As this week of commemoration and celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech comes to a close, I’d like to share a book of poetry that gives voice to a little-known chapter in the history of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in the United States.
Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, by Marilyn Nelson, is a completely original book. Nelson has created a mosaic of voices which, piece by piece, tells the story of “the first integrated all-women swing band in the world.” (Author’s Note) Rather than have each musician tell her story, Nelson lets the instruments talk. And do they have a tale to tell! Beginning with the band’s roots in the Piney Woods Country Life School, each poem shares details about the musicians and their music, as well as African-American life in the early 20th-century South.
Nelson’s poetry also illuminates the character of each instrument. In “Bugle Call Rag,” the trumpet isn’t shy about it’s status in the band:
“No trumpet has ever been tempted
Not to funambulate
On the filament of a melody.
We’re all stars; we were made for the limelight.”
Events of the wider world are also described in the poems, each one named for a popular song of the period. When war is declared against Japan, the tenor sax tells us that Twin Ione or Irene Gresham
“…bowed her head
Then lifted me and eased me into song…
It was ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo,’ but it was a prayer for peace.
She was trying to change the world through sound.”
But, in “Jump, Jump, Jump,” the alto sax reminds us that the reality of life is never far away for these musicians.
“From ballroom to ballroom, the unsleeping eye of Jim Crow
Ever upon us, we traveled the United States
of Colored America, bouncing on back-country roads…”
Throughout the text, Jerry Pinkney’s amazing illustrations mix watercolors and collage to enhance the feeling of Nelson’s poems. Sepia tones are used to portray the desolation of the Dust Bowl, the indignity of segregated restrooms, and the injustice of Japanese internment camps. Warm, vibrant colors are used when children are jumping, couples are dancing, and victory is being celebrated.
Appropriately, in “That Man of Mine,” that show-off trumpet shares the news:
“Her pristine technique wove a shimmering texture of sound
That was shot through with joy, on the day the Armistice was declared.”
These lines could also describe Nelson’s crafting of these poems. Their “shimmering texture of sound” isn’t always shot through with joy, but it always contains the truth, a testament to the lives of these brave women and their instruments, who did bring joy to countless Americans despite the prejudices they faced.
Anna Mae Winburn and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, performing “Jump, Children
Please be sure to visit Tara at A Teaching Life for the Poetry Friday Roundup for more poetry.