Hughes writes to Chicago composer John Alden Carpenter about his impression of the premiere of Carpenter’s setting of four of Hughes’ poems. The two men had not yet met in person, but they had mutual connections. Carpenter had a reputation as Chicago’s preeminent modernist composer, and Hughes had recently published his first major poetry collection, The Weary Blues (1926).

Like many of his contemporaries, Carpenter sought to create a modernist aesthetic by combining elements of African-American vernacular music with European art music. Carpenter used text of four poems from the The Weary Blues, but altered the titles for the songs: “Jazz-Boys” (from “Harlem Night Club”), “Midnight Nan” (from “Midnight Nan at Leroy’s”), “The Crying Blues” (from “Blues Fantasy”), and “Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey” (from “Song for a Banjo Dance”). Mezzo-soprano Mina Hager—who built her professional career in Chicago—performed the songs at her vocal recital, “Words of Songs,” on October 25, 1926 at Aeolian Hall in New York City. A comparison of a manuscript draft of “Jazz-Boys” to the version published by G. Schirmer in 1927 shows something of Carpenter’s revision process. 

Carpenter’s biographer Howard Pollack hypothesizes that Vachel Lindsay may have introduced Carpenter to Hughes’ poetry, but Hughes’ letter shows that Carpenter and Hughes had at least one other mutual acquaintance, a “Mrs. Reagan.” Caroline Dudley Reagan was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago doctor and part of John and Rue Winterbotham Carpenter’s social milieu. Reagan left Chicago for New York, where she was associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was well known as the impresario behind La revue negré (1925) in Paris, a review of African-American dances and music that debuted Josephine Baker to French audiences. 

Hughes praises Carpenter’s compositions for his “curious capture of simple racial moods in a modern musical rendering.” Carpenter employs musical idioms evocative of jazz such as syncopated piano accompaniment, but much of his harmonic language is rooted in late Romanticism. Carpenter altered Hughes’ text for his settings. For example, in his setting of “Jazz-Boys,” Carpenter drops one iteration of “Play” from the third line of the poem “Harlem Night Club” and changes “Dance today!” to “So dance today” to add an upbeat. More significant changes were made when the work was published. For instance, Carpenter and Hager refer to “jazz songs” in their correspondence, but Schirmer published the works as Four Negro Songs. In the manuscript of “Jazz-Boys,” Carpenter retains Hughes’ text describing interracial mixing on the dance floor of a Harlem cabaret, but in the published version, the text has been altered to describe dancers of the same race.
Carpenter appears to have taken Hughes’ response to the premiere quite seriously. Hughes notes that the audience “didn’t seem to ‘get’ ‘Midnight Nan’ so well.” In the published version, Carpenter replaced “Midnight Nan” with “That Soothin’ Song,” an excerpt from Hughes’ poem “Misery” from Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). Although Hughes encouraged Carpenter to consider setting additional poems, it does not appear that Carpenter ever did.

- Kate Brucher, DePaul University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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