When Malindy (or Aretha) Sings: The Complex, Haunting Presence of Paul Laurence Dunbar in American Music

[I presented this paper at the Pop Conference at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture, April 12, 2019. The conference theme was, “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife.”]

1. Dunbar

I’m going to talk about a few poems and songs by Paul Laurence Dunbar and their implications for music history and the Civil Rights movement. From his first book in 1893 Dunbar's books of poetry

to his death at age 33 in 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six books of poetry, four novels, and four collections of short stories, in addition to his activities as a musical-theater lyricist and librettist. Unusual as it might seem now, he was best known for his poetry. When he wrote, and for many decades before and a few decades after, poetry was popular culture. There were poetry stars. People memorized poems to recite at parties. Actors could make a living barnstorming from town to town reciting poetry; Dunbar was one of the poets whose work professional actors recited. The

Dunbar's books of fiction.PNG actor Edward Sterling Wright, who played Othello professionally, recorded four Dunbar poems for Edison Records in 1913.

Dialect verse was popular. James Whitcomb Riley wrote best sellers as the “Hoosier poet,” writing in the dialect of rural, white Indianans. Charles Leland wrote a popular volume in a parody of the dialect of German immigrants – Hans Breitmann’s Ballads.


There was massive crossover between poetry and song, and among dialect songs, minstrel songs were the most common –

8. Michigan J. Frogsongs written to be sung in blackface, in a demeaning parody of Black speech. Many of us probably first heard the 1899 hit “Hello Ma Baby” in a Warner Brothers cartoon, but originally the characters were assumed to be Black – or in blackface.

9. HelloMaBaby.jpgThe dialect is mild in the song, limited to “ma” for “my,” and the endearment “honey,” a word that denotes blackface dialect going back at least to the 1760s.

Yankee Doodle 1767

That’s the context in which Paul Laurence Dunbar started writing as a teenager in the early 1890s. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of ex-slaves, he went to high school with the Wright Brothers; he was the only Black student in his graduating class; he wrote the class commencement song; and he was editor of the school newspaper.

10. Dunbar in H.S. w O. Wright cntr back row

Dunbar’s high school class, Dayton, Ohio

He started publishing poems while still in high school. He made early efforts in different dialects. He wrote an homage to Riley in Riley’s Hoosier dialect. He wrote an homage to beer in a comedic German dialect. He wrote a lot of poems in the dialect that an African American educator with whom I worked called Cash English, not standard English, not proper English, not correct English, not better English, but Cash English, which she described as how somebody needs to talk if they want to get the jobs that pay the decent cash.

And Dunbar wrote a lot of poems in the dialect of blackface. He wasn’t the first African American poet to have done so, but he became the first African American writer to make a living from his writing. Best known for his poetry, his dialect verse brought him the most fame, among white and Black readers both.

And, while dialect poetry was common, the dialect of blackface was problematic. It is now, and it was at the time, and Dunbar, of course, was aware of the problems. In a poem in Cash English he described his dialect poems as “a jingle in a broken tongue.” But I’m sorry that he felt so bitterly, because, despite the horrible history of the dialect, his poems rock. He used the dialect of blackface to undermine stereotypes and prejudice, not to reinforce them. It’s a risky strategy, and it didn’t always work, but it worked in his poems.

Mostly the strategy was implicit. The blackface tradition typically depicted men as something less than men. They were violent, oversexed, and animalistic, like Jim Crow; or they were ridiculed for their pretentions to sophistication, class, and culture, like Zip Coon; or they were so dim-witted and naive as to seem more childlike than adult, like Amos and Andy. The people in Dunbar’s poems are none of that. They may speak in dialect, but their actions, motivations, behavior, and character are what a reader of the time, and most readers today, I think, would consider something approximating “universal.” images from Li'l' Gal

They court, they pine, they woo, they fall in love, they plead their dignity, they dote on their children and honor their parents, they rationalize their moral failings, and they enjoy good eating and good company and good music. Which, finally, brings us to the topic of this conference.

Dunbar wrote around the time of the birth of the recording industry, and the music he described was never transcribed or recorded. His poems on music are, therefore, primary documents in American music history. His musical descriptions sometimes echo earlier descriptions, regarding practices in African American music that still exist today. And they point toward the Civil Rights movement. In some of these poems, he declares the music of his people superior to white people’s music, or at least its equal. Dunbar persuades us of the music’s beauty, and it’s haunting that we can’t hear the music in anything other than the mind’s ear.

