This Thursday, we’ll celebrate the first of Yolanda Wisher’s Rent Parties, a quarterly event that celebrates the literary past with readings by contemporary poets and music performance by Yolanda Wisher and her house band, The Afroeaters. The tradition of the rent party dates back to the Harlem Renaissance, when communal gatherings of artists and musicians fed the outpouring of blues, jazz, and poetry for which this period is known. The party-giver would charge a nominal cover fee to help pay the overpriced rent in Manhattan, and maybe a little extra for pouring liquor during the era of Prohibition; paying party-goers could enjoy cocktails, music, and the chance to meet some of the brightest stars of a cultural movement. By necessity, rent parties were somewhat secret–but decades after the repeal of Prohibition, when the private parties began to go out of style, the poet Langston Hughes shared some of his reminisces about these social gatherings. Earlier this year, Hyperallergic posted images of Hughes’ rent party invitations courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.
A letter written from Hughes to Carl Van Vechten on November 20, 1926* offers us a glimpse into what some of these parties may have been like: more than just revelry (although there is plenty of that!), the party offered a certain amount of freedom from oppressive social structures and an opportunity for cultural exchange. Many thanks to Yolanda Wisher for providing the letter and notes!
On the train to Columbus
Hunter Stagg’s party was delightful.** He said you wouldn’t really call it a party in Richmond but whatever it was, we had a good time,–and just as at “150”*** the cocktail shaker was never empty. There were eight of us there,–a girl and her brother, four young men, and Hunter and myself. Hunter made a new kind of cocktail of which no one knew the name, so it was christened then and there as the “Hard Daddy” after one of my Blues. The recipe is: to a glass of whiskey add one-half glass of lemon juice and a half glass of maple syrup + ice and shake. It comes out with a sardonic taste like the Blues, and before the evening was over everybody felt like whooping,–and some did! “Hard Daddy Cocktails” have a great effect. If you haven’t tried them, do so soon….Everybody was very friendly and we got along famously. I had to read all the poems I had with me,–some of them twice. About midnight Hunter went for more lemon juice and ice and a young man drove home for his Ethel and Clara records and brought back one of Paul Robeson’s, too. The girl present had never heard Paul but she went wild over him. Nobody wanted to leave but about one o’clock I had to go. I was driven back to Union University in someone’s car and the host and several others came along. Everyone still felt like shouting Yee-hoo! when we got there but we thought it wouldn’t be wise at that hour of the early morning on the campus of a Christian Baptist Institution.
Like Paul in the “Blind Bow-Boy,” Hunter is a beautiful and entertaining person who ought to draw a salary for just being alive. But I don’t believe he asked a single Southerner to his party,–not a soul refused to shake hands with me and we all had too good a time! And nobody choked in the traditional Southern manner when the anchovies and crackers went round because they were eating with a Negro. And after three “Hard Daddys” all the glasses got mixed up. Magnolias to you,
*From Remember Me To Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. Edited by Emily Bernard. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.
**A close friend of Van Vechten’s, Hunter Stagg was the literary editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He also served as editor of the Southern literary journal The Reviewer with Emily Clark from 1921 to 1924. Hughes had ventured South for the first time to give a reading at Virginia Union, another historically black institution.
***150 West Fifty-fifth Street, Van Vechten’s residence and the scene of many memorable evenings.
The Rosenbach’s connection to Langston Hughes comes to us from another meaningful and creative relationship: his longtime friendship with fellow poet and Missouri-to-New York transplant Marianne Moore. Among the papers in our Moore collection are letters, greeting cards, flyers, and other missives sent from Hughes to Moore; for example, the flyers below advertise Jericho-Jim Crow, a gospel musical written by Hughes that premiered in 1964, and a New Year gala the celebrate the production’s opening night. Though these events take a more conventional form than the underground rent parties of the 1920s, at heart they offer the same invitation: to connect, celebrate, and support the creative arts.
On Thursday, we’ll celebrate Langston Hughes with our first Rent Party at the Rosenbach. In Yolanda Wisher’s words:
Tonight’s theme is “Ask Your Mama,” after a little known work in Hughes’ opus, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. Folks are probably more familiar with Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America” or his Simple Story series, but Ask Your Mama, a serial poem with notes for instrumentation in the margins, has been performed by the likes of opera singer Jessye Norman, rapper Ice T, and Philly’s homegrown hip hop band, The Roots. The poem is a avant garde marvel of creative radicalism and revolt. Hughes demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge of musical forms and traditions as well as his cosmopolitanism. He was clearly well-traveled and well-informed about the social, economic, and political forces of his day.
Performers include Jim Dragoni (Guitar), Sirlance Gamble (Percussion), Dick Lourie (Poet, Saxophone/Trumpet), Trapeta B. Mayson (Poet, Vocalist), Mark Palacio (Double bass), Monnette Sudler (Guitar, Vocalist), and Yolanda Wisher (Curator, Poet, Vocalist). Tickets to this performance include a complimentary cocktail for those 21 and up: the “Hard Daddy” described in the letter above, in honor of Hughes’s groundbreaking poetry and the creative communities that are inspired by him.