Language, Music, and the Vernacular in African American Poetry
Poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Melvin Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker have explored how poetry embraces and reimagines vernacular language. At the 1994 Furious Flower Conference, critic Eleanor Traylor drew participants into a discursive zone that Margaret Walker describes as “suffused with emotive content,” into the realm of the oracular “where voices transmitting the spoken and measured word have dominion.” In the Furious Flower Archive visitors will discover how closely music and poetry are connected as one form inspires and/or influences the other form. The poets and their poems are often linked to the musical genres of spirituals, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and hip-hop. Notable examples can be found in the poetry of Amiri Baraka, Michael Harper, and Sonia Sanchez.
Spirituals, sometimes referred to as Negro spirituals, are religious songs that were created by enslaved African Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Enslaved people were typically not allowed to practice their original faiths and forced to convert to Christianity. In the midst of injustice, they began to create parallels between biblical stories and their own circumstance through song. Spirituals became a form of worship as well as a way to communicate through coded lyrics and meaning. Often sung in a call-and-response form, a notable descendant of the genre is Black gospel music.
“A Baptist Beat” by Thomas Sayers Ellis
“Religion” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Blues is a musical genre rooted in the Antebellum South. Originating in plantation fields, the genre is derived from coded slave songs and African spirituals and began to develop earnestly after the abolition of slavery. Instrumentally diverse, blues is generally comprised of 12 bars, the blues scale, call-and-response, and a walking bassline. Lyrically, the genre explores melancholy, oppression, and personal strife. Blues has had a significant influence in American music at large, influencing genres such as jazz, rock, and country.
“Bessie” by Alvin Aubert
“Last Affair: Bessie’s Blues Song” by Michael S. Harper
Jazz is a diverse, highly inventive musical genre created by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is considered one of America’s most original art forms. Influenced by blues, ragtime, and African and European styles, jazz turns classical composition on its head. The genre is rooted in swing, the blues scale, improvisation, polyphony, and syncopation. Black New Orleans musicians are largely credited with the birth of jazz around 1910, although other forms of the genre were also blooming across the United States at the time.
“Like Miles Said” by Alvin Aubert
“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Be-bop is a type of jazz music which formed in the 1940s and marked a significant departure from traditional composition. The name “be-bop” is an onomatopoeia of the staccato phrase used within the genre. Stylistically, be-bop employs fast tempos, key and rhythm changes, improvisation, and harmonic complexity. Typically, it is performed by a quintet: piano, bass, drums, and two horns. Although it is a descendant of big band music, which was considered to be purely entertainment, be-bop musicians understood their music as an art form demanding serious attention.
“Heathens” by Amiri Baraka
“Improvisation” by Sonia Sanchez
Rhythm and blues is a term coined in 1947 by Billboard reporter Jerry Wexler that refers to several kinds of popular blues and jazz-influenced African American music. Wexler used the term to replace the previous phrase “race music.” “Rhythm” refers to the use of jazz beats, while “blues” refers to the lyrical and melodic content, which is often melancholic. In the 1950s, rhythm and blues was used to describe only blues, jazz, and adjacent genres such as doo-wop, but by the 1970s the term became a catch-all term that included soul and funk. Rhythm and blues is also considered a precursor to rock music.
“blues zephyr” by Kalamu Ya Salaam
Sherley Anne Williams reads “The Black Backups” by Kate Rushin
Funk is a form of urban dance music originating in the 1960s. The genre is marked by stripped-down melodic structures and an intense focus on rhythm and groove, with the bassline serving as the central element of the song. In addition, funk guitar lines are often played percussively. James Brown is largely credited for inventing funk and what is known as the funk beat, which emphasizes the downbeats. Funk has had a strong influence on the hip-hop genre, which has often taken samples from funk music.
