Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hadda Brooks, James Weldon Johnson, and the Modernism of Resistance

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1922 stands out in the annals of literature; it was Modernism Year One, according to Ezra Pound. T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Cesar Vallejo published “The Waste Land,” Ulysses, and Trilce, respectively – and yet in that cornucopia, that bonanza of groundbreaking works, that international festival of imaginative letters, most accounts leave out one of the year’s most prophetic, consequential, and influential volumes, a work whose prophecies we have yet to fulfill and whose vision remains compelling as well as, in some ways, contemporary. James Weldon Johnson had history behind him when he chose the definite article “the” for the 1922 collection he edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry. He could call it The Book because, although poetry anthologies had been collected for thousands of years, going back to the garlands of Greek poetry collected in Alexandria, and, before that, gatherings of Chinese poetry, including one attributed to the editorial hand of Confucius, nobody had published an anthology of poetry written by people of African descent in the United States. Though Johnson’s book collected work that many self-described modernists may have considered old-fashioned, in consequential ways it was as modern as any of them.

Johnson gave pride of place in The Book to his long-deceased friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American writer to make a living from writing, a successful poet, short-story writer, novelist, and song lyricist who had published thirteen collections of poetry, four collections of short stories, and four novels before his death at age 33 in 1906. The Dunbar poem that opened Johnson’s prophetic anthology prophesied not only a more egalitarian vision of culture, but Rhythm and Blues and rock ’n’ roll.  We will see how one poem, originally published in 1895 and anthologized in 1922, opens windows onto minstrelsy and racism and their discontents; sexism and its discontents; the complex subversive strategies, liberatory energies, and wily ironies of African American writers and musicians; and the power of Black music to attract white musicians. Dunbar’s poem did not do all this work on its own. A brilliant boogie-woogie pianist and marvelous singer named Hadda Brooks set it to music in 1952, adapting the words and changing the title, with each change shedding light on fascinating social, cultural, historical, and political questions. The journey from 1890s publication to 1920s anthology to 1950s R&B song traces major cultural shifts, while prophesying other transformations that remain incomplete.

Before we get into it, you should hear the song if you haven’t. And if you have, I trust that you won’t mind hearing it again.

There’s so much in this recording to talk about, it’s hard to know where to start. First, I suppose, the song. It sounds great, right? Totally idiomatic 1950s R&B, jump blues, it moves, it jumps, it rocks, it swings. And the singer, who is she? She’s Hadda Brooks! Regardless of whether you’ve heard of her (and I hadn’t before tracking down this recording, having been put on the trail by a Dunbar scholar) – you can immediately hear her sound, her style, her confident, relaxed flirtatiousness. This singer loves being with her man. And the refrain“jump back, honey, jump back!” – why, they could have named a genre after it. They didn’t – jump blues got named in the 1940s, probably inspired by jumpin’ swing and pop tunes by Count Basie and Fats Waller with the words “jump” or “jumpin’” in the title – Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” all from 1937. But Dunbar’s poem preceded Basie, Waller, and jump band leader Louis Jordan by many years, and Brooks’s musical adaptation fit the poem and the genre perfectly. According to Dunbar’s first biographer, Lida Keck Wiggins, Dunbar got the phrase from his brief sojourn as a waiter in Chicago during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Waiters would shout the phrase to the clear the way when moving through the kitchen door, arms laden with dishes.

After the overall charm and propulsion of the record, the next thing to hit you – at least, this is how I experienced it, maybe it hit you sooner – but whenever it hits you – whoa! – the lyrics! Hadda Brooks has subverted all the expectations, she’s reversed the gender stereotypes. The female singer walks the male beloved home, holds his hand and squeezes it, puts her arm around his waist, looks into his eyes, holds his face and kisses him, and declares her love. She shows her beloved in the passive role: he sighs, he smiles, he answers after she declares her love. Not the way these things usually go, according to society’s stereotypes. Brooks has turned the gender roles upside down.

