June 21, 1961: Langston Hughes Picketed at Boston Arts Fest
The Tenth Annual Boston Arts Festival ran from June 8 to 25 in the Public Garden, and it featured Douglas Moore’s opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and a revival of George M. Cohan’s The Tavern, among other performing arts events. The eighth annual Jazz Night was June 20, and it featured poet Langston Hughes with Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee talking and playing through “The Blues: Words and Music.” They were backed by the Festival Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Joe MacDonald. There was more jazz on the 21st, a mainstream swing quintet led by saxophonist Billy Marshall with his brother Walter on drums.
Combining words and music was not new to Langston Hughes. In fact, he wrote his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, with the intention of reciting it to music. Hughes finally recorded The Weary Blues in 1958 (MGM E3697), reciting the story of his aging bluesman to music composed by Charles Mingus and played by an all-star band of jazzmen. At the Arts Festival, though, he served as more of a narrator and interpreter, describing the origins of the blues and their place in culture.
Unfortunately, events outside of the Arts Festival detracted from the presence of the renowned poet. A group represented by a South Shore postal worker, with the nebulous name of “The American Institute,” claimed Hughes was “a Communist sympathizer and a danger to the children of Boston.” They planned to picket on Jazz Night.
The Boston Police assigned extra officers to the Arts Festival and the pickets (28 in all, by one reporter’s count) paraded and distributed literature, but were otherwise peaceful.
Hughes had been through the ringer in the McCarthy Red hearings in 1953, and had admitted to his leftist leanings then, to the satisifaction of the McCarthy committee. At a Boston news conference on the 21st, he again stated that the picketers’ charges were baseless. But it was frustrating that even after eight years, the old news was still being dredged up—and still getting more media attention than Hughes’s art.
And how was the concert? The newspapers didn’t say, because they were too busy with charges of communism and the picketers. They did note, however, that not only did Bostonians ignore the political sideshow, but they also turned out in record-breaking numbers (a crowd of 20,000) to listen to the blues, in words and music.