The Musical Life of Shirley Graham Du Bois

Radcliffe fellows using the schlesinger library
Portrait of Du Bois. Papers of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe InstitutePortrait of Du Bois. Papers of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
By Tsitsi Jaji

One of the most valuable aspects of my time at Radcliffe has been having access to the Schlesinger Library’s collection of Shirley Graham Du Bois’s papers. Gerald Horne’s magnificent biography of this pioneering musician, writer, and political activist had raised my interest in her musical output, and I knew before arriving that I would revel in the opportunity to pore over the score of her opera Tom-Tom, which premiered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1931.

What a wonderful surprise it was to discover some additional songs in manuscript form, including a setting of (music composed specifically for) a poem by her brother Lorenz Graham and a setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Compensation.” I have been interested in Dunbar’s poetry, which draws on both vernacular dialect forms and elevated, sometimes even archaic, diction to capture two poles of African American expressive culture at the turn of the 20th century. His poetry has fired the imagination of successive generations of black composers, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Betty Jackson King, Adolphus Hailstork, and many others, so I was especially delighted to discover Du Bois’s song in the collection.

Tsitsi Jaji. Photo by Tony RinaldoTsitsi Jaji. Photo by Tony RinaldoLike many other art songs (solo vocal pieces with piano accompaniment) by black composers, “Compensation” 
has not been recorded. This spring my Radcliffe research partner, Cansu Colakoglu ’16, and I have been preparing to perform the song as part of my fellow’s presentation in May. My research shows how composers like Du Bois enrich our understanding of poetry through the musical “illustration” of their settings. Du Bois’s use of melodies from spirituals such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” offers a rich musical and poetic intertextual reading of Dunbar’s lament for unrequited love.

Tsitsi Jaji is the 2012–2013 Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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