January 9 - Songwriting by Committee

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On January 9, 1902, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., wrote to Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Washington was the founder and principal of the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school for African Americans.  He had asked Paul to write lyrics for a new song about Tuskegee.

I am sending you herewith the school song, embodying as near as I could the object and distinction of Tuskegee.  It is in the same line as "Fair Harvard" and may be sung to that tune.  Hoping that it will please you.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Booker T. Washington, January 9, 1902.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).

The proposed lyrics were received with criticism from Washington and from Edgar J. Penney, dean of Bible training at Tuskegee.  Paul defended his work with a sarcastic reply.

I have your letter and note your objections to the song.  In the first place, your objection to the line, "Swift growing South" is not well taken because a song is judged not by the hundred years that it lives but from the time at which it was written, and the "swift growing" only indicates what the South has been, and will contrast with what it may achieve or any failure it may make.  The "Star Spangled Banner" was written for the time, and although we may not be watching the stars and stripes waving from ramparts amid shot and shell, the song seems to be going pretty fairly still.  As to emphasizing the industrial idea, I have done merely what the school itself has done, but I will make this concession of changing the fourth line of the third stanza into "Worth of our minds and our hands," although it is not easy to sing.  The Bible I cannot bring in.  The exigencies of verse will hardly allow a paraphrase of it and so I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint Mr. Penney as to that.  I am afraid that I cannot write verse up to Mr. Penney's standard but I believe if you will look over "Fair Harvard" you will note that they have not given their curriculum in the song or a list of the geological formation of the country around the school.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Booker T. Washington, January 23, 1902.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).

Despite disagreements over the lyrics, a note written at the top of the letter indicates that Paul received payment of $25.00.  He later expressed his thanks to Washington.

I thank you very much for the check for $25 which you were kind enough to send.  I hope the song will prove acceptable.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Booker T. Washington, February 22, 1902.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).

The school song was mentioned favorably in a newspaper article about the Tuskegee Conference of 1904.  The final version of the lyrics reflects the compromises that Paul mentioned in his letter to Washington.

The thirteenth annual Tuskegee Negro conference closed here this evening.  The attendance was excellent and the meeting in every way successful.  A considerable part of the evening session was given up to singing by the Tuskegee choir, which has a high reputation North and South.  One of the most striking parts of the program was the singing, by the whole school, of the "Tuskegee Song," to the tune which is familiar in the North as "Fair Harvard."  The words, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, are an apostrophe to Tuskegee, a "long-striving mother of diligent sons." The words, from the point of view of literature, compare favorably with those of "Fair Harvard."

"Progress of the Negro."  The Evening Post (New York, New York).  February 24, 1904.  Page 7.

Tuskegee, thou pride of the swift growing South
We pay thee our homage today
For the worth of thy teaching, the joy of thy care;
And the good we have known 'neath thy sway.
Oh, long-striving mother of diligent sons
And of daughters whose strength is their pride,
We will love thee forever and ever shall walk
Thro' the oncoming years at thy side.


Oh, Mother Tuskegee, thou shinest today
As a gem in the fairest of lands;
Thou gavest the heav'n blessed power to see
The worth of our minds and our hands.
We thank thee, we bless thee, we pray for thee years
Imploring with grateful accord,
Full fruit for thy striving, time longer to strive,
Sweet love and true labor's reward.

Excerpt from "Tuskegee Song," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Joanne M. Braxton.  University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, Virginia).  1993.  Page 332.