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Folk Alley Presents: Leyla McCalla

The folk- and roots-music world is full of cross-generational collaboration. But it usually takes the form of folksingers pairing up with other folksingers, borrowing from a long musical tradition. It's another thing altogether to take words written long ago and give them musical life. Leyla McCalla does just that on her new album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes. Though the disc includes a balance of her original arrangements with Haitian folk songs, what's most intriguing is the way she built many of the songs around Hughes' poetry.

The song featured in this video was taken from Hughes' poem "Vari-Colored Song." The words to "Heart of Gold" are full of questions and observations, and rich with color. There's the red of Georgia clay and the blue of the sky, the gold heart and so on. McCalla has said that this was the first song she wrote for the album, because it seemed to her to provide a window into Hughes' way of thinking. That it's so focused on color and questions could indeed sum up the bulk of Hughes' work.

As a song, it rests on a darkly haunting fiddle melody, which eventually gives way to McCalla's own rich, warm cello. The instrumentation sounds like lonesome nighttime, and the way McCalla's voice leans around the words makes them sound like some back-of-the-mind wonderings. Chances are, Langston Hughes would be pleased.

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Kim Ruehl