David Elliott Meets Langston Hughes in The Moon Under Water Pub
In the early evening of February 1, I wandered into the friendly confines of The Moon Under Water Pub, located somewhere in London. It’s my favorite “watering hole,” although none of the customers, including me, drink much water on the premises. I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like, but that’s the way it goes.
The Victorian exterior perfectly frames the double wooden doors of the entrance. Inside, a photograph of George Orwell pouring stout from a Guinness bottle into a china cup hangs in a prominent place on the glass wall behind the mahogany bar. The room is unusually quiet for a London pub. There’s no TV, radio or piano. The barmaids know all the customers, and the conversations seem to be friendly and congenial.
Sally, the barmaid who served me during previous visits, greeted me with a smile and a Yorkshire accent. “Alright, mate! Your usual?”
“Yeah, Newcastle. Thanks, mate.”
Along the wall to the right of the bar, a crowd listened with rapt attention to a tall Black man with a neat moustache and a pearly smile. A hand-lettered Happy Birthday banner stretched above the tables and chairs. I walked over to hear his words.
“...Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night—
And I love the rain.”
The listeners murmured words of praise and appreciation. Some applauded quietly. The Black poet smiled, and bowed his head. “Mr. Hughes,” said a young man, “will you please recite ‘Wide River?’ It’s my favorite.”
“Why is it your favorite?” Mr. Hughes asked. “Somehow it reminds me of music; like Blues.” music.
The Black man smiled. “You have a good ear, friend.” He loosened his tie and looked off somewhere, somewhere only he could see. Closing his eyes, he began to recite, body swaying, his cultured voice replaced by a Southern cadence.
“Ma baby lives across the river
And I ain’t got no boat.
She lives across de river,
I ain’t got no boat.
I ain’t a good swimmer
An’ I don’t know how to float.”
The youth clapped rhythmically, and others joined him.
“Wide, wide river
Twixt ma love and me.
Wide, wide river
Twixt ma love and me.
I never knowed how
Wide a river can be.
“Got to cross that river
An’ git to ma baby somehow.
Cross that river,
Git to ma baby somehow—
Cause if I don’t see ma baby
I’ll lay down an’ die right now.”
Cheers, applause and laughter greeted the poem’s final words. The group surrounded him, smiling, pumping his hand, patting his shoulder. Then I realized the poet was Langston Hughes!
He moved to a table, sat, and lit a cigarette. Do I dare approach him? Yes. I dare.
Pint of Newcastle Ale in hand, I stood a few feet from his table. To my astonishment, Langston Hughes motioned for me to sit.
He said it was good to see a fellow American. After we exchanged introductory talk, I remarked about the blues-y tone of “Wide River.”
“I’ve written a number of poems in the manner of Black songs known as the blues. The blues have a rigid poetic form. It starts with one long line - “Wide, wide river, twixt ma love and me;” that line is repeated, and the third line rhymes with the first two – “I never knowed how wide a river can be.”
“What’s the relationship with Gospel songs?” I ventured to ask.
He smiled. “None. Gospel hymns are sung in a group, a choir, a duet. Blues are sung by one person. Gospel hymns are about escaping trouble, going to heaven, living happily ever after, while Blues sing of troubles: loneliness, friendlessness, hunger, poverty and so forth. But even though the Blues dwell on despondency, when someone sings the Blues, the listeners usually laugh.”
I confessed that I didn’t read much poetry after I graduated from college. He leaned back in his chair. “Son, you are neglecting an important arc of beauty and insightfulness. I encourage you to reacquaint yourself with Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg. Have you read any poetry by Paul Lawrence Dunbar?” I had not. He shook his head.
I had read Whitman and Sandburg in American Literature classes in college. But why hadn’t we read Langston Hughes?
He stood. “I apologize, but I have an appointment to keep. Hang on to your dreams, David. Don’t let anything or anyone take away your dreams.” He smiled, turned and left the pub.
The Dream Keeper
by Langston Hughes
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue-cloud cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.