Marilyn Nelson + Jerry Pinkney Make Music

Poetry Friday is arranged wonderfully today by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.

Wanting poetry with a bit of swing for readers who swing, I noted a few. I came up singing with a big (90 pages!) hardcover picture book of musical poems from 1940s segregation times, Sweethearts of Rhythm.

It is from a potent creative team – Coretta Scott King Honor Book author Marilyn Nelson, holder of the Frost Medal & countless honors. The art is by Jerry Pinkney, also a King recipient & winner of the Caldecott, among many other honors.

The book is about a band.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Each musician who performed in this history-making, interracial, all-woman musical group that eventually performed in post-war Europe, endured hardship to create their successful troupe.

So a surprise of this melodic, thoughtful & lovely gallery of words and paintings is the voice.  Instead of writing each poem in the voice of the accomplished woman artist, the musical instruments stir to life with Marilyn Nelson’s sharp attention, as she conducts the opening poem:

                    “With a twilight velvet musky tone

                   as the pawnshop door is locked

                   an ancient tenor saxophone spins off a riff of talk.”

The women pounded, tooted, blared, sang & drummed swing music. They coped with Jim Crow laws on their cross-country bus tours. They performed before sold-out, wildly approving audiences that were primarily all-black. The band members’ heritage was African-American, Chinese-American, Native-American – Puerto Rican & Caucasian, too.




 “Traversing the United States

performing one-nighters, traveling thousands of miles in a year:

The gals had a mission, expressible only in tones.

My gal could quote Satchmo so people stopped dancing to cheer.”


The above is the voice of a trumpet expertly played by legendary Sweethearts band member Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, who also sang. I found this expectedly lively clip.

The audiences responded so joyfully, the fans included an admiring Louis Armstrong, who reportedly offered Ms. Davis a huge salary to ditch the women and join his troupe. She declined.

The gals come across as you would expect for a lyrical, energized group – so dang fabulous. I would love to talk with someone who saw them blare forth in top form. And Hollywood, let’s see them in a movie.

I’ll close out with lines from another poem in this important collection, which innovative music educators along with poem-teachers in classrooms may want to chart for their, oh, let’s say, grade four through college students.

This poem voice is the baritone sax of band member Willie Mae Wong speaking:

   “She lugged me, like a grown-up-sized infant, from place to place

     (Her strength was XL, though she was a 2 petite).

      Carrying her handbag, her suitcase, and me in my case,

     She trip-tripped around on dainty high-heeled feet.


      Should I apologize if we “only” made people dance?

      That one is alive is an adequate reason to sing!

      Must beauty apologize for simple elegance?

      Shoot, we didn’t need a “philosophy” to swing!

If you are looking for more on the poet conductor who delivered this concert- in- words, Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till and many other titles) is interviewed about this book with Jerry Pinkey, by Janelle Mathis.

note: Due to my schedule I’m writing & posting this on Jan. 15, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which we begin commemorating today rather than await the official holiday on Monday.






























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17 responses to “Marilyn Nelson + Jerry Pinkney Make Music”

  1. Hi Jan, that was a fantastic story about the Sweethearts of Rhythm during the era of Jim Crow. And a reminder that the music of the time really had some serious punch to it. This next thought may be of use to you or maybe not, but just in case: this is my first time reading your blog, but I found that reading the small brown font on black background really strained my eyes. (Of course I am a whinging geezer) But it was a great story and it was well worth it. Thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Myra, Appreciations for the link to your thorough article. Your links are great and I urge everyone interested in this story to follow them. Also, we love NOLA too, so I was glad you posted your travel photos at your site. Thanks a lot for adding to this discussion.


  2. This is a new book to me, but everything about it from title to illustration to poetry appeals to me. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Truly a fabulous book and a perfectly apt tribute for MLK Day! Judging from the comments, it’s a good thing for you to spread the word about it!


    • Dear Mary Lee, Yes, oh yes. Such a wide world of great children’s poetry books, the more I rove among titles the more I know I will never know all the outstanding ones. Thanks for the encouragement!


    • I’m paging thru it to see if there is a boy factor – hope the music grabs him & perhaps the backdrop of men at war. Thanks for thinking about it for him & best wishes for his music path, Liz.


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