One poem takes up the topic of changes in musical fashion, which, when the music has never been recorded, entails the disappearance of musical practices. The narrator of “The Ol’ Tunes” laments that people don’t sing the way they used to. And the comparison to white music comes right away. “You can talk about yer anthems / An’ yer arias an’ sich / An’ yer modern choir-singin’ / That you think so awful rich / But you orter heerd us youngsters / In the times now far away / A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes / In the ol’-fashioned way.” The narrator waves white people’s music away – “anthems an’ arias an’ sich” – in the first two lines, as if to say, pfft.

The poem describes longstanding African American musical practices. The singers improvise on a tune they all know. Someone leads, and others, in Dunbar’s phrase, “chime in.” Thirty years before Dunbar wrote, during the Civil War,

Contraband Camp ca. 1863

Camp of escaped slaves, ca. 1863. Their status was uncertain until the end of the war; it was unclear whether they would be returned to their previous owners as property, until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865.

the white northern abolitionist and musician Lucy McKim visited refugee camps of escaped slaves. In 1862 McKim wrote an article describing the music that she heard there.

It is difficult to express the entire character of these negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs. The odd turns made in the throat; and that curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seems almost as impossible to place on score as the singing of birds.

McKim and Dunbar both use the phrase “chiming in.” The technical term is heterophony, and it still exists in African American church music and soul music. You can hear it in

Fred McDowellthe music of Fred McDowell, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mavis Staples, and countless soul singers. Heterophony appears in music around the world, most relevantly in Africa, but not in European classical music. And judging from the evidence of McKim’s essay, Dunbar’s poem, and the subsequent recorded evidence, it’s an African inheritance that has survived continuously in African American music to this day.

But even though the technique that Dunbar describes survived, still, the style was changing, and Dunbar’s narrator wishes that that weren’t so. “How I long ag’in to hear ’em pourin’ forth from soul to soul.” I want to hear it too! But we can’t hear it, and, with no recordings, Dunbar couldn’t either. He could not have had the experience, common, I think, to all of us, of hearing an old beloved song on the radio and having a vision of a vanished world appear from the depths of memory. Gordon Lightfoot comes on the radio, and my dad is alive again, and we’ve stopped for gas in a hillside overlooking a valley in rural Michigan on our way to go canoeing and camping; a thunderstorm is rolling in, and there’s a green tint in the sky. “If You Could Read My Mind.” The ghost arises from the wishing well.

People grumbling about changes in musical fashion seems so modern, so it’s fascinating, to me, to read an account of it regarding music that hadn’t been recorded. Coincidentally, in 1894, thousands of miles from Dunbar, and with no knowledge of him, the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore


Rabindranath Tagore

wrote a poem on an identical theme, a year after Dunbar published “The Ol’ Tunes.” Tagore, in his poem “Broken Song,” depicts two old friends lamenting how the music of the past has gone out of fashion, and nobody sings like people used to, until one of them concludes, “our days are gone. / New men have come now, new styles and customs in the world.”

Dunbar’s narrator isn’t so sanguine, but still, he hopes to hear the music again – in the afterlife.

But I think that some bright mornin’,
When the toils of life air o’er,
An’ the sun o’ heaven arisin’
Glads with light the happy shore,
I shall hear the angel chorus,
In the realms of endless day,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

In another poem, “The Colored Band,” Dunbar describes an African American marching band, coining a phrase that Irving Berlin later adapted, “It’s Sousa played in ragtime . . . when the colored band goes marching down the street.” Berlin reworked that line in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song about another “colored band,” with the phrase, “The Swanee River played in ragtime.” Dunbar asserts the fineness of the music: “de music dat dey mekin’ can’t be beat,” and he celebrates how fine the band members look.a band

Ain’t dey handsome? Ain’t dey gran’?
Ain’t dey splendid? Goodness, lan’!

We have no recordings of African American wind bands from Dunbar’s lifetime.

In the poem “When Malindy Sings,” Dunbar directly criticizes the music that people have to read in order to sing – formal white music. Darlene Love did the same thing in the documentary on backup singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom, lightly making fun of the backup singers she knew who had to read their music. Dunbar is much harsher.

G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—

Put dat music book away. . . .

Easy ‘nough fu’ folks to hollah,

Lookin’ at de lines an’ dots . . .

