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WILL At 100: Langston Hughes poetry reading, recorded by WILL Radio

Poet Langston Hughes, photographed by Gordon Parks in 1943.

URBANA – WILL-AM Radio turns 100-years-old in April 2022. Throughout the year, we’re bringing you stories about the history of this station. Much of that history can be found in the recordings it made and archived over the years. One recording dates back to March, 1957, when Langston Hughes (1901-1967), one of the 20th century’s leading African-American writers, paid a visit to the University of Illinois.

“It’s very nice indeed to be back on your campus again,” Hughes told his audience at the auditorium in the university’s Gregory Hall. The auditorium was one of several around the University of Illinois campus that were wired for sound, allowing WILL Radio to record faculty lecturers and guest speakers.

“The last time that I read my poems here was at least ten or twelve, or somebody said last night fifteen years ago,” Hughes went on. “Anyway, it’s been quite a little while. And certainly I hope all the students that were there then have graduated by now.”

Jameatris Rimkus, a reference archivist at the University of Illinois, tracked down the WILL recording of Langston Hughes’ 1957 poetry reading at the campus, and researched its provenance. (Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media)

“You can hear the audience laughing,” says Jameatris Rimkus of the response heard on the recording. “It’s very clear from the way he’s speaking to them that it’s definitely an audience primarily made up of university students at the time.

Rimkus is a reference archivist for the University of Illinois Archives. She learned about WILL’s Langston Hughes recording a few years ago, while putting together a presentation for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university. She found the recording digitized on the website of the U of I archives. But it was originally recorded on 16-inch phonograph discs designed for radio use.

“My racial and ethnic background is African-American,” said Rimkus. “And I’m familiar with Langston Hughes, as far as the Harlem Renaissance. And I’ve read his poetry. I grew up with books of his poetry and reading it. But I actually never heard him speak before.”

In his 1957 visit to the U of I, Langston Hughes told his audience he would read some of the same poems that he read during his previous visit in 1945. Some of them were early poems. Some were from the 1920s, when Hughes first made a name for himself as one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Some fit the category of jazz poetry, taking on the forms and themes of jazz, spirituals and the blues.

“I will read you a blues for a man to sing,” Hughes told his audience, “And you can tell that this poem was written some years, because it mentions the WPA. It’s a depression-time blues. But it’s sort of typical of one phase of subject matter in the blues, of being out of work. And this one goes like this.

I walked de streets till
De shoes wore off my feet.
I done walked de streets till
De shoes wore off my feet.
I was lookin’ for a job
So’s that I could eat. 

I couldn’t find no job
So I went to de WPA.
Couldn’t find no job
So I went to de WPA.
WPA man told me:

You got to live here a year and a day. 

A year and a day, Lawd,
In this great big lonesome town!
Year and a day
in this great big lonesome town!
I might starve for a year but
That extra day would get me down.

 “Well, that is the mood of the blues,” said Hughes as he finished the poem. “Usually despondency, but something somewhere in the lyrics that will make people laugh.”

In writing poetry on African-American themes, Langston Hughes included poems about American racism. Their subject matter ranged from lynchings, to a gentler poem that Hughes included in his U of I reading. “Merry-Go-Round” looks at Jim Crow laws through the eyes of a child.

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car
On the bus we’re put in the back
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

In listening to WILL’s 1957 recording of Langston Hughes, Rimkus thought she detected an informality in Hughes’ presentation, which made her think

One of the 16-inch transcription discs used by WILL Radio to record Langston Hughes’ 1957 poetry reading at the University of Illinois. (U of I Archives)

the poetry reading was not the main reason for his visit. She says the main reason, which she discovered after some detective work, is this one-act opera based on the biblical Book of Esther. It had its inaugural performance at the University of Illinois, the night before Langston Hughes’ poetry reading. It’s one of several collaborations between Hughes and the German-American composer Jan Meyerowitz. Rimkus discovered a program for a campus arts festival tucked in with notes from an English professor who had introduced Hughes at the reading.

“And it mentions “Esther”, says Rimkus, “and very small, almost unnoticeable (it) says ‘libretto, Langston Hughes’. And so that was why he was there.”

Langston Hughes’ 1957 visit to the U of I campus came just a few months after the end of the boycott by Black riders of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and just a few months before President Eisenhower’s signing of a civil rights bill that had been watered down by southern Democrats in Congress. At his poetry reading, Langston Hughes said there had been progress on the civil rights front, but not enough.

“Some of the colonial people that are achieving their freedom in Africa and Asia have more freedom than some of our own American, in quotes, ‘citizens’ in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia,” said Hughes. “And so, I think we need to move a little faster in some areas of our race relations in this country. But, nevertheless, I think we can all look forward with a kind of optimism to tomorrow that I try to express in this final poem, a poem called ‘Tomorrow’.

We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame  

Yesterday a night-gone thing,
A sun-down name.

 And dawn today
Broad arch above the road we came.
We march 

Americans together
We march.

The poem that Langston Hughes read to close out his 1957 University of Illinois poetry reading has been published, in a slightly different form, as “Youth” (Hughes also used the “Tomorrow” title for a different poem). The audience’s applause to the poem closes out WILL’s recording of Hughes’ reading.

The University of Illinois Archives hold thousands of 16-inch discs used by WILL to record campus speakers and concerts, as well as the station’s in-studio productions. Other poets recorded by WILL during their appearances on campus include Carl Sandburg and T.S. Elliott.

Also in the WILL at 100 series: Looking back on a century of broadcasting.

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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