Admittedly, this is a decidedly personal page where I want to share poetic and other artistic expressions about the Negro Spiritual.  The first is new to me, and the second has inspired me for years.  Others will be added in due course.

If you have suggestions for additions to the collection, please notify me via my contact form.

In the meantime, please enjoy and be inspired.  – Randye J.

The Singer

Eva Jessye (1895-1992)

Because his speech was blunt and manner plain,
Untaught in subtle phrases of the wise;
Because the years of slavery and pain
Ne’er dimmed the light of faith within his eyes;
Because of ebon skin and humble pride,
The world with hatred thrust the youth aside.

But fragrance wafts from every trodden flower,
And through our grief we rise to nobler things,
Within the heart in sorrow’s darkest hour
A well of sweetness there unbidden springs;
Despised of men, discarded and alone–
The world of nature claimed him as her own.

She taught him truth that liberates the soul
From bonds more galling than the slaver’s chain–
That manly nurtures, lily-wise, unfold
Amid the mire of hatred void of stain;
Thus in his manhood, clean, superbly strong,
To him was born the priceless gift of song.

The glory of the sun, the hush of morn,
Whisperings of tree-top faintly stirred,
The desert silence, wilderness forlorn,
Far ocean depths, the tender lilt of bird;
Of hope, despair, he sang, his melody
The endless theme of Life’s brief symphony.

And nations marveled at the minstrel lad,
Who swayed emotions as his fancy led;
With him they wept, were melancholy, sad;
“‘Tis but a cunning jest of Fate,” they said;
They did not dream in selfish spheres apart
That song is but the essence of the heart.

(From My Spirituals, by Eva Jessye, published in 1927.)

 

 

O Black and Unknown Bards

James Weldon Johnson (18711938)

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

(From The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1922.)

 

(From Were You There when They Crucified My Lord: A Negro Spiritual in Illustrations, illustrated by Allan Rohan Crite, published in 1944)

 

When Malindy Sings

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy–
Put dat music book away;
What’s de use to keep on tryin’?
Ef you practise twell you’re gray,
You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’
Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F’om de kitchen to de big woods
When Malindy sings.

You ain’t got de nachel o’gans
Fu’ to make de soun’ come right,
You ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s
Fu’ to make it sweet an’ light.
Tell you one thing now, Miss Lucy,
An’ I ‘m tellin’ you fu’ true,
When hit comes to raal right singin’,
‘T ain’t no easy thing to do.

Easy ‘nough fu’ folks to hollah,
Lookin’ at de lines an’ dots,
When dey ain’t no one kin sence it,
An’ de chune comes in, in spots;
But fu’ real malojous music,
Dat jes’ strikes yo’ hea’t and clings,
Jes’ you stan’ an’ listen wif me
When Malindy sings.

Ain’t you nevah hyeahd Malindy?
Blessed soul, tek up de cross!
Look hyeah, ain’t you jokin’, honey?
Well, you don’t know whut you los’.
Y’ ought to hyeah dat gal a-wa’blin’,
Robins, la’ks, an’ all dem things,
Heish dey moufs an’ hides dey face.
When Malindy sings.

Fiddlin’ man jes’ stop his fiddlin’,
Lay his fiddle on de she’f;
Mockin’-bird quit tryin’ to whistle,
‘Cause he jes’ so shamed hisse’f.
Folks a-playin’ on de banjo
Draps dey fingahs on de strings–
Bless yo’ soul–fu’gits to move ‘em,
When Malindy sings.

She jes’ spreads huh mouf and hollahs,
“Come to Jesus,” twell you hyeah
Sinnahs’ tremblin’ steps and voices,
Timid-lak a-drawin’ neah;
Den she tu’ns to “Rock of Ages,”
Simply to de cross she clings,
An’ you fin’ yo’ teahs a-drappin’
When Malindy sings.

Who dat says dat humble praises
Wif de Master nevah counts?
Heish yo’ mouf, I hyeah dat music,
Ez hit rises up an’ mounts–
Floatin’ by de hills an’ valleys,
Way above dis buryin’ sod,
Ez hit makes its way in glory
To de very gates of God!

Oh, hit’s sweetah dan de music
Of an edicated band;
An’ hit’s dearah dan de battle’s
Song o’ triumph in de lan’.
It seems holier dan evenin’
When de solemn chu’ch bell rings,
Ez I sit an’ ca’mly listen
While Malindy sings.

Towsah, stop dat ba’kin’, hyeah me!
Mandy, mek dat chile keep still;
Don’t you hyeah de echoes callin’
F’om de valley to de hill?
Let me listen, I can hyeah it,
Th’oo de bresh of angel’s wings,
Sof’ an’ sweet, “Swing Low,
Sweet Chariot,”
Ez Malindy sings.

(From The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, published in 1913.)

 

 

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