Sence You Went Away
James Weldon Johnson
for medium voice and piano
Seems lak to me de stars don't shine so bright,
Seems lak to me de sun
done loss his light,
Seems lak to me der's nothin' goin' right,
Sence you went away.
[ 1 ]
Seems lak to me de sky ain't half so blue,
Seems lak to me dat ev'ything
Seems lak to me I don't know what to do,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me dat ev'ything is wrong,
lak to me de day's jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird's forgot
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me
I jes can't he'p but sigh,
Seems lak to me ma th'oat keeps gittin' dry,
Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,
Sence you went
[ 6 pages, circa 4' 05" ]
James Weldon Johnson
Johnson's own biographical sketch which he included along with many other
poets in The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922, reads: "Born at
Jacksonville, Fla., 1871. He was educated in the public schools of
Jacksonville, at Atlanta University and at Columbia University. He taught
school in his native town for several years. Later he came to New York with
his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and began writing for the musical comedy
stage. He served seven years as U. S. Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Author of The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (1812), Fifty
Years and Other Poems (1917), and the English libretto to Goyescas,
the Spanish grand opera, produced at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1915."
For a longer and more detailed biography, there are several easily available
through other sites which tell much more of this accomplished poet and
In addition to the fine anthology of which he was both editor and
contributor, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), Johnson
published The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The
Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926), and his second collection of
poetry, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, which
appeared in 1927 and marked his last significant creative endeavor. Before
this time however, he also wrote song lyrics, for which his brother composed
music, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which subsequently came to be
known as the "Negro National Anthem." A less well known side to Johnson's
life was his part in "Cole and Johnson Brothers," a collaboration that
flourished in the first decade of the twentieth century, when he wrote
lyrics to over two hundred popular songs.
Among poets Johnson encouraged and through his anthology offered their poems
as inspiration for my own songs and cycles, there are these in my portfolio
to date: James Edwin Campbell, in five song setting titled
Echoes from the Cabin; Daniel Webster Davis'
Hog Meat; George Reginald Margetson's
Every man; Georgia Douglas Johnson fine poems which I titled
Four Songs of a Woman, and
Joseph S. Cotter Jr.'s
A Prayer. As with a number of Johnson's poets, one feature of
Johnson's own poetry of this time (1922) was the use of a common man's
dialect, spelled with certain variants to capture a culture, time and place.
In a similar vein, last year in Charleston I purchased a fascinating
quasi-English language bible translated into the Gullah dialect.
[ 2 ]
Johnson chose for his own artistic purposes in this poem to use such a
The setting is "on" D with the raised sixth of the scale, such that the
tessitura is bounded at the bottom by that scale note.
After a short introduction, the many variants of the same chord as shown in
the above map are arrived at by falling chromatic lines in a four note
texture in which the same chord in many voicings and inversions fills a
lengthy span of many measures length. The architecture of the vocal line is
a restatement of its arch by successively rising thirds according to the
"map." As the accompaniment descends further, the vocal line rises further.
The second verse adopts a different set of voice leading, yet to the same
end and with the same four note chord, sometimes decorated with non-harmonic
The chord implies D minor and also B half diminished seventh, and as a
result the setting settles into bridge material between verses utilizing the
same major-minor seventh chord form to cite D and B.
The third verse revisits the first's, now transposed an octave lower.
A last verse breaks from the expected vocabulary as set by the three
previous verses, and cites the major-minor seven chord in a blues-like
texture including the second phrase in the subdominant per the standard
The score for Sence You Went Away 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.
Sence You Went Away
[ 1 ]
"Sence" gives the sense of pronunciation for "since," as does
"jes" for "just," "de" and "dat" for "the" and "that," and so
on. The purpose of this clever spelling is to capture the sound
as well as general sense captured thereby. The use of
alternative spelling is not unusual, for many poets across
generations have used such craft to convey the sound of speech
irregularities and cultural nuances, most notably E. E. Cummings
who often used this same technique.
[ 2 ]
Gullah refers to both black American descendants of slaves
living on the Sea or in the coastal regions of South Carolina,
Georgia, and northeast Florida, as well as to the creolized
English spoken by these people.
