I’ve Known Rivers

Yesterday’s post shared a link to a radio program about the music of poet Langston Hughes, which we hope at least some of you enjoyed. One of the songs in that program produced by David Brent Johnson for WFIU radio was “I’ve Known Rivers,” which was the center of a 1973 live album by Gary Bartz. Its a great album and we hope you’ll hunt down a copy (our own is WARPED!) but there is also a later recording of the song based on this Bartz’s adaptation of the poem.

DSC07750Courtney Pine’s included “I’ve Known Rivers” on his classic album Modern Day Jazz Stories in 1995, which is a record we bought brand new at the best record store in Minnesota, Root Cellar Records. It has been in our collection for twenty years. The album features one of the first successful collaborations of live jazz and turntable artistry. This is particularly true of a lush track built around a sample from Stanley Clarke’s “Desert Song.” For his version of “I’ve Known Rivers” Pine enlisted singer Cassandra Wilson, but the song also includes scratching and sampling by DJ Pogo.

With this album, the thirty-one year old British saxophonist took his music into uncharted territory, and in the ten or so albums he has made since he’s continued to explore an approach interpolations as influenced by musique concrète as by traditional jazz forms. On other albums — especially a live recording with the Jazz Warriors commemorating the bicentennial of the English Parliament’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade — he returns to conventional jazz without electronics or overdubs, arranging in great form.

Seen one way, Hughes’ poem is similar to Modern Day Jazz Stories, as it is regarded as one of his first mature works. He was seventeen and seeing much of the country for the first time when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Its narrator speaks with the concise voice which would become common in Hughes’ work and the universal tone of Walt Whitman. It is also likely influenced by Hughes’ first visit to the mighty river which divides our nation.

The poem follows our expansion from the dawn of civilization on the shores of the Euphrates River to the first time another young man travelled on the Mississippi: Abraham Lincoln was nineteen when hired as a bow hand on a flatboat which took him down the river to New Orleans. Not only his first travels outside of Kentucky, the experience left and indelible mark on him because it presented his first encounter with cruelty of slavery. He had certainly seen slaves in his boyhood, but he later attributed his abhorrence for the institution to the sight of a dockside auction in New Orleans.

As rivers became the foundation for our civilization (the very fact that we are all settled here in Minneapolis is due to the convergence of rivers) they bound us to the social contract, for otherwise our lives would be, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, “nasty, brutish and short.” Hughes celebrates the “singing” of the Mississippi because it has led Lincoln to this realization, planting the seeds of emancipation in the man who is perhaps the most praised of all men in American poetry.



The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.