The Establishment of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive

I was exposed to the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) long ago, but did not know him by name. In my lectures on him today, I call Dunbar “Your favorite poet’s favorite poet.” That’s how influential he is! Many know of the familiar phrase “I know why the caged bird sings,” thanks to the titles of two of Maya Angelou’s well-known works. Many do not know, however, that it was from Dunbar’s pen: it is a line from his poem Sympathy.

It was not until I started teaching at the University of Dayton, in Dunbar’s Ohio hometown, that I became more familiar with his work. For the singing musician, text is integral to how we make our music. We are often inspired by texts, and I simply fell in love with Dunbar’s words. His imagery, use of dialect, social commentary, and sense of humor resonated with me. Always a fan of unusual recitals, I collaborated with Dunbar scholar and performer, Herbert Woodward Martin. A published poet in his own right, Dr. Martin has established himself internationally by not only editing collections of Dunbar’s works, but also performing live readings of Dunbar’s poetry, just as Dunbar would have in his own lifetime. The result was a concert alternating between art song and spoken word, which Dr. Martin and I have now repeated dozens of times across the country. Through these performances, I came to understand how important Dunbar’s influence on American art song and poetry has been. Dunbar is buried on our campus and his house still stands in the city as an Ohio historic site. My passion for American art song and opera, and my position at the University of Dayton as vocal area coordinator, make me the perfect person and UD the perfect place for this research.

The Dunbar Music Archive (DMA) is an online searchable database of musical settings of texts by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Each poem in the database has its own page, which presents poem texts, publication information, known musical settings, links to biographical information of each composer, and streaming audio of the poetry recited in the Dunbar tradition by Dr. Martin. This is an incredibly valuable tool for all of Dunbar’s works, but especially for performing the dialect poems. And that is the goal of my database: to promote the consumption and performance of the music inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The archive currently houses 146 of Dunbar’s poems with 210 musical settings, two productions for which Dunbar acted as librettist, and operas in which Dunbar is the subject.

Dunbar was a household name during his time—think Michael Jackson—and for a good reason. His poetry just sings! Dunbar often dabbled in the gray area between poetry and song by using incidental music in his readings and libretti, and including song texts and opportunities to sing within his poetry. I found this approach to repertoire study interesting because it provided me the opportunity to study the work of a variety of composers and styles. It also allowed me to research the works of underrepresented composers, another important goal of my scholarship. His poetry was set by his contemporaries Carrie Jacobs Bond and Samuel Coleridge Taylor, as well as by composers writing today, such as Adolphus Hailstork and H. Leslie Adams. It was important to me that this collection serve as both a tool for others and to preserve these works. The archive houses art songs ranging from parlor to romantic to atonal; several operas; an operetta; and some choral repertoire.
In the next year, a Dunbar Dialect Glossary will be added to the DMA. These entries will include word definitions, pronunciation with the international phonetic alphabet, audio, and poem context information. We will continue to maintain physical holdings of scores and related material in the University of Dayton Roesch Library. But perhaps most importantly, this archive is not exhaustive. It grows daily, and there is a link to suggest repertoire not currently found in the archive. The participation of the broader art song community in this endeavor will only help to grow and deepen this important source of knowledge about Paul Laurence Dunbar and his world.  

Dr. Minnita Daniel-Cox is Assistant Professor of Voice and Coordinator of the Voice Area at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. Her collaboration with Herbert Martin, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: A celebration of Paul Laurence Dunbar has been performed across the U.S. and has lead to the establishment of the Dunbar Multicultural Series and the Dunbar Music Archive. 

 To visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive, click on the link below:

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