Langston Hughes’ First Book of Rhythms, a children’s picture book published in 1954, begins with a series of instructions, directing the reader to draw lines with different “rhythms.” With examples provided by Robin King’s illustrations, Hughes guides the reader through several patterns—wavy, zig-zag, and the like—to begin an affable exploration of the rhythms that fill the universe. He writes:
Rhythm is something we share in common, you and I, with all the plants and animals and people in the world, and with the stars and the moon and the sun, and all the whole vast wonderful universe beyond this wonderful earth which is our home .
Incidentally, Hughes’ statement here echoes Ezra Pound’s theory of Great Bass—though with a more inclusive reach. For Hughes; everything (living or not) “has” rhythm; Pound on the other hand envisioned Great Bass (or Base) as an imperceptible, underlying rhythm that only the most exquisite poets and musicians could harness into their work by perfecting a “form cut into time.” Both poets slip, at times, into somewhat murky logic, though Hughes’ book is commendable for drawing the child reader into this awesome network resounding throughout the universe.
Of course, the readers’ active responses are virtually nonexistent in archival collections. They escape archives entirely; no other collections, besides perhaps boxes of mementos in a family basement, are likely to have much, if any at all, of these responses—for what scholarly value do they have to be found? Even if everyone has a unique rhythm, are they all worth preserving? The point of archives is to preserve the past—and a purely democratic archival system would likely clutter our collective memory.
In many other cases, reader’s responses manifest in ways that do carry archival value, though more often as written, thought-out responses—such as literary criticism, or in fact Wynton Marsalis’ introduction to a later edition of First Book of Rhythms in 2000. Marsalis, who admired Hughes’ belief that rhythm resided in more than just music, writes: “He liked to swing his thoughts on the printed page. Rhythm was his business too” .
Archival value, though, is certainly not the only type of value. A child’s response to these exercises would be ephemeral in nature—and more valuable as an action, a step in their continuing development, than as an actual permanent artifact. After his instructions, Hughes continues “It is fun to make something special with your own rhythm because it will always be different from what anyone else will make. Your circles and rhythms are yours alone.”
Apart from Marsalis (and possibly a few others), the significance of the reader’s responses to First Book of Rhythms resides wholly in the activity itself—and the activity is what’s encouraged, for good reason: for all their resounding ubiquity, the rhythms Hughes describes need not (at least in his view) be captured in very rigorous or permanent modes—their authority comes not from their permanence, so to speak, but from their replicability.
Here, of course, Hughes is tapping into the great egalitarian logic of folk culture. Folk stories, as opposed to archival literature, exist not in the “marble finality of an immaculate typescript” (to borrow Nabokov’s words), but in a more organic state of near-constant change. Scholar John Miles Foley describes how Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, in their oral beginnings consisted of interchangeable hexameter atoms—from noun-epithet names like “swift-footed Achilles” or “grey-eyed Athena” to multi-line passages repeated verbatim—that allowed the storyteller flexibility without sacrificing rhythmic form. Foley writes, “Words were, as Homer himself often characterizes them, ‘Wingèd’ rather than inscribed” .
In the folk blues culture that Hughes drew so much from—and in the poet’s own work— repetition is used for a similar formal variability. First Book of Rhythms is but one variation of the many educational treatises on rhythm that Hughes wrote for children; many passages in this book can be found word-for-word in other products (e.g. LPs) under different titles. Similarly, as David Evans writes in a survey of the genre, blues artists select from the instrumental and thematic blues vocabulary, to “constantly combine and recombine these elements.” Even within a single artists repertoire, blues songs can change from performance to performance, he notes .
Such a malleable culture depends on responses from audiences, to the point that the purported originator of stories or poems can even become obsolete. Foley, in his fieldwork research of contemporary Homer-like cultures, searched for Ćor Huso Husović, the most famous guslar (folk singer) in Montenegro and Serbia. By asking other guslari about Husović’s wherabouts, Foley found little luck, and many biographical contradictions; eventually he wondered if the famed singer had ever existed at all.
A similarly mythic aura pervades the American blues tradition; from blind bards to Robert Johnson, who, as legend has it, acquired his unrivaled guitar talent by selling his soul to the Devil. Both traditions resist archives, or at least decisive recordings. Our current versions of Homer’s epics, Foley writes, are mere snapshots of single instances within the poems’ long histories, and the full breadth of First Book of Rhythms’ effect on readers will go unmeasured. But most importantly, these folk cultures are supported by constant creative maintenance—which, especially in Hughes’ case, requires participation and encourages community.
- Langston Hughes, First Book of Rhythms, ill. Robin King (New York: Franklin Watts, 1954).
- qtd. in Marilyn Miller, “(Gypsy) Rhythm and (Cuban) Blues: the Neo-American Dream in Guillen and Hughes,” Comparative Literature 51, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 325.
- John Miles Foley, “‘Reading’ Homer through Oral Tradition,” College Literature 34, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 1-9.
- David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in Folk Blues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 313.