Zenobia Powell Perry’s ‘Homage’ to William Dawson

Homage (1990) for piano by Zenobia Powell Perry opens with one hand, one line, cantabile. The spiritual “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” emerges unharmonized, smooth and flowing. Unlike a singer whose breath sustains the tone, the piano notes move from decay to decay to create an illusory, long melodic line. After presenting the tune as a solo, the music accelerates with a tenor voice to develop the tune through full, dissonant chords. This imaginative work was the last piece Perry wrote for piano and integrates her individual style with the most significant musical influence on her life: the spiritual’s rich tradition as art song and folk song. Offsetting lyricism with concentrated and striking textures, Homage continues the legacy of the spiritual into the 21st century.

Zenobia Powell Perry was born in 1908 – a time that could remember pre-Civil War spiritual traditions. Her grandfather, Charlie Thomson (b. 1839), sang spiritual tunes to her as a child and she recalled talking with the great ragtime pianist Blind John Boone in concert backstage.1 Perry began to study composition with William Levi Dawson at the Tuskegee Institute in 1935, the year after his Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with conductor Leopold Stokowski. Perry dedicated Homage to her former teacher for his 90th birthday and chose “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” because it was his favorite spiritual tune.2 

As a student at Tuskegee Institute, Perry joined the premiere Tuskegee Choir as a singer and rehearsal accompanist. Sometimes, she would offer compositional suggestions to Dawson for the spiritual arrangements:

“I’d say, ‘That doesn’t sound like you right here. This ought to be so and so.’ And he’d say, ‘Don’t tell me what it oughta be…’ and then he’d say, ‘Now, what did you say that oughta be?’ Sometimes there was a collaboration between us.”3 

The 100-person choir performed these spiritual arrangements in Sunday chapel services on the Tuskegee campus, on tours throughout the United States, and at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 1932.  As choir director, Dawson often quoted Tuskegee’s founder Booker T. Washington as saying, “Every one of my students must know and sing the plantation melodies.”4 

“I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” reflects on the maltreatment of slaves, but also the belief that they will transcend this fate: 

I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned, yes
I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned, children
I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned,
I’ve been talked about, show’s you’re born
There is trouble all over this world, yes
There is trouble all over this world, children
There is trouble all over this world
There is trouble all over this world
Ain’t gonna lay my religion down, no
Ain’t gonna lay my religion down, children
Ain’t gonna lay my religion down
Ain’t gonna lay my religion down

Dawson’s strophic arrangement and performance of “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” enhances the spiritual’s “voice of divine power” through artful rhetorical choices. The opening “I’ve” has no “eye” in it (a pet peeve of Dawson’s), but an open “ah” to enhance the warm, sumptuous choral timbre. The slight pause between the snapped “‘buked” (rebuked) and “I’ve been scorned” immediately captures a feeling of distress, and the second stanza, impelled by the rhythm of “trouble all,” builds to an invigorated climax. Dawson ends the piece in a reverent and reflective tone, masterfully pacing the close of the stanza.

Zenobia Perry translates this same meditative force for piano in Homage.  The slow accumulation of voices into thick textures references the homophonic and monophonic performance traditions of the spiritual as well as the strength and cohesion found in an assembly of many voices.  Perry’s crowd of harmonies are discordant yet simultaneously open and expansive through their emphasis on seconds, fourths and sevenths – evidence of her studies with Darius Milhaud in the 1950s at Wyoming University.  Like Dawson’s arrangement, the word “trouble” instigates agitation; Perry slowly develops the pentatonic melody’s contour and harmonizations to create a constantly evolving sound world. The raw and exposed solo opening never returns as a single line, but the melodic outline is found among the suspended seventh chords in the last three measures.

“I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” was perhaps most famously sung by Mahalia Jackson in 1963 just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This version, over quiet organ accompaniment, captures the power of a solo voice among a crowd:

Citations

1. Helen Walker Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 39-40

2. Helen Walker Hill. Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music, 1893-1990, (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Hildegard Publishing Co., 1992.) 

3. Jeannie Gayle Pool. “The Life and Music of Zenobia Powell Perry, An American Composer.” (The University of Western Ontario, 1995), 128

4. Ibid., 121

5. Robert N. Dett.  “From Bell Stand to Throne Room,” Etude, 52 (February 1934): 80.

Bibliography: 

Dett, Nathaniel. “From Bell Stand to Throne Room.” Etude, 52 (February 1934): 79-80

Pool, J. G. (2002). The life and music of Zenobia Powell Perry, an American composer. Claremont Graduate University.

Walker-Hill, H., 2007. From Spirituals To Symphonies. Urbana [Ill.]: University of Illinois Press.

Walker-Hill, H. (1992). Black women composers: A century of piano music (1893-1990). Bryn Mawr, PA: Hildegard Pub.


Kathryn Felt is a DMA piano candidate at Rutgers University and a graduate of The Juilliard School and Rice University. 

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