Dunbar and Still

To this end, William Grant Still prefaced each movement of his Afro-American Symphony with excerpts from poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. While Dunbar was not the first African American poet and writer, he was the first to achieve a national reputation and to be accepted by both white and black audiences.

Growing up in Dayton, Dunbar often attended predominantly white schools. Consequently many of his friends were white, and most of them continued their friendship with Dunbar to the end of his short life. Before their successful flight attempt at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers were among Dunbar's friends. They not only operated a bicycle shop but also a successful printing business. Orville helped Paul print a newspaper for black readers known as the Dayton Tattler, near the end of 1890. They were only able to print three issues before the project had to be abandoned because it was not economically feasible. No doubt Dunbar learned an important lesson from this early experience: it would be difficult to further his writing ambitions by targeting black readers only.

Dunbar was a prolific writer of poetry (in both dialect verse and literary English), short stories, and plays. He also collaborated with the African American composer Will Marion Cook in writing musicals. Due to the economics of his day he targeted mainly white audiences and had a large readership among them. He was also popular and well-respected among black readers. Although Dunbar came under criticism for perpetuating stereotypes among his white readers, a careful study of his work will show that he was not the "sell out" he was often accused of being. What one must look for in Dunbar's writing are ways in which Dunbar could appeal to his larger white audiences while simultaneously offering more accurate portrayals of African American life than white writers who wrote poetry using dialect verse. Dunbar's Ante-Bellum Sermon is a forerunner of James Weldon Johnson's depiction of the African American preacher in God's Trombones, with his employment of rhetoric and idiomatic usage in the sermon that relies on oral traditions.

He faced a personal dilemma that we should be aware of. Dunbar wrote poetry in both dialect and standard English. Yet the public preferred his dialect verses, and this is what sold; therefore this is what publishers wanted to publish. This dilemma can be seen in his autobiographical poem The Poet.[1]

He sang of life, serenely sweet,
With, now and then, a deeper note.
From some high peak, nigh yet remote,
He voiced the world's absorbing beat.

He sang of love when earth was young,
And Love, itself, was in his lays.
But, ah, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.

The composer did not have the Dunbar excerpts in mind at the time of composition. However, as a means of attaching some extramusical ideas to his music, he added them to the work after its completion. Still later regretted including these poems. He felt that the poems became a distraction from the music.

Music history is full of examples where extramusical ideas or nicknames for compositions have come about after the composition was completed, and have remained linked with that work forever. In Still's case there may still be some type of poetic portrayal in each movement, for the music seems to fit the poems that Still chose, or one might say that the poems seem to fit the music that Still composed.

Still's Afro American Symphony is not his only work connected with extramusical ideas. Still's symphonic poem Darker America, which in the words of the composer, "is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer." Still also wrote The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony in 1954, which includes a narration by his wife, Verna Arvey, who collaborated with him on many musical projects. This children's piece follows a four-note melody as it makes a musical journey through different cultures and situations. It is well-conceived and written, and could profitably be heard by children of all ages and backgrounds. It could well be a parallel to Benjamin Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, except that Still's work places emphasis on melody and its transformations instead of upon instruments of the orchestra, as does the Britten. Also extramusical is the symphonic poem In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy in 1943.

These poems have been included in this guide for you and your students to study and see how they relate to the poetic representation in Still's work. Read each poem several times, and discuss its meaning before listening to the movement that represents that poem.

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