National Poetry Month: Langston Hughes’s ASK YOUR MAMA and Soundtrack

Suggested audience: High schoolers, their families, and educators
Subject areas: Fine Arts, Language Arts (book incorporates Spanish and French idioms), Social Studies (many figures from and music and locations of the Black Diaspora, US history)
Creative Teaching strategy discussed: Soundtrack

Background about ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 Moods for Jazz

Langston Hughes’s ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 Moods for Jazz is a funny, demanding, fantastical, political, genre-bending, hip, book-length poem with musical directions in the margins, that gets its structure from the Black comedy form of the dozens (known colloquially as “yo’ mama” jokes) and the 12-bar blues.

The original book was printed on beige paper with blue and brown ink, in homage to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige. At the front of the book, Hughes printed lines from sheet music of the “Hesitation Blues” and “Shave and a Haircut,” two musical phrases that appear respectively as leitmotif and figurine throughout the book. “Shave and a Haircut” was meant to be heard or played every time Hughes writes “ASK YOUR MAMA” and may have been incorporated after Hughes heard Lambert, Hendricks & Ross perform “Cloudburst.” The book also has cheeky Liner Notes “for the poetically unhep” in the back. (In earlier drafts, Hughes called this “Liner Notes for Squares.”) To check out the entire, amazing book and better understand its atypical formatting, someone has uploaded a PDF of the book here.

The above excerpt comes from the first “mood” of the book, “Cultural Exchange.” Hear this excerpt performed in an adaptation (Karpman, referenced below) here.

Hughes started writing this epic poem the day after the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival was shutdown due to young, white people rioting (Rhode Island’s governor had to call in the National Guard). The Festival also coincided with a counter protest/festival blocks away in Newport by musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach, who disagreed with the populist direction Festival organizers were taking it, in addition to the poor compensation (and respect) for Black jazz artists.

Notably, Hughes was on NJF board, and emceed many programs and events at the Festival each year, offering his experience as an elder who’d worked with many musicians and providing historical or educational context. You can watch Hughes introduce Muddy Waters on the final day of the Festival in this video:

Waters recorded “Goodbye Newport Blues” with Hughes-penned lyrics.

ASK YOUR MAMA is richly embedded with inside jokes and cultural references that Hughes and others would know back when it was published in 1961. Among the names referenced are comedian Pigmeat Markham, baseball player Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., politicians and independence leaders Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Ahmed Sékou Touré, saxophonist Charlie Parker, bassist Charles Mingus, entertainers Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., writer Richard Wright, Savoy Ballroom dancers Al Minns and Leon James, and abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman. University of Southern California professor Dr. Ron McCurdy, who created The Langston Hughes Project (a touring performance adaptation of ASK YOUR MAMA), offers a study guide for the text and performance because so many of these references are lost to time or obscurity. Many Festival figures make appearances.

For his promotional tour of ASK YOUR MAMA, Hughes performed excerpts across the country with the accompaniment of jazz musicians. He later developed it into a play with music for two actors and two dancers, but it was never staged during his lifetime. Over ten years ago, opera singer Jessye Norman and composer Laura Karpman (along with Questlove of The Roots) created a grand adaptation of ASK YOUR MAMA at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. You can hear excerpts of it here and watch the promo video here. But this adaptation wasn’t the first ever performance of ASK YOUR MAMA as some news outlets reported—Hughes did that back in the ’60s!

Though today Hughes is mostly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, his work stretched across decades and genres, changed and was influenced by global politics, writers, and artists. You can infer his thoughts about the 1950s Red Scare and McCarthyism in this letter to playwright Elmer Rice about the blacklisting of writers. Hughes acted both as a historian and a mentor. He was an editor, radio host, essayist, cultural critic, humorist, playwright, and speaker. Though he was ambiguous about his personal life with regard to sexuality, the gatekeepers of his archive, scholars, and artists have increasingly read Hughes’s work with a queer lens. A short story with a gay protagonist, “Seven People Dancing,” written in 1961 (and possibly influenced by the work of James Baldwin), was in the Hughes archive at Yale but not published until 2016. Hughes’s life and work, like ASK YOUR MAMA, exceeds the boundaries of the page and the archive. Perhaps a multi-genre work like this, which asks us to read and experience the book using the jazz concept of polyphony (“many different melodies played together by different instruments”), is the best way to understand the great Langston Hughes.

Learning about ASK YOUR MAMA through Soundtrack

You can apply several Creative Teaching strategies to better study and learn from ASK YOUR MAMA. We recommend starting with Soundtrack.

  1. Find a song written or sung by one of the musicians mentioned in ASK YOUR MAMA, or look for a specific song or genre called out in the margins like “Hesitation Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” cha-cha or mambo. Note: Hughes published this book in 1961; it includes some language that is outdated today.
  2. Listen to the song.
  3. Read the corresponding part of the poem silently while listening to the song again. What new connections are you noticing? How does the music affect how you’re reading the text? Do you notice a new mood, feeling, or context? Are you reading at a different pace? How does this piece of music represent what’s happening in the text of this stanza, page, or mood?
  4. Now read the poem outloud while listening to the song. You might need to do this a couple of times. Use the song as inspiration or influence for how you read the poem. Are you getting louder? Softer? Faster? Slower? Are you taking pauses?
  5. Reflect. What sounds or instruments stood out to you? Why? How did the music change the text for you or vice versa? What different ideas about Hughes’s meaning of this poem did this piece of music invoke? What did you think about when you first heard this piece of music? What did you picture? How does this book, with its unique structure and elements, influence your reading experience? How does it engage you?

Suggested ideas (just the tip of the iceberg!) for additional reading, watching, and listening:

  • Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, Simple Stories of Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks, The Life of Langston Hughes (vols. 1-2)
  • John Gennari, “Hipsters, Bluebloods, Rebels, and Hooligans: The Cultural Politics of the Newport Jazz Festival, 1954-1960,” in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), pp. 126-149.
  • Meta Duewa Jones, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011).
  • Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).
  • Eds. Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker, Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  • Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).
  • Elijah Wald, The Dozens: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012).
  • Film: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959, dir. Bert Stern)
  • Music: Newport Rebels (Mingus, Roach, Eric Dolphy, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, 1960), “Cloudburst” (Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross), At Newport 1960 (Muddy Waters).

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