Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vari-Colored Songs -- Leyla McCalla

This is a review I recently published on KithFolk, a quarterly online roots music magazine put out my Hearth Music, which you can find here.

With Leyla McCalla’s Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, another artist examines the possibilities presented in setting famous poetry to music. McCalla is not the first to do this—favorites of mine in recent past have included Kyle Alden’s Songs from Yeats' Bee-loud Glade and Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love—Songs of William Blake. It might seem that such a plan makes life easy on the musician: “Look, free lyrics! Just make up a tune!”, but it is much harder than that, as other musicians have found to their dismay. You see, a successful song is more than good words and good melody. First of all, the two have to fit, as far as style, mood and structure, but more than that, there are some things that we love about good songs that not all poems naturally have; on the other hand, some poems feel like lyrics from the beginning, and this is one reason why McCalla’s choice works so well.

The poetry of Langston Hughes is imbued with music. Music was an important aspect of his the times and settings of his life, in America, Europe and the Caribbean, and of the movement he is famously linked to: the Harlem Renaissance. McCalla calls him “the Duke Ellington of words—painting the most incredible portraits with simple musical ideas that just come together in amazing ways.” Consider the use of jazz in such poems as “Dream Boogie” or “Lennox Avenue: Midnight”:

The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.

The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,—
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.

Or the undertone of the blues in “Song for a Dark Girl”:

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

If I had read those lyrics without knowing they were written by Hughes, I would have guessed Leadbelly or Son House. So McCalla makes the natural step of setting Hughes’s poems to jazz and blues, and the effect is perfect. They are as they were always meant to be.

McCalla shows Hughes’s versatility—and her own—through the variety of music she uses. The upbeat raggy setting of “Too Blue” works perfectly for the wry, morbid humor:

I wonder if
One bullet would do?
Hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.

But I ain’t got
Neither bullet nor gun—
And I’m too blue
To look for one.

The song is perfectly backed up with a tenor banjo and Hawaiian guitar that make the arrangement sound as if it came straight from a smoke-filled 1930s speakeasy.

McCalla feels a deep connection to Langston Hughes; in fact, she called him a focal point in her life, and credited him with inspiring her to pursue a creative path. But this album throws in quite a twist that you might not have seen coming: much of the album is incorporates Haitian folk music. In fact, Vari-Colored Songs is essentially Langston Hughes set to music plus Haitian music, with some overlap between the two. But that twist makes perfect sense not just in McCalla’s life, but for Hughes himself. McCalla’s parents are Haitian, and so the music is of more than academic interest to her, and Hughes himself also felt a deep connection to Haiti. He began one of his books in Haiti, and wrote a play and an opera about Haitian Revolution, and he translated a work by Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain. Hughes was very interested in pan-Africanism, the idea of a world-wide Black culture. You can imagine that he would nod approvingly at the idea of his poems sitting side-by-side with such songs as “Kamèn sa w fè” and “Latibonit”.

McCalla keeps the instrumentation intentionally spare, so we don’t get the sound of big bands. There are no drums or horn section on these tracks. Guitar, banjo and cello are of primary importance. She is very creative with the use of these instruments, though. The opening track, “Heart of Gold”, is built around a strummed cello, shifting back and forth from an A minor to a C ninth, but nevertheless the effect is clearly jazz, aided by McCalla’s excellent vocal ability. She uses this fascinating technique on other tracks as well.

I wouldn’t call Vari-Colored Songs “foot-tapping”; it’s not meant to be party music, as some jazz is. I absolutely would call it “engaging” and “ingenious”, and even “fun”, in the music-and-history nerd sense of the word. Fortunately the CD comes with extensive liner notes, and I recommend listening with the words close at hand at least once. Because the lyrics are poetry first, there is never a wasted word, and Langston Hughes’s wry and insightful wit comes through. The combination of prying questions, political consciousness, and biting wit is one thing that makes the poetry of Langston Hughes so great, as can be seen in such poems as “Cross”, “The Ballad of the Landlord”, and the poem “Vari-Colored Song” itself:

If I had a heart of gold
As have some folks I know
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the dough.

But I don't have a heart of gold
My heart's not even lead.
It's made of plain old Georgia clay.
That's why my heart is red.

I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia skies so blue.
I wonder why it's yes to me
And yes, sir, sir to you.

I wonder why the sky’s so blue
And why the clay’s so red;
Why down South is always down
And never up instead.

It’s a perfect combination.

You might also like to check out Kyle Alden's rendition of W. B. Yeats's poems:

And Martha Redbone's take on William Blake, which I reviewed earlier for No Depression.