A Banjo Song - (2009)
Paul Laurence Dunbar
for baritone and piano
Oh, dere's lots o' keer an' trouble
In dis world to swaller down;
ol' Sorrer's purty lively
In her way o' gittin' roun'.
Yet dere 's
times when I furgit 'em,--
Aches an' pains an' troubles all,--
's when I tek at ebenin'
My ol' banjo f'om de wall.
'Bout de time
dat night is fallin'
An' my daily wu'k is done,
An' above de shady
I kin see de settin' sun;
When de quiet, restful shadders
Is beginnin' jes' to fall,--
Den I take de little banjo
F'om its place
upon de wall.
Den my fam'ly gadders roun' me
In de fadin' o' de
Ez I strike de strings to try 'em
Ef dey all is tuned er-right.
An' it seems we 're so nigh heaben
We kin hyeah de angels sing
music o' dat banjo
Sets my cabin all er-ring.
An' my wife an' all
Male an' female, small an' big,--
Even up to gray-haired
Seem jes' boun' to do a jig;
'Twell I change de style o'
Change de movement an' de time,
An' de ringin' little banjo
Plays an ol' hea't-feelin' hime.
An' somehow my th'oat gits choky,
An' a lump keeps tryin' to rise
Lak it wan'ed to ketch de water
was flowin' to my eyes;
An' I feel dat I could sorter
Knock de socks
clean off o' sin
Ez I hyeah my po' ol' granny
Wif huh tremblin' voice
Den we all th'ow in our voices
Fu' to he'p de chune out
Lak a big camp-meetin' choiry
Tryin' to sing a mou'nah th'oo.
An' our th'oahts let out de music,
Sweet an' solemn, loud an' free,
'Twell de raftahs o' my cabin
Echo wif de melody.
Oh, de music o'
Quick an' deb'lish, solemn, slow,
Is de greates' joy an'
Dat a weary slave kin know!
So jes' let me hyeah it ringin',
Dough de chune be po' an' rough,
It 's a pleasure; an' de pleasures
dis life is few enough.
Now, de blessed little angels
heaben, we are told,
Don't do nothin' all dere lifetime
on ha'ps o' gold.
Now I think heaben 'd be mo' homelike
Ef we 'd hyeah
some music fall
F'om a real ol'-fashioned banjo,
Like dat one upon de
[ 10 pages, circa 5' 45" ]
Paul Laurence Dunbar
This text was published in Dunbar's anthology titled Lyrics of Lowly Life,
1896. For more information on Dunbar, please see my setting of his
and also the marvelous repository for his work at
Wright State University Libraries' Paul Laurence Dunbar Digital Collection.
This poem in seven stanzas presents the picture of simple joys through
music, available to the free man as to the slave. Dunbar, writing as a free
man mentions the joy of music "dat a weary slave kin know!" He ends this
line with an exclamation point, the only line in a lengthy poem to be so
punctuated, and therefore worthy of special attention as Dunbar's lyricism
in both standard English and dialect refers so often to music and song as
among its themes.
The opening and oft-recurring gesture in the piano suggests not only a banjo
"lick," but an accompaniment with a bass line, as others might join in.
Dunbar tells his story thusly, that others join in the musical merrymaking.
The strophe is structured such that it modulates from the tonic, C major,
through to the subdominant and ends with a dominant which prepares the next
verse of an A section, or the gentle harmonic movement to a related tonal
region for B sections to follow. The five measure phrase puts the lyrics
slightly off center with a composed pause before continuing; performers are
allowed latitude with a slight ritardando, should they so desire.
The first two stanzas of the poem finished, the third is treated musically
as a B section in this extended verse form, as the harmonic rhythm eases and
the dramatic scene is set per Dunbar's evocative word painting in dialect.
As with the A section, this too sets up a simple cadence in the dominant to
allow an easy return to the next A section.
The seventh stanza of the poem moves from images of the family, the cabin,
the banjo and musical revelry to music itself as "solace." For this, again
the A section's joyous gestures are put aside for that more reflective
coloring of the B section, now begun on the subdominant.
The final stanza of the poem references images of heaven, replacing the
mythic with wishes for the homespun as that ultimate reality, as Dunbar sees
heavenly music "f'om a real ol'-fashioned banjo, like dat one upon de wall."
For this, this variation of the setting's B section gives way to an ninth
verse -- a repetition and short coda made from the first strophe of this
The score for A Banjo Song is available as a free PDF download,
though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is
prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic
below for this piano-vocal score.
A Banjo Song