October 1, 2022

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

URBANA – WILL-AM Radio turns 100 in April 2022. Throughout the year, we bring you stories about the history of this station. Much of this history is in the recordings he has made and archived over the years. A recording dates back to March 1957, when Langston Hughes (1901-1967), one of 20and great African-American writers of the century, visited the University of Illinois.

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

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

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

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

Rimkus is reference archivist for the University of Illinois Archives. She heard about Langston Hughes’ recording of WILL a few years ago when she was hosting a presentation for the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She found the digitized recording on the U of I Archives website. But it was originally recorded on 16-inch phonograph records designed for radio use.

“My racial and ethnic background is African American,” Rimkus said. “And I know Langston Hughes, as far as the harlem revival. And I read his poetry. I grew up with books of his poetry and reading them. But I’ve never heard of it before.

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

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

I walked the streets until
The shoes wore my feet out.
I walked the streets until
The shoes wore my feet out.
I was looking for a job
That’s what I could eat.

I did not find a job
So I went to WPA.
Unable to find a job
So I went to WPA.
The WPA man said to me:

You have to live here for a year and a day.

A year and a day, Lawd,
In this big big lonely city!
A year and a day
in this big big lonely city!
I could starve for a year but
This extra day would depress me.

“Well, that’s the vibe of the blues,” Hughes said as he finished the poem. “Mostly discouragement, 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 milder poem that Hughes included in his U of I reading.”Carousel” looks at Jim Crow laws through the eyes of a child.

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this ride,
Sir, because I want to ride?
In the south where I come from
white and colored
Impossible to sit side by side.
Heading south on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car
In the bus we are put at the back
But there’s no going back
To a merry-go-round!
where is the horse
For a black child?

Listening to WILL’s 1957 recording of Langston Hughes, Rimkus thought she had detected 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)

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 day before Langston Hughes’ poetry reading. It is one of many collaborations between Hughes and the German-American composer Jan Meyerowitz. Rimkus discovered a program for a campus art festival with notes from an English teacher who had introduced Hughes during the reading.

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

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

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

We have tomorrow
Shining before us
Like a flame

Yesterday a thing fell in the night,
A name at sunset.

And dawn today
Wide arch over the road we came from.
We are walking

Americans together
We are walking.

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

The University of Illinois archives contain thousands of 16-inch discs used by WILL to record campus lectures and concerts, as well as station studio productions. Other poets recorded by WILL during their on-campus appearances include Carl Sandburg and TS Elliott.

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