By Chet Williamson
On paper it was an improbable pairing. Milton Meltzer, a white Jewish kid from Worcester and Langston Hughes, a black American from Joplin, Missouri.
The force that bonded the two men was their love of writing. Together, they produced a classic. The book is called Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment.
Hughes needs no introduction. The legendary writer was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His poem, “A Dream Deferred” is recited by school children everywhere.
Meltzer was born here on May 8, 1915. He died in New York City on September 19, 2009. In his lifetime, he was a prolific writer who wrote more than 90 titles, including critically-acclaimed biographies such as those of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Betty Friedan, Mary McLoud Bethune, and Dorothea Lange, among others.
He was a five-time finalist for a National Book Award and has been honored with the Christopher, Olive Branch and Jefferson Cup. In 2001, Meltzer won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to children’s literature.
Of his Worcester experience, he has documented that as well in a memoir titled, Starting From Home: A Writer’s Beginnings. The book jacket reads: “Where does a life begin? For renowned author Milton Meltzer, this question starts a search through personal, family, and American history. His memoir opens in the small villages of Eastern Europe, continues in the sweat-shops of New York’s teeming Lower East Side, moves to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Meltzer was born in 1915, and ends at the gates of Columbia University as he enters college. He recounts the discoveries, hardships, and triumphs of childhood, at a time when the country was changing as rapidly as he was.”
Meltzer grew up on Vernon Hill at 2 Chapin Street, not far from Worcester Academy. He went to Union Hill School as a child and Classical High School as a teenager. Here’s the author describing a trip to Water Street: “It was the main shopping center for the Jewish community. Once an Irish neighborhood, it had turned largely Jewish by my time. Only a few blocks long, it was a jumble of brick buildings were tenements and stores below – small stores, hot in summer and cold in winter.
“I walked the mile or so to Water Street on an occasional Sunday morning, bearing my mother's shopping list. You could buy some of the things closer to home but, for equality, everyone considered the Water Street stores the best: Whitman’s creamery, Weintraub’s delicatessen, Arkus’ pharmacy.”
Meltzer recalls a little newsstand owned by a Mr. Apelbaum, “the only place in town to buy the Yiddish newspapers. The Forward, or Forvitz as they called it, was the socialist paper and the most popular and influential. Then there was the Tag, the Journal, the Tageblatt, and even the Freiheit, a Communist paper. My father asked for the Tag now and then.”
|Classical High School|
The writer also notes with pride and empathy that “Mr. Apelbaum trudged over to Union Station each morning to pick up the papers from the New York train, and carry them to his store by wagon or sled. He handled special orders too: getting any Jewish books you wanted from New York, or sheet music, or tickets to the Jewish shows that came to town.”
Meltzer attended Columbia – as did Hughes (1922) – from 1932 to 1936. He dropped out of school before graduation after his father died of cancer. His dream of becoming a writer became a reality upon securing assignments for the Works Project Administration during the Depression.
In addition to its writing, what makes Black Magic a classic is its content. The research reaches deep and is told in that indelible folksy, clear-eyed, direct style that made Hughes so endearing.
In his book, Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes, Jonathan Scott wrote: “Black Magic is a breathtaking account of the origins of virtually every African-American popular art form, from major components such as hand-clapping, feet-stomping, stick-dancing, and drum-beating rhythms all of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the spirituals and folk culture, to constitutive elements such as homemade banjos and drums and a list of the first African-American radio commentators and newscasters. The text is filled with a stunning array of esoterica – the stuff of any lasting book on popular culture – but has, unfortunately, been completely ignored in U.S. “cultural studies” projects.”
Singling out the chapter, “Just About Everything,” Scott says that Hughes and Meltzer provide a fascinating history of the first African-American exhibits in PT Barnum's traveling circus. Barnum's first set of Siamese twins -- the 14-year-old Carolina twins Millie and Christina – is discussed, along with Barnum’s first “Fat Ladies” – who were actually blues singers looking for steady work -- Big Mabel and Beulah Bryant. There is also a story about Barnum's first Giants, one of them was an African American Civil War veteran name Admiral Dot. Admiral Dot stood 7 feet 11 inches tall and weighed six hundred pounds, the text is accompanied by a rare daguerreotype of him.”