Who was Hadda Brooks? Born Hattie Hapgood in Los Angeles in 1916, she was nothing if not confident. Having grown up in a middle-class white-collar home (her mother was a doctor and her father a deputy sheriff), Brooks had grown up playing classical piano. In 1944 a jukebox supplier named Jules Bihari heard her play and told her that if she learned boogie-woogie he would start a record company and release her stuff. Within weeks she had written “Swingin’ the Boogie,” Bihari formed Modern Records, the two of them chose “Brooks” for Hadda’s stage name, and the record became a hit. Ignored and neglected by the boogie-woogie anthologies and histories, in her day Brooks was a star, recording duets with Pete Johnson, generally and justly acknowledged as one of the greatest boogie-woogie pianists. To my ear, Johnson may have been the hottest of them all, whether accompanying Big Joe Turner, playing solo, or leading his own band – and my ear can’t distinguish Johnson from Brooks on the records they made together.

When playing a show with white swing bandleader Charlie Barnett in 1947, Brooks took up singing at Barnett’s request. And what a voice! Like her male doppelganger Nat “King” Cole, who also began as a highly-regarded pianist, her singing was so accomplished that she didn’t even play piano on all her records – she doesn’t play on “Jump Back Honey.”

According to the African American poet, novelist, editor, scholar, and Harlem Renaissance figure Arna Bontemps, who was born in 1902 and who, like Brooks, had grown up in Los Angeles, African American people recited the poetry of Dunbar at social gatherings for decades after Dunbar’s 1906 death, keeping his poems in circulation well into the twentieth century. According to Bontemps, recitations of Dunbar pieces “never failed to delight when we heard or said them at parties or on programs for the entertainment of the church-folk and their guests.” Professional actors recited Dunbar poems on the vaudeville circuit too, according to the African American actor and memoirist Tom Fletcher. The poems were widely and deeply loved, popular culture in every sense, commercially and folk-wise. When Brooks went searching for something to sing, a Dunbar lyric might have come naturally mind.

I had read the poem that Brooks adapted several times for several years before I heard Brooks’s song, and until I heard Brooks, I didn’t get the poem’s appeal. Maybe you’ll feel differently. But take a moment to read it. You’ll notice the changes that Brooks made.

 

SEEN my lady home las’ night,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,         5
Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,
An’ a smile go flittin’ by—
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd de win’ blow thoo de pine,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.         10
Mockin’-bird was singin’ fine,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
An’ my hea’t was beatin’ so,
When I reached my lady’s do’,
Dat I could n’t ba’ to go—         15
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Put my ahm aroun’ huh wais’,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an’ took a tase,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.         20
Love me, honey, love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An’ she answe’d, “Cose I do”—
  Jump back, honey, jump back.

You will immediately have noticed Dunbar’s use of eyeball-challenging dialect, and that Hadda Brooks dialed it way down. Dunbar – a native of Dayton, Ohio, a schoolmate of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s and the editor of their high school newspaper – hadn’t grown up speaking anything like this. Yet despite his northern roots, Dunbar wrote most of his most famous poetry in the dialect of blackface minstrelsy, an idiom toward which he was ambivalent. And while it might be hard to imagine from a twenty-first century perspective, for fans of Dunbar’s work, the style sounds better when spoken aloud. As Bontemps points out, a lot of the idiom’s difficulties fall away when you recite the poems – they sound closer to plausible speech than the thicket of apostrophes and unorthodox spellings might lead one to believe. Let’s listen to a woman named Hope Smith reciting the poem in 2011 for National Poetry Month.

Despite the “sayability” of the poems and their “playability” in performance, Dunbar considered the idiom degrading, a “mask” he wore to appeal to white readers. In a poem called “The Poet,” he referred to his dialect poems as “a jingle in a broken tongue.”

The “broken tongue” may have appalled Dunbar, but if you could see or hear beyond it, his dialect poems always portrayed African American life with the lineaments of dignity. At least three of his dialect poems compare African American music to white music, always making the case that the former is superior to the latter. But Dunbar knew the negative history of the dialect. For 130 years, at least since the 1760s, white writers had used a parody of African American “plantation speech” to undermine the masculinity of African American men. Blackface conventions could portray African American men in three ways: a man in blackface could be so simple and foolish, and sometimes passive, as to be more childlike than masculine (like Amos and Andy); or so high-falutin’ in his pretensions to knowledge, culture, and style as to be ridiculous, and unmanly (like Zip Coon); or else so over-sexualized and violently aggressive as to be sub-human, not a man. The (presumably) male narrator of Dunbar’s poem is none of these things. He courts his beloved with both passion and decorum, walking his baby home, squeezing her hand, taking her by the waist, kissing her, and declaring his love. The man’s behavior in the poem could serve as a model for the male lead of any number of 21st-century rom coms.

