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Poetry, music combine to honor Langston Hughes

January 13, 2013


Through an entertaining and collaborative effort, the departments of English and Music at Mississippi State University have come together to showcase the talent of not only the students and faculty at MSU, but one of the most important poets of the Harlem Renaissance with "The Poetry of Langston Hughes in Song" Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Harrison Auditorium in Giles Hall.

Directed by Karen Murphy, Giles Distinguished Professor Emerita of English Nancy Hargrove said this marks the sixth program uniting poetry and music.

"We've done programs on Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Cabaret and Thomas Hardy," she said. "It's amazing how many composers set the poems of famous poets to music."

Having not highlighted an African American poet yet, Hargrove said it was Murphy's idea to focus on Langston Hughes before events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.

"I am excited to participate again in this important type of program which will also provide the audience with a greater appreciation of the works of this great African American figure to be performed," she said. "He was one of the first poets to use the structure and rhythms of jazz and blues music in his poetry. He was doing a lot of innovative things at the time."

Hargrove said part of Hughes's popularity comes from the poets ability to translate meaning and substance with ease for readers.

"He's easily understood because of the simple form and simple words and you don't have to struggle to get the idea," she said. "His style is simple, but it's deceptively simple because there's a lot of innovation going on that we don't recognize today because we're so used to it."

Hargrove said the program will feature four sets poetry and music performed by MSU faculty and students including the State Singers, MSU's concert choir.

"It's a great opportunity for students to perform with professionals and for them to hear their teacher's sing," she said. "It's so much fun, and I think we should do more things like this because it's so meaningful to hear about the poet and hear those poems set to music."

The musical portion of the program will begin with two songs, “Hold Fast to Dreams” and “In Time of Silver Rain," performed by The State Singers and directed by Gary Packwood, an assistant professor and Director of Choral Activities. He will sing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” based on Hughes’s first published poem and one of his most famous.

The next set will feature ”Lonely People” performed by student Shannon Barton, “Dreams” performed by student Katie Morgan and “Dream Variations” performed by student Aressa Coley. It will close with “Minstrel Man,” sung by Guy Hargrove, retired Professor of Voice at MSU.
Hargrove said "Minstrel Man," sung by her husband, is a moving song about the singers and dancers during the Vaudeville era.

"Even the African American performers back then were forced to wear black face," she said. "It's a moving song about how although they look happy on the outside, on the inside they are so sad."

The third set will present a selection of spirituals, jazz, and blues. The spiritual “Feet o’ Jesus” sung by student, Corinne Reese, “Silhouette” sung by student, Christopher Gordon and “Could Be” sung by student, Cory Ramsey. It will end with “Just an Ordinary Guy” sung by Tara Warfield, assistant professor of voice, accompanied by instructor Sheri Falcone on the clarinet in addition to Murphy at the piano.
Hargrove said "Feet o' Jesus" is a personal favorite of hers.

"It's so beautiful and so personal," she said. "Because it was so short, Hughes once called it the 'breath of a spiritual,' and I just loved that description."

The program’s finale will consist of three songs from the opera "Street Scene", with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Hughes. The first song “Lonely House” will feature Adam Webb, an instructor of Voice. “What Good Would the Moon Be” will be performed by student, Michaela Moore and “Moon-Faced, Starry Eyed,” sung by students, Nathan Hendrix and Kelsey Loden.

Hargrove said the program provides an excellent educational experience for those in the Starkville community to become more familiar with both poetry and music.

"I think people can enjoy the music and will have the opportunity to learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance," she said. "The music is just beautiful and so striking."
Free to the public, "The Poetry of Langston Hughes in Song" begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Harrison Auditorium in Giles Hall.
For more information, call 662-325-3070.

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