A Gospel Song by Florence Price and Langston Hughes Gets a Belated First Recording
Popular exclamations about the trove of Florence Price manuscripts found in an abandoned house south of Chicago in 2009 are ubiquitous, and to date G. Schirmer, which in 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to Price’s complete catalog, has published 113 editions and arrangements of that music — an impressive body of work that, combined with the previously released editions spearheaded by pioneering Price scholar Dr. Barbara Garvey Jackson’s ClarNan Editions (now part of Classical Vocal Reprints), means that about one-third of Price’s approximately 438 compositions are available in print, ready to be used in performance, recording, and — most important for the future life of those long-unknown works — teaching. Unfortunately, most of those “new” works have yet to be taken up by performers or in recordings. Florence B. Price’s musical voice, as it speaks to us in those compositions, is still silent — silenced by after-echoes of the same systemic racism and sexism that marginalized her to begin with.
Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers Richards, and videographer and recording engineer Andrew Richards are working hard to right that wrong — and they’ve just released a compelling new video of an unaccountably obscure gospel song by Price based on Langston Hughes’s stirring poem “Judgement Day.” It’s part of their beautiful series of music videos released because and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and titled Songs of Comfort — and possibly the best of the many beauties in that series. (Learn more about the series here.)
Florence Price was (and is) justly celebrated for her arrangements of spirituals, which were championed by the great contralto Marian Anderson, among others. But Judgement Day is not a spiritual. It is, rather, a gospel song — perhaps Price’s only contribution to that genre. We know this because the poet, Langston Hughes, spoke of “Judgement Day” in a talk he gave at the San Francisco Museum of Art on December 5, 1958, specifically contrasting gospel songs (an “offshoot of the spiritual” that was “written by people who come right out of the folk” and was “perhaps the last refuge of . . . uncontaminated negro folk music”). You can hear his remarks beginning at 50’09” here, with a reading of the poem at 51’43.”
Here’s the text of this “new” song as Hughes published it:
Price’s interpretation of this song, which remained unpublished until 2019, is (to put it simply) a wonder, a marvel of musical insight and dramatization. There’s far more to say about that than I can fit into this little post (because you need to hear about the video!). Let me just say that Hughes’s poem was written in in dialect and that I love how Price emphasizes and even enhances the dialect; that the nearly constant effect of tolling bells in the piano part are a stroke of genius appropriate to this song of burial and passage in many ways; that the beauty of Price’s decision to omit line 10 (“Kind Jesus!”) and entrust its affect instead to the piano is sheer poetry; and that the gentle rockings back and forth between D and F in melody and accompaniment alike, in the foreground and background harmonic structure, are the work of a compositional imagination of extraordinary nuance and power. (Justin and Jeanne-Minette do the song in B minor rather than the original D minor, in order to take advantage of the fabulous low end of Justin’s range — so those rockings are between B and D in this performance: a note for readers with perfect pitch!)
And the video? Here, too, there’s far more to say than space allows in this little post. So I asked video and sound producer Andrew Richards if he’d like to comment on the #SongsofComfort team’s choices in producing this stunning video.
I didn’t have to ask twice. Andrew quickly sent a wonderfully rich set of comments on the issues the team faced as they undertook this world-premiere recording of an unaccountably obscure song, and how they addressed them. I’ve put those remarks into a separate document here, and you should read them. For this post, suffice it to note that the courage of the song’s lyric persona in the face of death, the sense of rebirth, “clean an’ bright,” after a life of hardships and pain, suffering and injustice, motivated the video’s perhaps-provocative presentation of Justin and Jeanne-Minette with nothing on: “being uncomfortable physically,” Andrew writes, was the team’s “only way ‘in’ to Judgement Day.”
That was another stroke of genius. Watch here:
This is the final video in Season 1 of the #SongsofComfort series — but I hope you’ll agree that it powerfully confirms the imperative that the modern world, more eager than ever to hear the voice of Florence Price that was marginalized by systemic racism and sexism to a vanishingly small presence in the annals of twentieth-century music, keep going: that we refuse to rest content with the handful of works that have long been available or even those that are currently available — for at this point nearly two-thirds of Florence Price’s musical utterances remain unpublished, unperformed, unheard, untaught. That the work you’ve just heard and seen, Judgement Day, waited until October 2019 to be published and then took another two and a half years beyond that to receive its first (documented) performance attests to how much work there is yet to be done. More than that, it attests to the rewards of tackling that task, of plunging into the two-thirds of Price’s musical works that remain unpublished and bringing them to light, as the #SongsofComfort team has so courageously and artfully done here.