“In the Funk World” by Amiri Baraka
Eugene Redmond reads “Funky Grace” by Joseph Harrison
From Furious Flower: African American Poetry
from the Black Arts Movement to the Present,
ed. Joanne Gabbin. Charlottesville:
University of Virginia Press, 2004:
“For Sweet Honey in the Rock” by Sonia Sanchez
Dedicated to the acapella performance ensemble founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon that honors African American history and culture, this poem connects the African American struggle for freedom in the past to ongoing struggles in the present and the future.
“James Baldwin, 1924-1987” by Alvin Aubert
This poem talks about Joan Baez singing “Amazing Grace,” a Christian hymn, on the radio the morning James Baldwin died. Baldwin often quoted spirituals in his own writing.
“They Are All Falling Around Me” by Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon’s poem speaks to Black musical history and the passing on of Black cultural elders each year. Reagon describes this work as a song itself, each stanza comprised of lyrics.
“Dear John, Dear Coltrane” by Michael S. Harper
Harper dedicated this poem to legendary jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane. Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme, widely regarded as a jazz masterpiece, is mentioned in the poem.
“Directions for Understanding Modern Jazz Criticism” by Kalamu ya Salaam
In his poem, Salaam provides a sharp commentary surrounding jazz. The poem has an open and poignant point about musicians, critics, and racial dialogue.
“Harlem Suite” by Raymond Patterson
Patterson’s poem showcases the jazz scene of Harlem and some of its most significant locations, including Minton’s Playhouse, the Red Rooster, Connie’s Inn, and Baby Grand, as well as Sugar Hill and Striver’s Row, Black neighborhoods that were home to influential figures like Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Eubie Blake, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and others.
“John Coltrane (1926-1967)” by Amiri Baraka
This poem is dedicated to saxophonist John Coltrane and alludes to the songs “A Love Supreme” and “Afro Blue.’’ The poem also begins with a Coltrane quote: “I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”
“The Josephine Baker Museum” by Elizabeth Alexander
This poem is about Josephine Baker, a Missouri-born cabaret singer, actress, and entertainer. Baker was one of the most popular entertainers worldwide and was a central figure of the Jazz Age.
“Orate with Smoke” by Sterling D. Plump
This poem features songs such as Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” musicians like Sun Ra and Charlie “Bird” Parker, and the record label, Veejay, which was founded in Chicago in 1953 and specialized in blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
“Subterranean Night-Colored Magus: 3 Moods in the Mode of Miles” by Joel Dias-Porter a.k.a. DJ Renegade
In this poem, DJ Renegade offers a eulogy to the trumpeter Miles Davis, one of jazz’s most influential performers. With 32 lines, the poem evokes the 32-bar structure popular in jazz.
“Be-Bop” by Sterling D. Plumpp
Plumpp’s poem alternates unevenly between enjambment and end-stopped lines to honor the unexpected tempo of the be-bop genre and its hallmark artists and antecedents, such as Bud Powell and Billie Holiday.
“The B Network” by Haki Madhubuti
Theolonious Monk once said, “Be-bop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way.” Madhubuti uses a structure and rhythm in this poem which mimics the energy and pulse of be-bop music: “brothers bop & pop and be-bop in cities locked up.”
“The Guitars I Used to Know” by Jayne Cortez
Genre: Rhythm and Blues
Cortez’s poem makes an homage to blues by exploring the evolution of guitars through her eyes and also mentioning two influential African American blues guitarists, T-Bone Walker and Memphis Minnie. Cortez mimics their music through the words and sounds used in the poem.
“The Haymarket” by John Keene
Genre: Rhythm and Blues
John Keene’s poem describes seeing Jennifer Holliday in concert years after her early 1980s performance in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, during which she popularised the R&B hit, “And I Am Telling You.”
“Block Party” by Major Jackson
In this poem, Major Jackson describes a block party complete with funk music and BBQ, with specific mentions James Brown’s “Funky President” and Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Systemic Three’s “The Roof is on Fire.” The poem is dedicated to the hip-hop group, The Roots.
“Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk” by Thomas Sayers Ellis
This poem by Thomas Sayers Ellis pays tribute to the Funk group Parliament Funkadelic. Named after one of the group’s songs, the poem also mentions their album Gloryhallastoopid.