• John Michael Cooper


Langston Hughes’s relationship with the Christian church was . . . complicated. Except that it wasn’t. While he acknowledged that the Black church was an organizational pillar of the African American community and embraced the resultant sense of community solidarity, he was well aware that Christianity was the professed religion of the cross-burning Ku Klux Klan, and of racists and segregationists generally. Looking at the virulent racism of the world around him and the White church’s complicity in the oppression of Black folk, he was convinced that the salvation Christianity offered the world was for the White world only, not the Black one. His contempt for the church softened somewhat in his later years, but throughout his life he refused to join a church, and entered them only for special programs that featured gospel music and other such occasions. As Faith Berry pointed out, in “A Christian Country” he derided God as a weakling drunk, and in “Christ in Alabama” he spat on Christ as “a most holy bastard.”[1]His contempt for Christianity – or rather, for racism and racketeering in the church – was most famously and notoriously voiced in the 1932 poem Goodbye Christ, which – in a gesture of jubilant defiance – he submitted to The Saturday Evening Post (and which immediately rejected it!):

The mocking of the Son of God and savior of Christian humanity, and of Christ’s advocates and their believers, stemmed from a childhood religious experience. Hughes’s aunt had told him of the wondrous joy that would sweep over him when Jesus Christ came to him as he asked Christ to be his Lord and Savior. He went to a revival, and the revivalist called for the children to come forward as they were saved. One by one, they all went forward – all except Hughes and one other boy. As Arnold Rampersad, quoting Hughes, recounts the episode[2]:

These experiences, ideas, and doubts are the context for Hughes’s poem “Feet o’ Jesus” (1930):

That Hughes’s poem is a bitter denunciation of the Christian savior’s detachment or abandonment of the believer seems obvious, given Hughes’s contemporaneous contempt for Christianity and the Christian church. The poem depicts a troubled speaker standing or sitting at the feet of the savior, immersed in “sorrow like a sea” and beseeching Christ for mercy, begging Christ to “reach out [his] hand.” But the poem offers not the slightest hint that the savior heeds these prayers: in both stanzas the poet is at Jesus’s feet, and at the end he is still immersed in that sea of sorrow, imploring Christ to rescue him. Hughes’s Christ remains detached and unresponsive in his exalted position above the humble and sorrowing poet. As Hughes summed up his youthful experience in a draft for his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940): “I had waited for Him and He hadn’t come.”[3]

Not so Florence Price. She was a lifelong believer, a devout Christian, a prolific composer of music to be used in the worship of Christ. Indeed, her song “Feet o’ Jesus” veritably exudes salvation. An example (as Dr. Marquese Carter has pointed out) of the black nationalist school of composition applied to the genre of the art song, it is in the radiant key of E major, and its rich, warm harmonies and gorgeous vocal melodies demonstrate, musically, that the composer’s prayer has in fact been heard, that she basks not in the sea of sorrow that is the dominant image of Hughes’s poem, but rather in the warm waters of salvation in Christ. It is truly an extraordinary song, one of the most beautiful ever written. Here is a beautiful performance by Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, with Dr. Casey Robards at the piano:

I wrote this post partly as a byproduct of some comments I recorded for the ONEcomposer initiative (ONEcomposer.org), an initiative whose second season, though primarily centered on Margaret Bonds, will also include a ravishingly beautiful, indeed, stunning performance of Price’s “At the Feet o’ Jesus” by soprano Karen Slack and pianist Michelle Cann. I also wrote it because Hughes’s complex relationship with Christianity and the Christian church fascinates me. Mostly, though, this post came about because I think this poem and song demonstrate the creative and interpretive power that an ingenious composer such as Florence Price can wield – for this is not just another instance of the well-known phenomenon of Romantic and post-Romantic composers using their music to make poems say more than what the poet (explicitly) said. Nor it is just another instance of the song saying something different than what the poet (explicitly) said.

No, this is much more than that: Florence Price’s “Feet o’ Jesus,” the song of a believer basking in the reassurance of salvation, says the opposite of what Hughes’s poem set out to show. Viewed from the outside, that venture might seem doomed to failure – a theological tug-of-war between poet and composer that, like all wars, would have no real winner. But Price’s setting teaches differently: it demonstrates the beauty, emotional and spiritual depth, and sheer magic that characterize the genius of Florence B. Price.

[1] Faith Berry, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem (New York: Citadel Press, 1983), 9-10.

[2] Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 37-38.

[3] Rampersad, Life of Langston Hughes, 38.

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