ed. John Michael Cooper
My Dream [from “Dream Variation”]
Songs to the Dark Virgin [from “Black Pierrot”]
Ardella [from “Black Pierrot”]
Dream Ships [from “Water-Front Streets”]
That Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926) was part of the library of Florence Price, herself a voracious reader of poetry as well as prose and a writer of considerable gifts, is not surprising. Like the eponymous poem that had been published in Opportunity in 1925, the volume stands as a quintessential artistic utterance of the Harlem Renaissance — a poetic articulation of the African American experience that was authentic, bold, and startlingly original, all the more remarkable because it was published during Hughes’s first year as a student at Lincoln University. The volume as a whole is organized into seven thematic sections: “The Weary Blues” (fifteen poems), “Dream Variations” (six poems), “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (seven poems), “Black Pierrot,” (seven poems), “Water- Front Streets” (eleven poems), “Shadows in the Sun” (eleven poems), and “Our Land” (eleven poems). Although the first three of these sections are the best-known today, the collection as a whole is a profound contemplation of life and death, labor and rest, poetry and music, love and loss and betrayal — and, most importantly, of dreams, those aspirations toward equality, justice, and full celebration of the inherent beauty of Blackness that were central to the African American experience of the time (and remain so today).
So it is not surprising that the short song cycle presented here is, at its core, a cycle about dreams in the sense of those longed-for imaginings that inspired Hughes’s iconic collection. Although the cyclical nature of the collection is obvious — the songs are all composed by the same poet and have the same lyric persona; deal with the same subject, dreams (of various sorts); possess similar poetic imagery; and share certain melodic and accompanimental gestures — the songs presented here have until now never been published together or in the order that Price used. Indeed, Price also copied them into a separate manuscript for legendary contralto Marian Anderson on April 26, 1935 — there presenting the songs in the same order as in the autograph used for the present edition. The opening song, which Hughes titled “Dream Variation,” is a contemplation of the beauty of Blackness in harmony and at peace with nature. The second and third songs (“Songs to the Dark Virgin” and “Ardella”), both in C major, are songs of physical, romantic, and deliciously sensual love for a beloved whose beauty — in stark contrast to the racist, dehumanizing, White-centric attitudes toward beauty in much of Hughes’s and Price’s own worlds — resides precisely in Blackness. And the final song (titled “Water-Front Streets” by Hughes and retitled “Dream Ships” by Price) emphasizes the importance of “carrying beauties” in one’s heart and one’s dreams, even if they are not at hand — a solicitation to perseverance and to willingness to pursue one’s dreams, however remote they may seem. Price’s music gives eloquent voice to this wide range of ideas, images, and emotions in this little cycle of poems, and we can easily interpret her decision to choose these four for a cycle and set them to music of extraordinary originality and beauty as one born of her identification with these themes.
— John Michael Cooper