The poem’s narrator describes melisma, the practice of embellishing the melody with improvised rapid notes, while telling Miss Lucy that she doesn’t have the capacity for it.

When Malindy Sings


You ain’t got de nachel o’gans

Fu’ to make de soun’ come right,

You ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s

Fu’ to make it sweet an’ light.



The poem goes on to describe how   everybody stops what they’re doing to listen, When Malindy Sings. Even the songbirds stop their singing.

Even more than with heterophony, the “turns and twistings” of melisma survive today in countless R&B and gospel recordings, with the late Aretha Franklin now and forever the queen, though Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mariah Carey and countless others have been masters as well.

By asserting the superiority of African American music to white music, Dunbar anticipated the Civil Rights movement, particularly the work of his friends, the civil rights leaders and writers W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Dunbar implies, and Du Bois and Johnson assert, that equality in the arts proves equality in all spheres, and society should recognize it. Du Bois took up Dunbar’s theme in his book of 1903, The Souls of Black Folk, and Johnson did so in the under-appreciated preface to the 1922 collection he edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry. Du Bois and Johnson argue – and the argument has never been contradicted or superseded – that America’s most distinctive contributions to world culture have been made by African American musicians. For Du Bois, that music was the sorrow songs and spirituals of the slaves and their descendants; for Johnson, that music was Ragtime, though he loved the spirituals as well and also wrote in praise of the Blues.

Though Dunbar lamented the lost music of the past, before the 1890s were over he was involved in a musical revolution. Ragtime had been spreading across the nation since around the time of his 1893 debut as a published author. Five years later, he was writing the book and lyrics for the first ragtime show on Broadway, having been recruited by the African American composer Will Marion Cook to work on an idea of his, Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk. The show was so successful that John Philip Sousa’s band recorded one of its songs two years later, in 1900. It’s a paradox of Dunbar’s career that by the time that he published the line “It’s Sousa played in ragtime,” Sousa had recorded a ragtime song that Dunbar had co-written. Still, we have no recordings of an African American band playing Sousa’s music from that time.

Though Cook and Dunbar collaborated on many shows over the next few years, Dunbar’s first biographer ignored his theatrical writing completely; his second biographer mentioned only one show in passing, to show why it was just as well that Dunbar didn’t devote his life to theater. I can imagine why they gave this aspect of Dunbar’s legacy the cold shoulder. Musical plays (as distinct from opera) were considered a “lower” art than poetry. Moreover Dunbar, who had self-published his first two books, apparently made little effort to publish his theatrical work beyond a few song folios for the piano-playing public.

ClorindyBut I think more importantly, the songs and plays, unlike Dunbar’s poems, sometimes did not work to subvert the stereotypes of minstrelsy, but instead simply endorsed them. In the words of Benjamin Brawley, Dunbar’s second biographer, and his first African American biographer, in Dunbar’s theatrical work, “There is the deliberate flattering of the white public so frequent in the musical comedies of the day.” Reinforcing the derogatory stereotypes of African Americans is what Brawley means by “flattering of the white public.” The Cook and Dunbar tune from Clorindy that Sousa recorded was called, “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”

Still, I’d love to read Clorindy, and I’m sorry that the script appears to be lost. For despite the negative stereotypes of some of the lyrics, it was the first show to bring ragtime to Broadway; Dunbar was one of our country’s great poets; and . . . I would love to know how he and Cook told the story of the origin of the cakewalk!

While I can see why Dunbar’s early biographers downplayed his theatrical forays, that doesn’t excuse the numerous historians of Broadway who have ignored Cook and Dunbar. In book after book, Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin has been credited with bringing ragtime to Broadway, seven or more years after Cook and Dunbar did, during which time numerous other African American songwriters had found ragtime Broadway success, on their own and in collaboration with Cook and Dunbar.

Dunbar’s erasure from Broadway history mirrors his relative obscurity in white culture generally. Despite the power and richness of his work, he remains relatively marginal in official, white, literary culture. Which is the obverse of his importance in African American culture. Arna Bontemps, who was born in 1902 and died in 1973, reminisced in a lecture late in his life:

The name of Paul Laurence Dunbar was in every sense a household word in the black communities around Los Angeles when I was growing up here. It was not, however, a bookish word. It was a spoken word. And in those days it was associated with recitations which 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. I was still in grade school when I first heard a program chairman asking a prospective participant if he knew a ‘Dunbar piece’ he could recite. A knowledge of Dunbar’s poetry and the pleasure it gave when spoken with a note of mimicry and a touch of pathos was all it took to melt our hearts and make us one.

