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.