Leyla McCalla: Vari-Colored Songs – A Tribute to Langston Hughes

Virtuous Circle

Listening Post 298. Leyla McCalla stands enigmatically on the cover of Vari-Colored Songs, her dress pattern suggesting the solution to a puzzle: Connect the dots. On the album she sings eight Langston Hughes poems that she set to music, five traditional Haitian songs (in Creole), and two original compositions—all to lean, elegant arrangements. The common thread is McCalla herself. Born in New York to Haitian immigrant parents, she became a classical cellist and was inspired to sing by the works of Hughes, the novelist, dramatist, Harlem Renaissance pillar and creator of jazz poetry. The connections redouble: Hughes spent three months in Haiti in 1932 and was fascinated by its culture and history—notably slave rebellions that led to creation of the world’s first Black republic, sent waves of migrants to New Orleans and played a pivotal role in America’s Louisiana Purchase. In 2010 McCalla herself moved to New Orleans, where a vibrant Creole culture echoes her heritage. The album’s grand scope evokes innocence and wisdom, blessed and cursed love, sadness unrelenting or tempered with humor, humanity obscured by poverty, Black experience and the legacy of racism. When I Can See the Valley captures the push-pull of eternity: “We all want to go to heaven,” she sings, “But no one wants to die” (video 1); while Too Blue is an anthem of despair and wit (video 2). In Manman Mwen (video 3), a mother tells her daughter to catch crawfish from the river—a metaphor for finding a husband; and Mèsi Bondye (video 4) offers thanks for divine intervention saving Haiti from disaster. The stunning Song for a Dark Girl (video 5) focuses on a lynching and links the past with today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Stitching dots of light into a virtuous circle of memory, music and verse, McCalla makes her rarefied art, beguiling as it is profound, a luxurious necessity. (Smithsonian Folkways)

Leyla McCalla: Vari-Colored Songs – A Tribute to Langston Hughes
Leyla McCalla: Vocals, cello, guitar, tenor banjo
Joseph DeJarnette: Bass
Rhiannon Giddens: Vocals, shaker
Cassidy Holden: Bass
Hubby Jenkins: Guitar
Tom Pryor: Pedal steel guitar
Matt Rhody: Fiddle
Don Vapple: Tenor Banjo
Luke Winslow-King: Guitar

Note. Vari-Colored Songs is Leyla McCalla’s first solo album—and her fourth. Originally released in 2013, it was re-issued by Smithsonian Folkways in October 2020 to bring its message—so relevant to the struggle for racial justice—to a wider audience. McCalla is a former member of the African-American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Related post. Songs of Our Native Daughters, Listening Post 213, August 8, 2019.
https://worldlisteningpost.com/2019/08/08/songs-of-our-native-daughters/

 

When I Can See the Valley
Lyrics & Music: Leyla McCalla

Well I’m praying/Because I’m scared
That my time/Is coming soon
And I pray/Because I fear
That I’ve got too much to lose

When your savior/Came a knocking
Were you ready/To be free

And would you ask her/Up in Heaven
To save a place for me

I’m not asking for salvation/But I am afraid to fly
We all want/To go to heaven
But no one wants to die

And I’m choosing to be faithful/To have something to hold onto
But when I can see the valley/I’ll begin my search for you

 

Too Blue
Lyrics: Langston Hughes/Music: Leyla McCalla

I’ve got the sad and old weary blues
I don’t know where to go
I don’t know where to turn
Nobody cares about you when you sink
so low

What shall I do
What shall I say
Shall I take a gun and just put myself away?

I wonder if one bullet would do
As 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.

 

Manman Mwen / My Mother
Traditional

(From the Haitian Creole lyrics, translation by Jocelyn McCalla)
Mother sent me to the river
To get crawfish… ohhhh
I said, “Dear mother,
I’m just a little girl
I can’t catch crawfish”

And so I told him he was handsome
A real handsome boy
I said, “Dear sir,
Give me a pair of crawfish
God will return [your kindness]”

They said “Mmmmmmmmmmm,”
I keep guessing
They said “Mmmmmmmmm,”
I keep guessing

Who got me into this?
My mother, my mother
It shouldn’t have happened this way
My mother, my mother

You’re the one who got me into this
My mother, my mother
Why did it get to this?
My mother, my mother

 

Mèsí Bondye / Thank You, Lord
Traditional

(From the Haitian Creole lyrics, translation by Jocelyn McCalla)
Thank you, Lord
See how our misery has ended

Thank you, Lord
See all that nature has brought us

The rain is falling, the corn is growing
All the hungry children will eat

Let’s dance Congo
Let’s dance Petro

Our Father in heaven says the misery is over
Our Father in heaven says the misery is over for us.

 

Song for a Dark Girl
Lyrics: Langston Hughes/Music: Leyla McCalla

Way down south in Dixie,
Break the heart of me
They hung my black young lover
To a crossroads tree

Way down south in Dixie
Bruised body high in the 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

 


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