To hear a studio recording of Tsitsi Jaji performing "A Corn Song," click here.
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? I approach these questions via the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1897 musical setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “A Corn Song.”1 As Lawrence Kramer has argued, a song “does not use a reading; it is a reading, in the critical as well as the performative sense of the term: an activity of interpretation that works through a text without being bound [End Page 201] by authorial intentions.”2 Coleridge-Taylor’s settings of Dunbar’s poems represent an alternative form of Black Atlantic literary commentary that contends with, “annotates,” and mines the texts for polysemy.
Countering how dialect poetry stands in for naturalized representations of black speech, Coleridge-Taylor’s song exposes the labor of “sounding out” dialect in bel canto singing. Renewing our memory of Dunbar’s own prodigious recitations, we find the poetry audible without suppressing the estrangement entailed in voicing what is always already an anomaly on the page.3 Since William Dean Howells’s review, Dunbar’s dialect poetry has received more critical attention than his works in standard English even as critical appraisals have varied considerably.4 Many have noted the preponderance of musical imagery in Dunbar’s work, the plethora of musical settings and his collaborations with popular and vaudeville musicians.5 However, we have not yet adequately considered how art song settings of Dunbar’s dialect poetry necessarily read against the grain of reception (contemporaneous as well as later) in an elite musical register.
I have made a recording of my own performance of “A Corn Song” available online, and preparing this performance constitutes another layer of close reading. In the truest sense of amateurism, this labor of love attempts to translate the sometimes hermetic language of musical analysis for a literary specialist audience. The hours I spent in rehearsal transformed this song into a different sort of time-object for me, reactivating my sense of the labor involved in Dunbar poem recital (whether sung or spoken) and implicating me as an interpreter one step removed from the composer. For example, my decision to sing the entire song in bel canto style (and primarily in head rather than chest register) prioritizes Coleridge-Taylor’s Afro-British interpretive reading and thus emphasizes the gap of the Black Atlantic, whereas if I had chosen to employ such US black vocal techniques as tone bending, greater chest resonance, and a triplet-based rhythmic feel in the section representing slaves in song, the poem’s internal tensions might sound more starkly.6
Dunbar met Coleridge-Taylor on a reading tour in England after publishing Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Coleridge-Taylor had a growing interest in African American expressive culture, first stoked by “Frederick J. Loudin, manager of the famous Jubilee Singers [on tour in London], through whom [he] first learned to appreciate the beautiful folk music of [his] race.”7 Loudin introduced Coleridge-Taylor to several visiting African Americans,8 including Dunbar. The two gave several joint recitals and went on to collaborate on a song cycle, African Romances [End Page 202] (1897); and then Dream Lovers: An Operatic Romance (1898); “Candle Lightin’ Time,” and the aforementioned “A Corn Song” (1897).9
One of the most significant performances of “A Corn Song” took place just three years later at the ground-breaking 1900 Pan-African Conference in London, where music took on surprising prominence. The convener, Henry Sylvester Williams, had taught singing in Trinidad before migrating to London, while Coleridge-Taylor and Loudin, two of the best-known black musicians of their day, played lead roles.10 The conference set out a template to work in concert toward justice and black self-determination,11 and this “work in concert” was not just metaphorical: the program included...