Why Sing a Poem?

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s "A Corn Song" in J19
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
Penn Press Log
April 1, 2013
By Tsitsi Jaji

A new article on the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s musical setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “A Corn Song” appears in the inaugural issue of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. Here, the author of the article, Tsitsi Jaji, performs the the song and discusses how she came to sing it as part of her scholarship.

Why Sing a Poem?

In my article for the cluster on American poetics of the nineteenth century I begin with a series of questions: “What can we learn about reading poetry on and off the page from musical composers’ settings of poetry in art songs? How do art songs work as a form of poetics? How do we allow for a composer’s style and resist facile notions of meaning in music while also recognizing the thoughtful textual analyses in art songs?” How I came to care about these questions, and why the Afro-British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1897 musical setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “A Corn Song” proved such a fun way to engage these questions is the story I invite you to consider here.

As an undergraduate student at Oberlin College and Conservatory I studied both comparative literature and classical piano performance. I was drawn to comparative literature as a way to pursue interests in African and Afro-diasporic literatures that were in English, but also French, Spanish (and a number of other languages I couldn’t pursue at the time). This interest was stoked by taking a course on Contemporary African Women Writers with Ama Ata Aidoo in my first year of college. What made the experience so remarkable, beyond Aidoo’s inimitable gift for satire, was that during my high school education in Zimbabwe (independent since 1980) I had read only two African novels as part of an official curriculum, and found but a handful of others in the school’s library. My conservatory training involved courses in music history and theory that reached back to Hildegard von Bingen and forward to Florence Price but the bulk of what we studied and performed was written by dead white guys. So I was encountering new opportunities to study writers whose post-colonial biographies paralleled my own at the same time that I was apprenticing in an archly European performance canon. I was fortunate to be encouraged to perform composers of color, and from marginalized sites of classical music (Spain, Brazil, the U.S., etc.), but the personal contradictions remained somewhat unresolved for many years.

My current scholarly interests range across transnational black cultural relations, and I was intrigued to learn as I was writing my book Africa in Stereo that the historic gathering of black intellectuals in London at the turn of the twentieth century, the Pan-African Conference of 1900, was organized by a former music teacher (H. Sylvester Williams) and included many of the most prominent musicians of the day. Even more exciting was discovering that a concert of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Royal College of Music graduate of Sierra Leonean and British parentage, was one of the official events of the conference (attended by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Fisk Jubilee leader Frederick Loudin and others). Searching for a recording of the songs performed, however, was fruitless. When I found the score to the setting of Dunbar’s poem “A Corn Song” (one of the songs on the 1900 program), I discovered that the two men’s collaboration offered a rich dialogic reflection on the pleasures and paradoxes of musical performance, production, and consumption. I found Coleridge-Taylor’s harmonic and rhythmic choices shifted the way that Dunbar’s poetry registered meaning, affect, and imagery for me. Here was a composer teaching me to read differently.

I wanted to share these insights with other scholars of texts but realized that musical manuscripts and scores are legible to me as a former professional musician in ways that might strike my literary colleagues as opaque and untranslatable. I thought that using performance as a way to translate the score might make Coleridge-Taylor’s musical commentary on Dunbar’s poetry accessible to a new sympathetic and sophisticated audience. Their cross-cultural, transnational exchanges as African American and Afro-British thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century are recorded in imaginative, sometimes counterintuitive musical “hearings” of the text: the vernacular voice in Coleridge-Taylor’s musical settings of portions of the poem in “dialect” imagine “black sound” in ways that reference spirituals he had heard performed but his sonic archive is principally British rather than American, while shifts in key and meter emphasize structural elements of the poem. Working with this poem and song has offered me one way to resolve a cadence that has been suspended for several years.

The performance of “A Corn Song” included in the link in my article features my research partner at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard freshman Cansu Çolakoğlu, on piano, and me in a new role, as vocalist. We hope that our performance brings the Dunbar/Coleridge-Taylor collaboration to life, and renews interest in how musical engagements with poetry offer new critical insights and pleasures.

Tsitsi Jaji is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2012-13 Mary I. Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

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