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.


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Defacing with Blackface; or, How I Unwittingly Joined T. S. Eliot and Hardy’s Minstrels

Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage


In 1991, when a Chicago Reader co-worker (she, receptionist; I, proofreader) invited me to write music for two song lyrics by T. S. Eliot, for a production she was directing of his unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes, I jumped at the offer. She asked me because she liked my band; I agreed because I was curious about the big-name poet and loved setting other people’s words to music. I’d done it for a production of Caryl Churchill’s play Vinegar Tom by Ann Arbor’s Brecht Company, for plays by my friends Mickle Maher and Robin Hartunian of Theater Oobleck, for a music composition class in college (to poems by Sam Shepard and Faye Kicknosway), and, just for me to sing, to poems by the Williams, Blake and Shakespeare. I loved – love – poetry, including some of Eliot’s – Four Quartets, some (not all) of the early lyrics, and that book he wrote for that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (though I’ve never seen the show). The Waste Land is not only a literary landmark, it’s compelling and powerful. My love for Eliot is tempered, though. His work can be problematic, to put it mildly.

And Sweeney is rife with Eliot’s big problem – his racism. I don’t remember why the director wanted to do the play, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand its problematic nature. But I didn’t.

Eliot’s anti-Semitism is more pungent in some earlier poems. There really is no way to redeem or recover lines like, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew [sic] is underneath the lot,” in “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar.” Blunt, ugly lines in blunt, ugly poems. If the Jewish characters don’t come off as badly in Sweeney Agonistes, they’re still coarse and ungentlemanly, and the Eliotic context makes the ethnic prejudice inescapable. Read more of this post