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Singing ‘An American Sunrise’
Joy Harjo recently sent us this recording of her poem “An American Sunrise,” which was published in the February 2017 issue of Poetry. The last word of each line in the poem comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” (first published in Poetry in September 1959). Here Joy Harjo describes how the track came to be.
“An American Sunrise” was written first in response to a call for Golden Shovel poems, a form initiated by Terrance Hayes to honor Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry. Peter Khan contacted me for The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, published by University of Arkansas Press last month.
At the same time, I was writing a musical that includes Muskogean indigenous peoples in the origin story of blues and jazz. We have been disappeared from the story, yet there would be no blues or jazz without our contributions. Our tribal music is also pentatonic, polyrhythmic, features call-and-response, and we know how to swing. I’d begun working on the music, and when Barrett Martin, world-class drummer, producer, and owner/manager of Sunyata Records contacted me for a song for a project he’s doing, “The Singing Earth,” a book with CD, I said yes. Martin is the best and has produced and performed with everyone from CeDell Davis, the Screaming Trees, Tuatara, and REM.
A few years ago we’d gone into the studio in Albuquerque and recorded drum and leg-shaker tracks for a possible album. I pulled up one of the tracks and built the voice (poetry, singing, vocables) and saxophone tracks over it, at the same kitchen table where I write. He then refined the drums, added bass and vibes, and produced, mixed, and mastered the song. This is the first of several songs for my musical, and for an album I plan to have finished by the fall. The play, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented, was commissioned by the Public Theater in New York. This song will be included in some form.