'Two Wings: The Music Of Black America In Migration' Celebrates Journey Millions Took

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 25, 2019 9:55 am

At the turn of the 20th Century, millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the country's Northern cities in search of a new beginning. That time of discovery, awakening and Renaissance came to be known as The Great Migration.

Now, nearly a century later, singer Alicia Hall Moran and pianist Jason Moran have mixed original music with artistic work from that time period — spoken word, recording from Langston Hughes, poetry from Paul Laurence Dunbar, spirituals, reinterpretations of Duke Ellington, Nina Simone , Billie Holiday and more — to create an evening of music called Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. Isabel Wilkerson ( "The Warmth of Other Suns") and Margo Jefferson (Negroland) are among the writers who participate reading from their works in the performances.

Two Wings got its start when Carnegie Hall invited the Morans to contribute to its recent Migrations Festival. It became a deeply personal process for the Morans. Jason says living in Harlem with their 11-year-old twin sons means that they're surrounded by art and culture born out of The Great Migration. "Looking up across the street at the hospital and see Charles Alston sculpture, you know, coming out of the wall," Jason says. "Aaron Douglas paintings are in the YMCA on 135th St."

Alicia Hall Moran sings, "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm," an early 20th Century pop tune with Jason at the piano. In the show's context, the song asks a question about a better life for African-American soldiers returning from World War I. Alicia says creating this concert was its own journey.

"I could not tell you the gratitude I've experienced because of doing this research; for the people who've stayed and the people who left and also, the people who made the journeys back and in between," she says.

Two Wings, the title of the performance, is inspired by ones of Alicia's favorite Negro spirituals: "The lyrics are, 'I want two wings to veil my face, Lord / I want two wings to fly away / If these two wings fail me then give me another pair.'"

Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through music and culture.
Dawound Bey / Courtesy of the artist

The concert mixes moods, sometimes sustaining a feeling of peril. opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings this spiritual made popular by Lead Belly. During the show, performers and speakers follow one another sometimes overlap.

Two Wings premiered at Carnegie Hall in March, then went to Washington D.C., then to Hamburg, Germany, and now Chicago.

"James P. Johnson kind of made a piece of music called the Carolina Shout," Jason Moran explains. "In a way, it also acknowledge people who left the Carolinas to come up north and all of these musicians and especially pianists in Harlem would have to learn the song so that they could battle ea ch other on it."

The Morans — as artists and as people of color — think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through this culture. They're keeping the great migration alive and breathing, through song.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now the story of an evening of music that celebrates the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South between 1916 and 1970. The concert - "Two Wings: The Music Of Black America In Migration." It includes chamber music, the spoken word, blues and jazz. "Two Wings" has its last performance tonight at the Symphony Center in Chicago. Here's NPR's Walter Ray Watson.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: For singer Alicia Hall Moran and pianist Jason Moran, creating "Two Wings" was a deeply personal process. They live in Harlem with their 11-year-old twin sons. Jason Moran says they're surrounded by art and culture born of the Great Migration.

JASON MORAN: Looking up across the street at the hospital and see Charles Alston, you know, sculpture coming out of the wall. I mean, Aaron Douglas paintings are in the YMCA on 135th Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YA GONNA KEEP 'EM DOWN ON THE FARM?")

ALICIA HALL MORAN: (Singing) How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paris?

WATSON: Alicia Hall Moran sings the pop tune, "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" In this context, it's asking about a better life for African American soldiers returning from World War I. She says creating this concert has been a journey for her.

HALL MORAN: I could not tell you the gratitude I've learned to experience because of doing this research for the people who stayed and the people who left and also the people who made the journeys back in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YA GONNA KEEP 'EM DOWN ON THE FARM?")

HALL MORAN: (Singing) After they've seen Paris?

WATSON: The concert mixes moods, sometimes sustaining a feeling of peril. Opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings this spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A MAN GOING 'ROUND TAKING NAMES")

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: (Singing) There's a man going 'round taking names. He has taken my brother's name and has left my heart in pain.

WATSON: "Two Wings" premiered at Carnegie Hall, then went to Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. - where the music in this story comes from - then to Hamburg, Germany, and now Chicago. During the concert, performers and speakers follow one another and sometimes overlap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA SHOUT")

WATSON: Jazz, of course, was a big part of the Great Migration. And here, Jason Moran plays stride piano, made popular in the 1920s.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN PERFORMANCE OF "CAROLINA SHOUT")

MORAN: James P. Johnson kind of made a piece of music called the "Carolina Shout" in a way to also acknowledge people who left the Carolinas to come up North. And all of these musicians - and especially pianists in Harlem - would have to learn this song so that they could battle each other on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN PERFORMANCE OF "CAROLINA SHOUT")

WATSON: The Morans, as artists and people of color, think deeply about how the past is preserved and kept vital through culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")

HALL MORAN: (Singing) It's a new day. It's a new life for me. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new...

WATSON: In part, this is how Alicia Hall Moran does it with a Nina Simone tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")

HALL MORAN: (Singing) And I'm feeling good.

WATSON: Keeping the Great Migration alive and breathing through song. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")

HALL MORAN: (Singing) My birds, my sky, my stars, my sun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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