That authors and, to some extent translators, write in dialect
is neither new nor unusual. There are simply so many examples to
cite as proof that only a few from several eminent authors
proves the point conclusively. Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play
All God’s Chillun Got Wings takes its dialect from the
Negro spiritual of the same name. But long before, Charles
Dickens wrote in dialect to capture a sense of the culture in
The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, writing: "Ey!"
said the landlady, "I ca' him so. A' cooms efther nae doctor
that I ken. Mair nor which, a's just THE doctor heer."
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) penned the following snippet of
conversation in dialect and so much more in
Huckleberry Finn: "GIT up! What you 'bout?" And in
another dialect, he writes of advice to the streetcar conductor:
"Punch in the presence of the passenjare!" Joel Chandler
Harris wrote in
The Wonderful Tar Baby Story: "'You er stuck up, dat's
w'at you is,' says Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'en I'm gwine ter kyore
you, dat's w'at I'm a gwine ter do," sezee." One of the
most famous instances of what is technically termed "eye
dialect" is found in George Bernard Shaw's
Pygmalion as the Flower Girl says: "Ow, eez ye-ooa san,
is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now
bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin.
Will ye-oo py me f'them?"
more modern poets, E. E. Cummings showed fine examples of using
orthography to capture dialect, such as in his poem whose first
lines read in part: "oil tel duh woil doi sez / dooyuh unnurs
tanmih eesez pullih nizmus tash,oi / dough un giv uh shid oi
Johnson, in his preface to
The Book of American Negro Poetry, wrote of the "Negro
dialect" and of one of the contributors to that anthology, Paul
"Dunbar's fame rests chiefly on his poems in Negro dialect.
This appraisal of him is, no doubt, fair; for in these
dialect poems he not only carried his art to the highest
point of perfection, but he made a contribution to American
literature unlike what any one else had made, a contribution
which, perhaps, no one else could have made. Of course,
Negro dialect poetry was written before Dunbar wrote, most
of it by white writers; but the fact stands out that Dunbar
was the first to use it as a medium for the true
interpretation of Negro character and psychology. And, yet,
dialect poetry does not constitute the whole or even the
bulk of Dunbar's work. In addition to a large number of
poems of a very high order done in literary English, he was
the author of four novels and several volumes of short
"Indeed, Dunbar did not begin his career as a writer of
dialect. I may be pardoned for introducing here a bit of
reminiscence. My personal friendship with Paul Dunbar began
before he had achieved recognition, and continued to be
close until his death. When I first met him he had published
a thin volume, "Oak and Ivy," which was being sold chiefly
through his own efforts. "Oak and Ivy" showed no distinctive
Negro influence, but rather the influence of James Whitcomb
Riley. At this time Paul and I were together every day for
several months. He talked to me a great deal about his hopes
and ambitions. In these talks he revealed that he had
reached a realization of the possibilities of poetry in the
dialect, together with a recognition of the fact that it
offered the surest way by which he could get a hearing.
Often he said to me: "I've got to write dialect poetry; it's
the only way I can get them to listen to me." I was with
Dunbar at the beginning of what proved to be his last
illness. He said to me then: "I have not grown. I am writing
the same things I wrote ten years ago, and am writing them
no better." His self-accusation was not fully true; he had
grown, and he had gained a surer control of his art, but he
had not accomplished the greater things of which he was
constantly dreaming; the public had held him to the things
for which it had accorded him recognition. If Dunbar had
lived he would have achieved some of those dreams, but even
while he talked so dejectedly to me he seemed to feel that
he was not to live. He died when he was only thirty-three."
As to this "Negro dialect" as Johnson speaks of
Dunbar's work, here is an example from Dunbar's
An Indignation Dinner:
Dey was hard times jes fo' Christmas round
our neighborhood one year;
So we held a secret meetin',
whah de white folks couldn't hear,
To 'scuss de
situation, an' to see what could be done
fust-class Christmas dinneh an' a little Christmas fun.
Therefore, with so many fine examples of this
form of writing -- whether one term it "dialect poetry" or "eye
dialect" or some other academic distinction -- there should be
no question that dialect poetry is the capture of a time, place
and cultural flavor without which that poetry (or prose) might
never function with the power and flavor with which such works