With complex and subtle irony, Dunbar signaled his intention to promote African American dignity in the title: “A Negro Love Song.” Though the poem speaks in dialect, its title speaks the President’s English; and the poem falls closer to the formal in everything but its diction. Dunbar’s intention appears to have been to lure white readers with the familiar plantation speech conventions, meanwhile subverting the idiom’s expectations by depicting adult men and women behaving like normally functioning, happy, respectable adults.

I feel compelled to confess that the irony eluded me – until I heard Brooks’s song and looked at the poem more closely. I had read it and wondered why Johnson thought to put it first in his anthology. I could think of many Dunbar poems that I might have picked instead, and indeed, most anthologies that include Dunbar omit this poem. But with Hadda Brooks in my ears, I finally noticed the discrepancy between the diction of the poem’s title and that of its text, and I took interest in Dunbar’s intention with the piece and Johnson’s attraction to it. “A Negro Love Song.” Regardless of diction, we’re talking about dignified human beings.

But while Dunbar wrote of dignified human beings, and his work has long been recognized as part of the effort toward African American liberation, his poem leaves traditional gender imbalances intact. The male acts on his desires, the female responds. As the Shirelles sang about ten years after Brooks adapted and recorded Dunbar’s poem, “When a boy meets a girl that he wants to get to know / He just walks right up to her, introduces himself, and he tells her so. / But what does a girl do when she meets a boy who makes her feel the same way too? / Somebody tell me, tell me, tell me, what does a girl do?” Gender roles have loosened, not completely, since the Shirelles sang that song in 1963, but Hadda Brooks knew what to do in 1952. Her song remains unusual – radical, even – in its depiction of male passivity.

Brooks made two other changes. She dropped the second verse, an omission that doesn’t much hurt the narrative. And she changed the title. Still a Negro love song in everything but name, Brooks followed song protocol and named the song after the refrain: “Jump Back Honey.” The title change proved canny. By 1952, the title “A Negro Love Song” would have been far too generic, as Americans of all colors had been singing African American love songs for half a century, ever since Dunbar’s friend and anthologist James Weldon Johnson had co-written the massive 1902 hit, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a song that shared Dunbar’s strategy of using a stagy quasi-Black dialect to promote images of Black dignity. “A Negro Love Song” would not only have been too generic a title in 1952, but by then, the success of hundreds of other Negro love songs had made its subtle irony out-of-date. It sounded too old-fashioned – as well as unnecessarily race specific.

Brooks’s choice bore new fruit when the white singers Ella Mae Morse, Dorothy Collins, and Snooky Lanson covered “Jump Back Honey” within the year, the latter two as a duet, followed a few years later by and white rockabilly titan Gene Vincent. I can’t imagine them having recorded a song titled “A Negro Love Song,” not in the 1950s and not later. The ironies would have been too thick and complex, too self-conscious. And yet the retitling points to Dunbar’s subtleties and complexities anyway. By making the song available for white singers to sing, Brooks affirmed Dunbar’s strategy of depicting an African American couple as a universal type. The song remained a Negro love song, because an African American man wrote the words and an African American woman wrote the music, both of them working in African American idioms, but as far as Collins, Lanson, Morse, and Vincent were concerned, “Jump Back Honey” was just a love song that anybody might relate to and sing, regardless of color. A swingin’, rockin’, boppin’, jumpin’ love song.

Collins and Lanson front a Western Swing band to sing the song as a female-male duet, while Morse sings a hot rhythm version. Unsurprisingly but still disappointingly, they return the active role to the male, who walks the female home, holds her hand, and puts his arm around his waist. The most fascinating thing about these covers, though, is that they restore Dunbar’s missing second stanza. There’s a story here! Who tracked the poem down? Did someone have it in their collection? Did somebody suggest restoring the second stanza? The internet hasn’t told me; I asked.

Gene Vincent retitled the song again, calling it “Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back.” He keeps the active role and the restored second stanza. And he cuts a line from each stanza, the last line before the last repeat of the refrain, without much harm to the narrative, but with a loss of metrical vigor. Cliff Gallup rips the guitar solo, and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s subtly ironic 1895 poem of Negro dignity sounds like a prime slab of late-’50s rockabilly.

