"Dunbar's Compensations: On Five Gifts of Song" Tsitsi Jaji

"Dunbar's Compensations: On Five Gifts of Song"
Tsitsi Jaji
 (English, University of Pennsylvania) 
Jaji is author of Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford University Press, 2014). Her research focuses on transnational exchanges in African, African American, and Caribbean literatures and on relationships between music and literature.

"Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry has garnered renewed critical interest in recent years, and in my presentation I explore what composers who have chosen to set his poetry to music unearth as they sound out multiple possible critical readings. Dunbar’s poem “Compensation” is a mere 8 lines of verse. Yet, refracted through the work of five African American composers – Shirley Graham Du Bois, Nina Simone, Betty Jackson King, Malcolm Rector and Charles Lloyd – the “gift of song” alluded to in his text becomes a material presence as well as a poetic image. Given the limited attention that scholars of black culture have paid to concert music by composers of African heritage, these songs (only a few of the many musical versions of this poem) offer compelling examples of how attending to the intellectual and interpretive labor of musical settings of poetry might offer us access to an alternative body of literary criticism. As I studied these settings, I faced the challenge of how to discuss one setting that has not been commercially recorded (by Shirley Graham Du Bois) with colleagues versed in literature or notated concert music but not necessarily both. Including Graham Du Bois’s setting, then, involved learning, performing and recording her song, and in my presentation I consider how performing a score, sounding out the object of study with my own body, initiated another kind of close-reading. I’m interested in how such sounded methodologies of both composers and performers can enrich, amplify, add to the possible archives of poetic criticism."