Folk Alley Presents: Leyla McCalla The cellist and folk musician balances original compositions with Haitian folk songs on her new album. Watch McCalla perform a song that gives musical life to words Langston Hughes wrote long ago.

Favorite Sessions

Folk Alley Presents: Leyla McCallaFolk Alley

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.

[+] read more[-] less

More From Folk

Amy Helm performs on Mountain Stage. Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

Amy Helm On Mountain Stage

Amy Helm and her band choose to let the music do the talking, delivering a powerful, four-song set packed with musicality, soul and candor.

Amy Helm On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/667870035/667879787" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The War And Treaty perform on Mountain Stage. Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

The War And Treaty On Mountain Stage

Listen to the soulful, genre-bending husband-and-wife duo perform hits from its latest album, Healing Tide.

The War And Treaty On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/662955963/662967117" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Leo Kottke performs on Mountain Stage. Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

Leo Kottke On Mountain Stage

In his 10th appearance on Mountain Stage, Kottke proves he has lost none of his dexterity and musicianship.

Leo Kottke On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/660595178/660608423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Phoebe Bridgers performs at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival. Christopher Hall/Mixtape Magazine hide caption

toggle caption Christopher Hall/Mixtape Magazine

Phoebe Bridgers, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2018

The 2018 Slingshot artist performed songs that unspool with a sonic ease that feel refreshing, even for an overheated festival audience.

Phoebe Bridgers, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2018

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/630619429/652531683" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The Wood Brothers on Mountain Stage. Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

The Wood Brothers On Mountain Stage

Listen to this trio of expert musicians perform lively cuts from their sixth studio album, One Drop of Truth.

The Wood Brothers On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/649302333/649316020" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Brian Blauser /Mountain Stage

Sonny Landreth On Mountain Stage

Hear Landreth's first fully acoustic set in his 10 appearances on Mountain Stage since 1995, featuring Dave Ranson on ukulele bass and Brian Brignac on cajon and percussion.

Sonny Landreth On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/645295215/645306287" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Laurie Lewis with Tom Rozum on mandolin, Max Schwartz on bass, Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle and Justin Hiltner on banjo. Brian Blauser /Mountain Stage hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blauser /Mountain Stage

Laurie Lewis And The Right Hands On Mountain Stage

Lewis is joined by Tom Rozum on mandolin, Max Schwartz on bass, Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle and Justin Hiltner on banjo.

Laurie Lewis And The Right Hands On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/643289318/643297236" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Brian Blauser /Mountain Stage

Sarah Siskind On Mountain Stage

The singer-songwriter says returning to Mountain Stage for the second time is like "coming back to camp."

Sarah Siskind On Mountain Stage

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/641021754/641021904" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Back To Top