James Weldon Johnson argued for the centrality and the cultural power of Black music. He dedicated several paragraphs early in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry to a claim for Ragtime, which he dignifies with a capital R, as the definitive American cultural product, the only one known the world over as American. He writes about the relationship between Ragtime and blues and makes literary claims for blues lyrics, claims of high artistic achievement for the melodies of spirituals, the rhythms of ragtime, and the counterpoint in blues music, and claims for the universal influence of Ragtime on American life, from church music to dancing to dress. In all, Johnson argues, modern life in 1922 moved to a syncopated, danceable Ragtime rhythm.

Johnson was also aware of how white musicians appropriated Black musical style, so he would not have been surprised to hear a Negro love song showing up on a rockabilly record. He states in his 1922 preface that white musicians had appropriated Ragtime to such an extent that, “Probably the younger people of the present generation do not know that Ragtime is of Negro origin.”

I began this paper with a claim for Johnson’s anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry as an exemplary modernist text of 1922. The claim does not rest solely on Johnson’s wisdom and prescience regarding white cultural appropriation, or on the complex irony and surprising history of the book’s opening poem. Johnson’s argument, Dunbar’s poem, and Hadda Brooks’s subsequent reworking of it all exemplify literary theorist and historian Houston Baker’s later description of an African American modernism that proves its modernity when it “ensures cognitive exploration and affective transformations leading to the growth and survival of a nation.” Johnson, Dunbar, and Brooks, in their different ways, and with differing strategies, created work that resisted white supremacism and promoted African American dignity; Brooks shifted the discussion to resist male supremacism as well. In 2018, when millions of people are trying to persuade the criminal justice system that Black Lives Matter, and countless women have said #MeToo, Dunbar, Johnson’s, and Brooks’s work envisions a society that we are still working to achieve, a modernism that we have not yet created.

 

Notes:

Thanks to Matthew Barton for his help on the origin of the term “jump blues”; personal communication, April 3, 2018.

Aldin, Mary Katherine, “Hadda Brooks: The Queen of the Boogie,” booklet notes to Brooks, Hadda, Jump Back Honey – The Complete Okeh Sessions (CD), Columbia, 1997.

Baker, Jr., Houston A., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bontemps, Arna, “The Relevance of Paul Laurence Dunbar,” in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Jay Martin, Dodd, Mead  & Company, 1975.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence, The Collected Poetry, edited by Joanne M. Braxton, University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence, Majors and Minors (the original publication of “A Negro Love Song”), Tuttle and Tuttle, 1895. (Accessed online.)

Fletcher, Tom, 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business, Burdge, 1954.

Johnson, James Weldon (editor), The Book of American Negro Poetry, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1922, revised 1931, copyright renewed 1959. (The 1922 edition, accessed online, opened with “A Negro Love Song” too.)

Wiggins, Lida Keck, The Life & Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Winston-Derek Publishers, 1992. (Reprint of 1907 publication by J. L. Nichols.)

 

I don’t remember in which book I first came across mention of Hadda Brooks’s adaptation of “A Negro Love Song,” but I’m grateful, and I’ll track it down again.

 

My characterization of the depiction of African American men in the idiom of minstrelsy needs fleshing out. I first got thinking about how minstrelsy worked to undermine Black masculinity when proposing this paper for a conference on Music and Gender. The committee turned down the proposal, but I wrote the paper anyway. It’s part of a larger project on James Weldon Johnson and his circles. I’ll probably use some of this material in the larger project, but it will be in different form.

 

A whole paper – at least! – could be devoted to Hadda Brooks; indeed, somebody made a documentary about her, which I haven’t seen. She continued performing, recording, and writing songs into her 80s. She does not appear in A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano, by Peter J. Silvester (1988) or in “Our Ladies of the Keys: Blues and Gone,” by Christopher John Farley (in Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, edited by Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren, and Christopher John Farley [2003]). I have never seen her included on a compilation of boogie-woogie recordings. She appeared in several movies, usually as a singing pianist, as in this 1950 Nicholas Ray film, In a Lonely Placewith Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

One Response to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hadda Brooks, James Weldon Johnson, and the Modernism of Resistance

  1. Pingback: Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together | This Land That I Love

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