Poem #30: When Malindy Sings by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Estimated Reading Time:  4.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleWhen Malindy Sings

Paul Laurence Dunbar

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.


G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
   Put dat music book away;
What's de use to keep on tryin'?
   Ef you practise twell you're gray,
You cain't sta't no notes a-flyin'
   Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F'om de kitchen to de big woods
   When Malindy sings.

You ain't got de nachel o'gans
   Fu' to make de soun' come right,
You ain't got de tu'ns an' twistin's
   Fu' to make it sweet an' light.
Tell you one thing now, Miss Lucy,
   An' I 'm tellin' you fu' true,
When hit comes to raal right singin',
   'T ain't no easy thing to do.

Easy 'nough fu' folks to hollah,
   Lookin' at de lines an' dots,
When dey ain't no one kin sence it,
   An' de chune comes in, in spots;
But fu' real malojous music,
   Dat jes' strikes yo' hea't and clings,
Jes' you stan' an' listen wif me
   When Malindy sings.

Ain't you nevah hyeahd Malindy?
   Blessed soul, tek up de cross!
Look hyeah, ain't you jokin', honey?
   Well, you don't know whut you los'.
Y' ought to hyeah dat gal a-wa'blin',
   Robins, la'ks, an' all dem things,
Heish dey moufs an' hides dey face.
   When Malindy sings.

Fiddlin' man jes' stop his fiddlin',
   Lay his fiddle on de she'f;
Mockin'-bird quit tryin' to whistle,
   'Cause he jes' so shamed hisse'f.
Folks a-playin' on de banjo
   Draps dey fingahs on de strings--
Bless yo' soul--fu'gits to move 'em,
   When Malindy sings.

She jes' spreads huh mouf and hollahs,
   "Come to Jesus," twell you hyeah
Sinnahs' tremblin' steps and voices,
   Timid-lak a-drawin' neah;
Den she tu'ns to "Rock of Ages,"
   Simply to de cross she clings,
An' you fin' yo' teahs a-drappin'
   When Malindy sings.

Who dat says dat humble praises
   Wif de Master nevah counts?
Heish yo' mouf, I hyeah dat music,
   Ez hit rises up an' mounts—
Floatin' by de hills an' valleys,
   Way above dis buryin' sod,
Ez hit makes its way in glory
   To de very gates of God!

Oh, hit's sweetah dan de music
   Of an edicated band;
An' hit's dearah dan de battle's
   Song o' triumph in de lan'.
It seems holier dan evenin'
   When de solemn chu'ch bell rings,
Ez I sit an' ca'mly listen
   While Malindy sings.

Towsah, stop dat ba'kin', hyeah me!
   Mandy, mek dat chile keep still;
Don't you hyeah de echoes callin'
   F'om de valley to de hill?
Let me listen, I can hyeah it,
   Th'oo de bresh of angel's wings,
Sof' an' sweet, "Swing Low,
   Sweet Chariot,"
Ez Malindy sings.


Here's another of Dunbar's that draws out the reader and nearly demands to be read aloud.  In part, it's Dunbar's use of what people have described as the "Negro dialect" forces those unfamiliar with it to speak it out to capture the phonetics of the line.  I find this to be an interesting tactic both an attempt to capture the sound of language and also to push readers--particularly white readers--to work at speaking and reading words written by Black people in a society that often refused to hear or recognize the humanity of Black people.  

Of course, then there's also the story of the poem. The speaker telling Lucy that she might as well give up her books of learning because she can't learn something like music but must feel and sense it.  The speaker uses Malindy, a powerful singer who inspires and moves all who hear her--leaving them speechless and in awe by her singing. Her music is glorious in a spiritual way that rivals the more controls and contained sounds of religion such as church bells.  

It's the poem's energy of a speaker trying to capture the power and majesty of Malindy's voice that rises the second reason this poem should be read aloud.  The energy coming from the speaker and the alignment of the words feels like this is something that the speaker might be shouting or even, singing.  The speaker doesn't just want the listener to know but wants to the witnessing of Malindy's singing in a way that it is felt in the bones of the reader or listener poem.

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about 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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