When most people think about the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar they immediately go straight to his poetry. This is due, partly, to the fact that Dunbar’s poetry typically appears in anthologies while his other works in varying genres remain on the periphery, mentioned in the note about Dunbar’s life but ultimately left out of the anthology itself. This practice makes sense, especially when considering the scope of anthologies and the limited space to provide numerous, long works by authors. However, we should consider Dunbar’s entire body of work when thinking about him as an artist because if we focus on one aspect we severely limit our understanding not only of Dunbar but of African American and American literature and culture at the turn of the twentieth century.
Considering all of this, I want to take the time today to write about one of Dunbar’s songs that he wrote for Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk with Will Marion Cook in 1898. Clorindy “was the first all-Negro musical-comedy piece,” as Maurice Peress notes, “with an original score—written, composed, directed, conducted, choreographed, and orchestrated—by African Americans on Broadway.” The show starred Ernest Hogan and around forty singers and dancers. Henry T. Sampson points out that after Hogan left the show it became part of Bert Williams and George Walker’s Senegambian Carnival, taking Clorindy around the nation from Cincinnati to Washington D.C. Performances of Clorindy continued throughout the first decades of the twentieth century as Sampson shows when he quotes a review of a February 1914 performance at the Lafayette Theatre in New York City. The review stated, “Will Marian Cook’s musical comedy, Clorindy or the Origin of the Cake Walk, is scoring a big success . . . with a big cast headed by Allie Gilman, the funniest tramp comedian on stage today, and Will Cook.”
Looking at perhaps the most popular song from Clorindy, “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd,” we should think about how the song does not pander, even though it appears as if it does on the surface, to white perceptions of African Americans during a time of coon and minstrel shows; instead, it should be read as a strategic affront to the white audiences who perceived that Clorindy reinforced their preconceived notions of African Americans as servile workers who would rather maintain the past instead of working towards changing the present. This assumption, at least in regard to the song, comes from the chorus. Thinking about any type of music, a listener recalls the chorus before any other part of the song, at least most of the time. With this in mind, the chorus of “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd” appears to say that the singers adhere to the conditions they find themselves in.
Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud
Blame de lan’ let white folks rule it
I’se a lookin’ for a pullet
Who dat say chicken in did crowd? (Emphasis added)
The third line in the first chorus is important. The singer acquiesces to the white folks and says they can rule the land while he looks for a pullet (baby chicken or a hen). In the second chorus the third and fourth lines change to “What’s de use of all did talkin’/ Let me hyeah a hen a-squawkin’.” Here, the singer stops questions why the gathered group should be discussing anything and comments that he would rather hear “a hen a-squawkin’.”
In both choruses, the singer appears to be playing in to the notions that African Americans felt comfortable in their roles in society and that they did not have the ability to speak on any matter regarding their place because of their inferior status in the eyes of whites. The choruses imagine a white audience listening, and the verses, which may be overlooked by some audience members, tell a completely different story.
The first verse speaks about “a great assemblage of the cullud population,” including speakers from Georgia and Tennessee. They met to “discuss the situation and the rumors in the air.” These lines create an image that whites would be scared of during the period. Notice that “a great assemblage” gathers. An assemblage carries strong connotations of a planned meeting to discuss matters of importance and to enact change. As well, the meeting included speakers from different states, indicating the networks of connections within the community. They met to talk about the problems facing them and what to do in regard to their mistreatment. Thinking about audience, African Americans, rather than whites, would possibly pick up on the importance of these lines. Even though this cannot be said with certainty, the structure of the song bears this out. At the end of the first verse “a roostah in a bahn ya’d flew up whah those folks could see” and the people gathered started to “cry” the chorus. The rooster acts as a warning sign that danger, in the form of whites, approach the gathered group of people. Thus, when warned, the people begin to put on the mask that the whites expect to see.
In the second verse, a preacher speaks to the crowd about how they should act. He tells them how “to be respected an become a mighty nation.” The key word here, of course, is “nation,” a word that carries strong connotations just as “assemblage” does in the first verse. The preacher does not speak about how to assimilate; he speaks about how to become set apart. Continuing, he tells the congregated people that they must act right, not lying or stealing “pullets.” At this point, the preacher stops and “an aged deacon” takes over. The deacon, in many ways, serves as the switch in the second verse just as the rooster does in the first. The deacon placates the whites that may overhear the meeting and sings the second chorus which questions why the crowd has even been meeting in the first place.
The discussion of “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd” has been oversimplified. I did not go into detail about the audiences and how Dunbar and Cook navigate them during the course of the song. What I hoped to show with this brief explication is how we should, and need to, read poetry by Dunbar and how such readings can be used when examining other forms of art such as Hip-Hop. Along with the song discussed above, think about audience in regards to Dunbar’s “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” and “We Wear the Mask.” James Smethurst argues that we must read Dunbar’s dialect poems in relation to masking, not as sentimental longings for the past but as masked critiques of racist systems. Writing about “The Party,” Smethurst draws a direct connection between the minstrel tradition and masking stating, “Dunbar suggests a new way of reading African American minstrelsy and other forms of African American popular culture as well as his own work.” “Who Day Say Chicken in Dis Crowd,” like Dunbar’s dialect poems demands such as reading.
Peress, Maurice. Dvorák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows, Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Smethurst, James. The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance, University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
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