Music and poetry in the United States has been influenced by the growing ethnic diversity and the rapidly emerging differences between the popular, classical, and folk music. The advancement in technology and the impact of prosperity on music coupled with the growing significance of the African Americans were obvious when it came to the American vernacular music. The early forms of vernacular were commonly based on spirituals that were early modes to cope with the stresses of slavery. Songs such as Go Down Moses sang by slaves back in the day helped them articulate with their sufferings and also covertly militated them from the horrors of bondage. They were not necessarily restricted to church, but they were accepted as daily life songs for slaves. Margaret Walker who is regarded as an anomalous figure in the African American poets society in the 1940s took advantage of this vernacular form of music and used it in her poetry. This paper will be discussing how vernacular forms of music and poetry helped Margaret Walker establish herself with some of her greatest works in poetry, specifically Going to Meet the Man, For My People, and Prophets For The Day.
For the slaves working in the plantations, there was no fixed distinction to differentiate between the secular and the sacred, since spirituality was regarded as part of their daily lives. The concept of sacred rested on the strong will to integrate within the natural world all things associated with the divine. It was a characteristic that could be threaded to their origins back in West Africa. Gospel music is also regarded as a vernacular form of music just like the early spirituals and has been signified on the European traditions where it was performed. A Song like Going to Meet the Man, by Margaret Walker over time has been re-presented in to the music and poetry literature as a vernacular form of spiritual. It features a delicate balance between highly percussive, bluesy, and polyrhythmic-ally syncopated form, which has been associated with the old form of spiritual poetry. What was noteworthy about this poem is that it was also used in the traditional sense of gospel, where the emphasis mostly was laid on the redemption being aligned with heaven and freedom. This work envisioned the human soul being ascended from a life of toil and struggle, and going to meet God to receive freedom. Her style of music was clearly a drawn from the long life struggles that were experienced by the slaves in the old days working in the plantation. Poetry was another form of vernacular translation that was used by the African Americans who were captured as slaves.
Creative writers, who were of African decent living in America, were more involved in works that were inspired by the spirit of long protest from the slave era. It was surged up from passionate understanding and sympathy. The individualistic whites were manifested in the secular rhymes that were used by the black American community to share their pain and struggles through expression of songs and poetry. It seemed to be the figurative way of advancing their thoughts on the issue and ease their sorrow. The slaves had other concerns and moods away from the religious and sacred vernacular forms. They were meant to counter the spirituals, and were manifested through parodies by the more cynical slaves, and were passed around in the slave quarters (Jackson, Blyden & Louis 167). They were considered to some extent to be devil tunes due to their briskly syncopated lines that was performed while clapping hands and patting feet. This set the required beat for a swift gay dancing. Verses were in the form of fables that told of stories that had a strong and deep meaning of the real world. Margaret Walker used this form of secular rhyming in her work For my people. It was a work that can be seen to be derived from the time of slavery and how the black American people toiled all day and hoping for an unknown god to come save them (Hull 91). This form of secular rhyme can be attributed to the past influence of the slaves to lament on their struggles. She addresses this fairly well in this work drawn from a vernacular style of writing. The secular rhymes became a transition between the more favored folk-seculars to the Vaudeville stage. They built up a strong connection to the establishment of jazz and other folk seculars. The piece by Walker was a testimony of the strength of African American secular rhymes and their impact on the society. It shows that there was a strong relationship when it came to song and poetry. There had to be a precise rhythm for it to sound good and help spread the message. Margaret Walker was taking by this form of vernacular form because it gave her that perfect balance and blend of text and music in the modernist style of poetry.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1 Margaret Walker (1915-1998), retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/margaret-walker
Walker also introduced her work known as Prophet for a new day in the year 1970. This was regarded as a civil rights poem. It was a notable piece that gave an insight in to the civil rights movement and the darkness it brought to the American society. She depicts a biblical association and allusion that was important in the fight against injustice and end to racism. It can be considered to be another work that was heavily influenced by the spirituals as a vernacular form. She characterizes her poem as one that can be identified with women being prophets to a new day. The prophetic poems, especially the spirituals, were her constant referent. Unlike her other contemporary African American stories and poems that were connected to folk, voice to music, she uses her work For my People as formal resource to the African American vernacular form of music. Walker also constantly draws her style from folk ballads in presentation of her vernacular poems that are in folk form. Walkers established connections with Hughes and Wright, who were known to recreate popular culture styles in music and poems in their works, also plays part in the valorization of the rural folk music. This is a trait that is common in her work and she is very expressive about it.
There are younger writers who have been credited with amazing vernacular form of writing in their poems. But Walker, set the bar with her works and generated a buzz when she published any of her works. The way she expresses herself in the works in the form of harsh and mild protests in remembrance of the days of folk narratives and spirituals is quite outstanding. She has purposed her work to carry a strong message in the voice of the old traditions and livelihoods, interpreted from the vernacular language.
Jackson, Blyden and Louis Rubin. Black Poetry in America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University
The New Red Negro: The Literary left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hull, Gloria T. Black Women Poets from Wheatley to Walker. Negro American Literature
Forum. Vol. 9, No.3, (Autumn 1975), 91-96.
Margaret Walker (1915-1998), retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/margaret-walker
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