People named buildings after Dunbar across the country. There are Paul Laurence Dunbar schools in Mobile, Lexington, Baltimore, Chicago, Dayton, Fort Myers, Washington DC, Atlanta, Memphis, Kansas City, East St. Louis, Fort Worth, Little Rock, the Bronx, Lynchburg, and elsewhere. Detroit has a Dunbar hospital, Dallas a Dunbar Branch Library, Chicago a Dunbar Park, and Los Angeles the Dunbar Hotel. Dunbar inspired African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance and later, and musicians as diverse as R&B singer Hadda Brooks, jazz singers Nina Simone and Oscar Brown Jr., and classical composer William Grant Still, whose “Afro-American Symphony” was the first symphony written by an African American to be performed by a leading orchestra; the symphony’s four movements each have a Dunbar quote as an epigraph. Maya Angelou borrowed a Dunbar line for the title of her most famous book.

Our focus here has been on a tiny fraction of Dunbar’s work, a handful of his poems and songs and their implications for music history and the history of the Civil Rights movement. I would be remiss not to note that Dunbar did not work in isolation, but in a milieu that included, in addition to Du Bois, Johnson, and Cook, musicians and performers like Bob Cole, Rosamond Johnson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Will Vodery, Ernest Hogan, Bert Williams, and George Walker. Dunbar’s work is part of a larger African American story, one of aesthetic brilliance and pointed resistance to white supremacism, an effort that white America ignored, neglected, and suppressed, and sometimes appropriated in overtly racist ways that I don’t have time to discuss in this paper. Despite the general ignorance in white America of the importance of Dunbar, and his marginal place our literary curriculum, his work survives in living culture, not just as a name on buildings. Last year, after Aretha Franklin died, at her memorial service, her homegoing, an amazing group of musicians, preachers, politicians, writers, and performers paid tribute to her for most of a day. The great actress Cicely Tyson, then 93 years old, recited a poem that she might have heard at a party when she was little. In case anybody doubts the power and vitality and continued relevance of Dunbar’s work, Ms. Tyson offers a differing viewpoint.

[I ended the presentation by playing the video of Ms. Tyson reciting the first stanza of Dunbar’s poem. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. The poem, and my excerpt from the video, starts at two minutes in.]

Tyson at the homegoingCicely Tyson, at Aretha Franklin’s homegoing, Aug. 31, 2018


Dunbar poster

Dunbar & Douglass evening

* * *


Afterthoughts, not in the original presentation:

After the question and answer session, Sara Marcus, a professor at Notre Dame who had delivered a really interesting paper immediately preceding mine, on the challenges that the Fisk Jubilee Singers faced when transcribing the spirituals that they had not sung since childhood, and on W. E. B. Du Bois’s use of the spirituals (which he called “sorrow songs”) in The Souls of Black Folk, told me that a scholar in the 1980s had written a persuasive article (or series of articles) that debunked the idea that the character Raccoon, in the 1760s play The Disappointment, had been intended to be Black or in blackface. I thanked her. I haven’t read the article(s) in question. Sara may be right, but I doubt whether it is ultimately decidable or knowable; I suspect that the character’s foreshadowing of what became standard blackface dialect will be impossible for me to completely shake, but had I known what I know now, I would have — and, given the uncertainty of my original claim, should have in any case — qualified the assertion of the roots of blackface dialect with a “perhaps” — “the use of ‘honey’ as a marker of blackface dialect might perhaps go back to the 1760s.” 

The next day at the conference when I bumped into Sara again, I asked whether she had any other objections to my paper, suspecting that she did, and I was right. In the nicest possible way she questioned whether Dunbar intended “The Ol’ Tunes” to have been read as in a Black dialect. The dialect is unlike his other blackface dialect poems. I hadn’t noticed or thought about it, and she’s right – the dialect is different. It hadn’t occurred to me because with the other poems of his that I’ve read (and though I’m enjoying making my way through his Collected Poems, I haven’t yet finished it) that are in dialects other than the dialect of blackface, the reason for the dialect is foregrounded, as in the examples the paper cites: the homage to Riley is in Riley’s Hoosier dialect, and the German-dialect poem repeats the stereotype that Germans love beer (not coincidentally the subject of the most famous of Charles Leland’s Hans Breitmann’s Ballads). The reason that “The Ol’ Tunes” might be in a rural white dialect isn’t immediately apparent, and the musical practice described – chiming in, or heterophony – is so suggestive of African American musical practices preceding Dunbar and lasting today that I immediately leaped to the associations. It makes me want to dig into rural white practices of heterophony. I know that white people sang work songs and sea shanties, probably using heterophony, so it makes sense that there may have been heterophonic white church music as well.