In the 1990 edition of the book, Ossie Davis wrote a new forward. This is what he wrote about Hughes: “Langston Hughes was not only a poet laureate, but also recording secretary to the tribe. Nothing about us, past or present was too small or trivial for him to notice, hand down, or pass on as poem, story, or history book – certainly not our arts, our singing and dancing, which might be merely entertainment to White America, but to us were matters of life and death. Langston considered it his job to keep the tribe together, and Black Magic is one of the books in which he hid the evidence of who we really are. Langston reminds us that our singing, our dancing, our music, our humor, our stories our “entertainment” – spirituals, jazz, blues, rap – was, and is all too often, the one place where we have a chance to set standards and make definitions … .”
Speaking of Meltzer and Hughes, Davis said: “Reading this book again was more than a joy, it was a re-education. But it was only after I had sat back and feasted, savoring everything that the authors provided – Milton Meltzer’s inspired compilation of sketches, photos, playbills, reviews, and snapshots, and Langston’s honey-colored voice telling this multi-colored story – that it dawned on me: Black Magic is not only about our art, it is itself a prime example of that art in action … Yes, it’s a wonderful work, a ‘good read,’ this Black Magic, still uplifting the human spirit. Milton’s carefully researched pictures, sassy as ever, still dance before the gladdened and thankful eye; the old theatrical handbills and posters, still magic, play their evocative tricks; the words being Langston’s, cannot help being poetry. I’ll just bet that someday somebody’s going to take this book and set it to music!”
In the chapter titled “Birth of Jazz,” the authors write: “When Buddy Bolden’s horn sounded in old New Orleans, it sounded so loud it could be heard all the way from Canal Street downtown to Lake Pontchartrain. Louis [Armstrong] was a child then, but he determined to blow a horn like Bolden, and he did. His trumpet has since been heard around the world.”
Providing historic overview, Hughes and Meltzer write: “From old New Orleans, the city of the Mardi Gras and the marching bands, came many great jazz players and composers – Jelly Roll Morton, the pianist who wrote ‘Tiger Rag,’ trumpeter King Oliver, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetists Barney Bigard and Sidney Bechet, and banjo-playing Johnny St. Cyr. Farther up the Mississippi in Sedalia, Missouri, Scott Joplin was beating out his ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ in 1899. In Memphis and St. Louis W.C. Handy was dreaming the blues. On riverboats, in carnivals and circuses, with minstrels, on the vaudeville stage and in nightclubs many of the early jazz musicians became popular solo entertainers or featured performers in show bands; Joe Oliver’s musical clowns, for instance, took San Francisco by storm in 1921, but later became the more elegant Creole Band in tuxedos and diamonds.”
Writer Jonathan Scott reported that Hughes had collaborated with other artists and writers in the past, most notably with photographer Roy DeCara on the photo essay, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955). Scott also pointed out that Hughes and Meltzer worked together on a previous project called A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956).
Melzter served in the Army in World War II, and afterward was hired as a writer at CBS. He also worked as a public relations executive for a pharmaceutical company. In conceiving the pictorial histories, Meltzer felt, as New York Times writer Dennis Hevesi explains, “a book about blacks in America was a worthwhile project and could attract readers, he decided, especially if it was full of photos. While traveling the country for the drug company, he did research at historical societies, local archives and museums and collected nearly 1,000 illustrations ….”
Hevesi also noted that Meltzer needed a black co-author for the project and a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Hughes.
|Hughes in Harlem|
“In the mid-1960's Hughes worked again with Meltzer, producing Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (1967) -- arguably the most comprehensive history of African American popular culture ever published.”
Black Magic was published in 1967 and remained in print until the 1990s. It would be Hughes’ last. Meltzer said his book originally would have no dedication. “The authors felt there were so many distinguished people in the world of entertainment it would be impossible to select any one man or woman to pay tribute to.” But on May 22, 1967, shortly after Black Magic was completed, Langston Hughes died. In his dedication, Meltzer wrote: “I think, now, that the artists who played and sang and danced in the many works he created for them, and the audiences to whom he gave such joy, would want to see the book dedicated To Langston, with love, Milton Meltzer.”
Meltzer died in New York City in 2009. He was 94.
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