Canto a una muchacha negra, “Song for a Dark Girl” by Silvestre Revueltas is music for voice and piano inspired by the Langston Hughes poem of the same name in English. The poem is as follows: “Way down south in Dixie, (Break the heart of me), They hung my black young lover, To a cross roads tree. Way down south in Dixie, (Bruised body high in air), I asked the white lord Jesus, What was the use of prayer. Way down south in Dixie, (Break the heart of me), Love is a naked shadow, On a gnarled and naked tree.”
Obviously dark and gruesome, this poem is set very effectively to music by Silvestre Revueltas who uses his own palate of sounds to send chills down one’s spine. However, there are some moments in this short song that make you scratch your head and wonder how certain harmonies could ever belong in such a disturbing setting.
Canto a una muchacha negra begins with piano alone. Within seconds you know the song will contain mostly atonal properties. The right hand presents a jarring, octatonic-like short phrase that is repeated twice, each time traveling further down the keyboard. The left hand supports this with chords that are not necessarily very dissonant on their own, but their relationship to one another and the active melody on top creates a true sense of unease. A low female voice now enters with a melody very similar to that of the opening piano’s, but it is slightly less active with fewer notes overall. This vocal melody repeats as the piano’s did but travels higher in register instead of lower. The vocals then stop and the piano imitates them almost exactly.
The second section of the song is the most atonal and aurally disturbing. The voice enters once again with a melody that is slightly more static and does not travel up or down in range as far as the first section. The dissonance in this section comes mostly from the piano which is far more active. The harmonies are extended and dissonant in themselves as well as how they interact with the melody in the voice. This second section comes to a close by the piano repeating the melody presented at the beginning of the song.
The final section is very similar to the first, apart from its ending. After the voice finishes its phrases once again the piano slowly transitions from these atonal patterns to a more orthodox style in a major key. The song ends with the piano alone sounding a major chord.
Canto a una muchacha negra becomes more interesting when you analyze what sections of Langston Hughes’ poem line up with certain parts of the music. The most dissonant and atonal parts of the music are set to the second phrase of the poem: “Way down south in Dixie, (Bruised body high in air), I asked the white lord Jesus, What was the use of prayer.” Obviously this is the only section of the poem that contains a religious reference. Could Revueltas’ unsettling music here be a personal statement towards the religious beliefs in America at the time?
The biggest question I ask myself relates to the ending of this song. I cannot fathom why the song would end with harmonies in a major key. This music is set to the final phrase of the poem which is the only point in which the world “love” is used. I believe this might be a reference to acceptance. Although the subject hung from a tree is indeed dead, the poem still hints that the love between the two characters of the poem still exists.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Miller, Jason. Langston Hughes and the American Lynching Culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2011.
Stevenson, Robert M. Music in Mexico: A Historical Survey. New York, NY: Crowell, 1952.
Unwuchekwa, Jemie. Langston Hughes: an introduction to the poetry. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1976.