Poem #13: Songs for the People by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Estimated Reading Time:  3  minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleSongs for the People

Author: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Let me make the songs for the people,
   Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
   Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
   For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
   With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
   Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
   And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
   Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
   To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
   When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
   Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
   Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
   Till war and crime shall cease; 
And the hearts of men grown tender
   Girdle the world with peace.

Harper's poem speaks to us of the power of music and its ability to help us through challenging times--to act as a salve or inspiration through challenging times. I appreciate how Harper's focus is on music for the vulnerable in society.  It serves in contrast to the second stanza where she looks to the ways military music is meant to provoke violence. This line had me thinking about the time and place of her writing this--a time before radio and portable music. The only place you could probably guarantee easier and consistent access to music was the military band. The military band served both as a tool of inspiration ("songs to thrill the hearts of men") and also, as a means of communication on the field to coordinate among the vast army.  

Her invocation of powerful music that can "soothe all sorrow till war and crime shall cease" is a powerful message, not just for the possibility for music to do so (Has Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure taught us nothing?) but also, to recognize that war and crime derive from sorrow; that is, from suffering.  And without suffering, people are overwhelmingly unlikely to commit heinous acts.  That's a belief enwrapped in many religions but also one that bears out in much of the social sciences. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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