Margaret Danner + music, soul, poetry

The track above was mixed live on vinyl by Anthony Stepter for GARLIC & GREENS. It was sent in the mail as a reward for supporters who donated to the project’s Kickstarter fundraising campaign $35 and above. Below is Anthony’s essay, which accompanied the package. In this post you will also find images from Anthony’s exploration of the Margaret Danner Papers. All images courtesy of The University of Chicago Library, Department of Special Collections. Thanks also to Issue Press in Grand Rapids, MI for the CD case printing.

Langston Hughes sat down to speak with his fellow poet, Margaret Danner. They came together to talk to each other, share their poems, and record their interaction for posterity. Black Forum, a short-lived subsidiary of Motown Records, collected audio recordings of important figures in Black cultural life in America and produced eight releases between 1970-73. The discussion between Danner and Hughes was one of those releases, but it is also part of a much larger tradition.

The recordings that make up this mix are meant to gesture toward a long tradition of spoken and sung narratives that have challenged and defined histories of Black folks in America. This tradition reaches back beyond the Middle Passage, carries on through what Hughes calls “the dark days of slavery,” becomes even more evident as a form of cultural expression during the Great Migration, and continues today.

This mix was made using bits of audio found exclusively on vinyl records. The examples in this mix represent particular instances of this tradition that someone, at some point, deemed important enough to render in a tangible physical form. Like the Black Forum albums, Fereshteh Toosi has collected stories about food and the Great Migration from a number of people. She is now in the process of developing physical objects that help bring these stories new life in a concrete form. This act of making something as ephemeral as a personal memory, or the story behind a poem, into a physical object is a way of simultaneously reminding us of the past and building something new.

When Fereshteh asked me to make this mix, I spent two days listening to records that I owned and taking notes. A friend recently played me an audio clip of Sam Cooke responding to an interviewer’s question “What is Soul?” Cooke responds with several seconds of wordless humming and singing. I wanted to make a mix that responded to the question with a similar mix of ambiguity and specific reference. Poems, plays, and conversations have been intermingled with songs that have a strong narrative quality. Gil Scott-Heron opens Cane with a reference to Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel about life in the American South. No song in this mix more aptly embodies the spirit I am after. Scott-Heron speaks to his audience. He tells us how Toomer’s characters inspired him to write the song. Here the lineage becomes clear. A tradition is exposed and preserved in song and on vinyl. No stage in the story is more important than the other. The spirituals sung in the rural south were essential for Toomer to write his book and Toomer’s book was essential for Scott-Heron to sing his song.

Langston Hughes is arguably the most widely-read Black poet in history and in the 1970s Motown was still one of the most successful corporations in the music industry, yet the album Hughes recorded with Margaret Danner remains obscure. Their words, however, are not lost. Just like spoken stories that became songs, so as not to be forgotten, I hope that by bringing together these voices, they will form a chorus, able to sing louder and longer than they could on their own.

Garlic and Greens Soul Mix Track Listing
Broken Strings – from Simply Heaven, a musical written by Langston Hughes
Flying Saucer – from Simply Heaven, a musical written by Langston Hughes
Sunday Prayer – Mahalia Jackson
Church on Sunday – Flip Wilson
Hold On – Howard Roberts Chorale
Langston Hughes – from Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner: Writers of the Revolution
Cloud 9 – Donnie
Cane – Gil Scott-Heron
A Toast To Harlem – from Simple written by Langston Hughes and read by Ossie Davis
Long Walk to DC – The Staples Singers
Margaret Danner – from Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner: Writers of the Revolution
Thin Line Between Love and Hate – The Persuaders
O-o-h Child – The Five Stairsteps
Why Can’t We Live Together – Timmy Thomas
Feet Live Their Own Life – from Simple written by Langston Hughes and read by Ossie Davis
I Know You Got Soul – Bobby Byrd
We Got More Soul – Dyke and the Blazers
We Got Latin Soul – Mongo Santamaria

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