This week’s concert featuring the music of Margaret Bonds includes her settings of Langston Hughes’ and W. E. B. Du Bois’s texts along with readings of Hughes’ poetry. Conspirare bass Tim O’Brien, reflected on his visit to the Langston Hughes archives at the  Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, bringing yet another layer of understanding and sensory experience to Hughes’ enduring words.


Here is Tim O’Brien’s reflection:

I know – I think – how Langston Hughes smelled.

As I sat with boxes of his personal papers a few years ago, I became gradually aware of a very particular combination of smoke and eau de cologne exhaled by the papers – typescripts of poems I knew, scraps of paper with sketches for poems, manuscripts of music composers had sent Langston setting his words, and letters to friends and acquaintances.

It’s quite a thing to look through a deceased stranger’s effects, and I remember thinking how uncanny and strange it was to smell a person so vividly nearly 50 years after he was gone. Still, it was somehow fitting that his scent should accompany his papers after he was gone, lingering there to insure that no one should rummage through his personal papers entirely unobserved.

When I check papers out of an archive I always experience a grand moment of inadequacy. I wonder what worthy business I could possibly have with these relics of someone famous enough to have their personal crap actually saved by a library when they pass instead of tossed into the garbage or distributed to their kids by force like happens to normal people.

Archivists are incredible people, and it’s humbling at first to realize that quite often they know much more about your item of inquiry than you (the ostensible scholar!) do. Among their jobs is the task of surrendering to you, the researcher, a box containing whatever it is you’ve asked for. Typically you’re vetted to some degree or other, so you can’t just walk in off the street and eat the precious documents, but I’m truly struck by how often it is enough reason that I approach the archive in a spirit of genuine inquiry. Many moments of genuine beauty and connection with the past have been permitted for no more worthy reason than that my credentials suggested I probably wouldn’t ruin anything and that I was genuinely curious.

Movies and books would have you believe that you have to put on gloves and go into a theatrically rich reading room, and that all Documents come in fancy cases or opulent bindings (And admittedly this was sort of the case in the gorgeous Pierpont Morgan Library where my sincerity and curiosity permitted me an afternoon viewing only two pages (one opening) of the manuscript of Schubert’s Winterreise, delicately wrinkled, as it was, like a pack of tissues kept in a coat pocket). But really, it’s typically much more mundane, and usually, the archivist brings your request in a cardboard box closed with button ties. Contained within is a sampling of someone else’s life, or at least a pile of cruft that was on their desk or in a file when they passed or donated their papers.

Looking through a revered author or composer’s papers is movingly ordinary. There are snippets of poems written on pieces of scrap paper, notebook paper, business cards, envelopes, and all manner of things. Correspondence ranges from the incredibly salient (letters to Langston from Nina Simone!) to the utterly mundane (unsigned birthday cards with no writing on them), and you never know whether turning over the next sheet will reveal something extraordinary or something irrelevant, at least to you.

In truth it is not a lot different than the common (to us) task of sorting through my mother-in-law’s papers, effects, and things, and I remember being struck, particularly with Langston’s materials by how these collections of effervescing midcentury paper so thoroughly pointed up that an actual human person had composed all of these iconic, grand-themed, memorizable poems. Langston had kept a file for each poem, containing a typewritten copy of the finished version along with any notes, sketches, or previous versions. Some files contained only the austere, typewritten final draft, but most contained beautifully messy evidence of the struggle to refine thoughts into poems. Leaves from a distinctive pink notepad carried the initial inspiratory sketches for “Island,” a favorite of mine. Laborious, multiple typescripts filmed a thick file for “Heart of Harlem,” a project Langston undertook with Duke Ellington, but which never got entirely off the ground. Particularly thorny and weighty poems like “Christ in Alabama” contained many sketches with whole verses (angrily?) scratched out or re-worked, or multiple versions on several different kinds of paper. We tend to think of poems or songs as things that really “are” like sculptures, but the paper tells a different story. Really they are kind of snapshots of a process that can be taken at a variety of moments.

My time with Langston’s papers has been recalled here and there to mind this week. Conspirare and Anton Nel are preparing a program featuring the music of Margaret Bonds, who was a dear friend of Langston Hughes and who set several of his poems to music.  Michael Cooper who has recently done beautiful musicological work on Margaret Bonds was in the room tonight, and he mentioned having seen the envelope on which Hughes and Bonds had sketched words and music that would become one of the pieces we were singing, and it recalled to my mind Langston’s elegant but unassuming, looping handwriting and the assortment of paper on which he wrote his incomparable poetry.

I almost can’t fathom the sublime distance between a thought as big as the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and the utterly ordinary paper and daily situation on and in which Langston wrote it. Similarly, Margaret Bonds said this poem saved her, and on analogously ordinary paper she wrote the notes necessary to make her extraordinary musical vision of that poem real.

Both of these bright lights are no longer living, and they have been gone a long time. But here we are with the memory of a scent and songs in the living air. I invite you to come and hear this wonderful music and poetry. St. Martin’s is hosting tonight at 7:30, and the concert will be live-streamed.