Nothing to Do -
James Ephraim McGirt
for high voice and piano
The fields are white;
The laborers are few;
Yet say the idle:
There's nothing to do.
Jails are crowded;
In Sunday-schools few;
We still complain:
There's nothing to do.
Drunkards are dying --
Your sons, it is true;
Mothers' arms folded
With nothing to do.
Heathens are dying;
Their blood falls on you;
How can you people
Find nothing to do?
[ 3 pages, circa 2' 20" ]
From the coverage of black leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership
and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as they lead the march down
from the Edmund Pettus bridge towards the waiting state troopers.
Without a photo to offer of black American poet James Ephraim McGirt, I
chose to illustrate this poem's sense with a visual recollection from the
civil rights movement in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.
is interesting to note is that decades of public protest and advancement in
civil rights in the United States has left both advancement in some areas
and yet decay in others. One modern web site --
blackgenocide.org -- notes "the disproportionate number of
black babies exterminated by the
abortion, while another
notes "Black American women comprise 13.5 % of
the female population in the U.S. but have 34% of all the abortions. Black
abortion rates are approximately 2.6 times higher than the white" --
blackelectorate.com. The civil rights
activists' stance today ignores as politically incorrect black on black
crime ("jails are crowded") and the undue excess of abortions among black
Americans ("their blood falls on you"), while James McGirt foresaw these
kinds of issues in 1899, the date of the poem above. McGirt's question still
resounds: "How can you people find nothing to do?" The challenge is as valid
today as it was a century ago, as today's civil rights activists cleverly
avoid the substantial issues which affect not only the black American
community, but in a larger sense humankind across the world.
James Ephraim McGirt (1874-1930) was an author, publisher and prosperous
business man. McGirt came from rural Robeson County, North Carolina. He
began writing while he lived and attended school in Greensboro, writing
poetry and earning his bachelor's degree at Bennett College in just three
years in 1895. His first volume of poetry, Avenging the Maine,
was published in 1899 by Edwards and Broughton. Later volumes of poetry were
Some Simple Songs, For Your Sweet Sake, and The
Triumphs of Ephraim. In Philadelphia, he founded McGirt's Magazine,
an illustrated monthly denouncing color prejudice and urging positive race
advancement for American blacks along with his own and other prominent black
Americans' writings. The magazine flourished for about six years, but closed
in 1909, after which McGirt returned to Greensboro and established several
businesses. Alcoholism marred the end of his life, and he died from
McGirt begins with the image of fields "white" which might well refer to
cotton fields beckoning laborers to work. As hard as such an image is in its
reference to slavery before the Civil War, many antebellum freemen became
farm laborers and share croppers. Certainly we know from McGirt's experience
with this could have been personal, for he was born into a rural economy.
From this first image of few laborers for a mighty work, McGirt accelerates
his images, beginning with jail opposed to Sunday-school, and then to
substance abuse addicts dying, and finally "heathens" dying by which McGirt
means those not informed by and living according to the tenets of religion
such as he would have known it.
The setting begins gently with a falling line to juxtapose against the theme
above. Each increase in dynamics and wrong-note dissonance heightens the
point of this text.
The final stanza of the poem becomes a forceful challenge, as the theme is
underpinned by aggressive octaves and double dotted rhythms.
The score for Nothing to Do 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.
Nothing to Do