In any case, I regret not highlighting that all of Dunbar’s dialect poems are fictions. An earlier draft pointed it out; Kevin Young (as Sara Marcus mentioned to me as well) has written about Dunbar’s brilliant use of the modernist technique of personae in terrific book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Dunbar didn’t speak the way his dialect characters did, and it’s likely that they are fictional in other important ways too. An earlier draft of the paper pointed out that he was 21 when he published “The Ol’ Tunes,” which further undermines its autobiographical aura. I tried to learn (unsuccessfully, so far) the Black population of Dayton, Ohio, in 1890. Dunbar’s having been the sole African American student of his high school class suggests that he might not have experienced firsthand the scenes of collective Black music making that some of his poems describe.

Which, of course, makes their value as documentary sources . . . complicated!

The scene of a servant upbraiding “Miss Lucy” for not singing nearly as well as Malindy is fictional, and it is impossible to know whether it bears a relationship to any firsthand experience of Dunbar’s at all. Regardless, Dunbar’s impressionistic evocation of melisma in that poem – it’s valuable, it resonates, it carries echoes of African American musical practices from before recorded history to today’s Top 40. If nothing else, Dunbar’s poems on music document one sympathetic writer’s imagining of African American musical practices – imaginings that track what we know of later and in some instances earlier African American musical practices.

This paper is a tiny, chiseled fragment from a book project, the main focus of which is Dunbar’s friend James Weldon Johnson; Dunbar will loom large in the book’s first half, and his influence continues to this day. I’m glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to gather and present my thoughts on this piece of the topic, and grateful to Sara Marcus for the queries she shared. Removing “The Ol’ Tunes” from the case for Dunbar’s poems as suggestive for American musical history, particularly African American musical history, and as foreshadowing arguments that later Civil Rights leaders made, does not greatly hurt the case. Just the night before I presented the paper, I removed a discussion of another poem that favorably compared African American music to music derived from European sources, “A Banjo Song,” and replaced it with the digression on the poem by Rabindranath Tagore, inspired by the conference theme of “ghosts” and by papers by Ali Colleen Neff and Oliver Wang that I had heard the day before, that discussed the centrality of recording to people’s musical experience. (Ali’s paper in particular was moving and inspiring.) I love that Tagore and Dunbar were lamenting the passing of music that had never been recorded. (Tagore’s poem is fictional as well, describing an interaction between a king and his favorite court musician.) An earlier draft of the paper had this passage; I wish I hadn’t cut it:

It’s worth noting that at least some of these poems are fictional. “A Banjo Song” depicts the life of a banjo-playing slave. Dunbar’s parents had been slaves, but he was born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. He debuted that one and “The Ol’ Tunes” in his self-published book of 1893, Oak and Ivy, of 1893, when he was 21. The narrator lamenting the lost music of his youth in “The Ol’ Tunes” probably wasn’t literally the 21-year-old Dunbar.

And one more post-post-script, a poem I posted on Facebook in December 2017, about the book:


The Outline

sits, complete, changeable,
taunting me with its emptiness
and possibility,
snickering at me,
teasing me,
about all the words I will need
to fill it and, hopefully,
make it live,
and not just words,
but phrases,
turns of phrase,
catchy phrase turns
that, hopefully,
stick in the mind’s ear
as they string together to form
a narrative coherent and arguments persuasive,
a story written for you, dear reader,
filled with compelling and colorful details
that pull you along and ignite in you
the desire
to keep
as the arguments gather their evidence and reasons
into immovable boulders of unassailable undecidability,
withstanding all sayers of “Nay, nay,
your open-endedness and lack of decisiveness
is irresponsible,
you must take sides!”,
and of course I do and I shall,
I will take sides,
leaving open the possibility
that someone else’s version
could be just as right,
and that, regardless of
any minor detail’s fudginess
(and oh how I strive to eliminate fudge!),
the whole remains

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