FLORENCE PRICE AND LANGSTON HUGHES CAST A BALLOT FOR THE WORKING CLASS
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
A Doubly Rediscovered Song in a Brilliant New Performance by the #SongsofComfort Team
Just in time for the most economically and politically critical election since 1932, the Antwerp-based #SongsofComfort team has resurrected a ballot on behalf of the working class cast by Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and Florence B. Price (1887-1953) in October 1941. Below I’ll comment on this newly published piece of consummately timely musical political commentary, with two epilogs. First, though, you should listen to it in its world-premiere recording by Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Justin Hopkins and South African-born collaborative pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers:
Poem and Music
Hughes and Price may have met sometime in 1940, but they were almost certainly in contact by the time she composed the Monologue for the Working Class in October 1941 – for Hughes never published this poem with the text that Price set.
Why not? Probably because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December, 7, 1941, and the U.S.’s entry into World War II in the wake of that attack. When Hughes wrote his poem, it was intended to inspire the working classes of the United States and bolster support for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was under constant attack from Congressional Republicans. After Pearl Harbor, though, Hughes recast it as a patriotic song for “free men” (i.e., those on the side of the Allies in the War). The left-hand column shows the text that inspired Price’s music, and the right-hand column shows what Hughes would eventually publish (substantive changes in boldface):
In the 1942 version of the poem the references to “the working class” are gone; such appeals to the U.S.’s economically polarized capitalist system would have been considered divisive and unpatriotic in the new national emergency occasioned by the country’s entry into World War II. “Tobacco Road” – probably a reference to Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel about Georgia sharecroppers or John Ford’s 1941 film based on it – becomes the more patriotic-sounding “Lincoln Road”; and the reference to “a new Hope a-growin’ for them folks by name o’ Joad” is an obvious reference to the family of dispossessed sharecroppers – the Joads – in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Most tellingly, the 1942 version of Hughes’s poem completely omits the original poem’s pointed call for laborers to unite and accomplish what “the boss man” says he can’t do (“All day long I’ve labored All my whole life through; Ask the boss man for a favor, He says he ‘no can do.’ But when I unite with my neighbor, we’ll make this old world new, ‘Cause we know what the working class can do”). (Incidentally, Justin’s heartfelt rendering of this soliloquy – especially “all my whole life through,” beginning at 1'09"– is one of my favorite parts of this entire song.)
But the wartime version is not the one that inspired Florence Price.
No, what inspired her music was the 1941 version, with its appeals to the “poor and unemployed.” What inspired Price’s music was the apathy of the rich (“the boss man”) toward the needs of the poor and unemployed. What inspired her, too, was Hughes’s declaration in the final stanza that it is because of “love [of] country” that he believes “there ain’t no sense in this here country Bein’ a place where folks is blue” (ll. 38-39) and calls for a unified working class to use their “love of country” to “show ‘em what the working class can do” (l. 29).
Price’s setting of the 1941 poem is filled with the interpretive genius that characterizes her songs. Most generally (and technically), its use of the lowered seventh scale degree and constant, fluid shifts between C major and A minor are consistent with Black vernacular styles, placing it in the world of Black vernacular music rather than that of the art song. The fanfare-like figure in the piano in the last line (“And it won’t be when the working class gets through”) foretells a victory for the working class in its struggle to unite to right society’s wrongs. But most telling is that Price highlights the poem’s criticism of socioeconomic elites’ disdain for the needs of the “poor and unemployed” – a theme that surely resonates with the crisis of U.S. capitalism in the year 2020 – by abandoning the regular phrasing of her music and setting this passage as a kind of soliloquy (ll. 17-23, 1’09” in the performance).
The wartime (1942) version of Hughes’s poem was set to music by Elie Siegmeister (1909-91), published in that same year (New York: Musette), and republished in the oft-reprinted Treasury of American Song. The wartime version of the poem is published in Hughes’s writings, and Siegmeister’s setting of that version, though out of print, is available in libraries around the U.S.
Price’s music, unaccountably, has unpublished until now. The score was among the much-publicized cache of Price manuscripts found in an abandoned house outside Chicago in 2009, and was deposited and cataloged by the University of Arkansas Libraries when they acquired those papers soon thereafter. But the work is nowhere mentioned in any of the subsequent Price literature – a situation that is sadly typical of the de facto erasure of Price and her music from latter-day views of the musical landscape of the mid-twentieth century.
Earlier in 2020, I prepared a new edition of the Monologue for the Working Class on the basis of the autograph held in the Florence Beatrice Price Smith Collection of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and that edition has just been published by G. Schirmer, which in November 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to Price’s complete catalog. But my edition itself has a pre-history – for in Fall 2018 Myles Kellerman (now a graduate student in the School of Music at DePaul University) prepared an edition as the final project for a course he was taking with me at Southwestern University titled Music and Poetry in the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. To prepare that edition, Myles did what no Price scholar had done before him: he went to the University of Arkansas Libraries’ website, spent less than $5.00 to acquire a scan of the autograph, and input the music using a widely available music-notation application. The fact that an undergraduate at a Liberal Arts university in Texas was able to un-erase, privately, this important song says much about Myles’s own talent and initiative and the massive amount of work left for modern musicians to do as we come to terms with the enormous body of music that Florence Price bequeathed to us and our world.
Here presented publicly for the first time, Florence B. Price’s Monologue for the Working Class is not just a significant musical composition by the composer who is currently experiencing the most sustained and energetic renaissance of any composer of concert music since the mid-twentieth century’s rediscovery of Gustav Mahler. It is also an unusually frank declaration of Price’s political sympathies – another facet of her creative personality that has yet to be explored by scholars. And, perhaps most importantly, it engages directly and compellingly with the economic and social issues of its own day in ways that, surely, are almost prophetic. The Monologue for the Working Class both foretells the recent regression of U.S. social and political life to a point of crisis unlike any seen since she wrote this piece in October, 1941, and musically beckons to us to cast our own ballots on behalf of the “poor and unemployed” working class who is the hero of her song.
What would Hughes’s and Price’s ballots look like in 2020? Think about it, then cast your own.
[Updated November 4, 2020]
 See Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 205-206 .