A Banjo Song


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;
An' 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,--
An' it '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 hilltops
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 light,
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
When de music o' dat banjo
Sets my cabin all er-ring.

An' my wife an' all de othahs,--
Male an' female, small an' big,--
Even up to gray-haired granny,
Seem jes' boun' to do a jig;
'Twell I change de style o' music,
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
Dat 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 jine in.

Den we all th'ow in our voices
Fu' to he'p de chune out too,
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' de banjo,
Quick an' deb'lish, solemn, slow,
Is de greates' joy an' solace
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
O' dis life is few enough.

Now, de blessed little angels
Up in heaben, we are told,
Don't do nothin' all dere lifetime
'Ceptin' play 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 wall.

[ 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 text, Theology, 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 song setting.



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