African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Claude McKay, "Songs of Jamaica" (full text) (1912)

[This version of Songs of Jamaica is derived from the version we created for Claude McKay's Early Poetry, which can be found here.] 

Introduction by Amardeep Singh (July 2017)

Claude McKay published his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in January of 1912, in Kingston, Jamaica. The book marks the emergence of a formidable and new poetic voice, though it is not without its complexities. For one, there is the marked influence of McKay's mentor, a white Englishman resident in Jamaica named Walter Jekyll, who encouraged McKay to write in patois against the author's own initial instincts. Jekyll's preface to the work also suggests an emphasis on phonological novelty rather than aesthetic accomplishment -- sixteen paragraphs in the preface deal with the particulars of Jamaican patois, before Jekyll says a word about McKay himself in the concluding paragraph. The imprint of Jekyll makes a clear indication of authorship of some parts of the text a bit blurry (the footnotes in particular seem to have been written for an audience unfamiliar with Jamaican patois, by someone not native to the country).

Much could be said about McKay's evolution with respect to various slangs and patoises over the course of his career as a writer. For now, it might suffice to say that with his poems published in the United States beginning in the late 1910s, McKay would turn away from patois, and instead make his powerful and memorable calls for social justice in his subsequent poetry using what linguists would call Standard Written English. That said, McKay returned to a different form of dialect in the mid-1920s -- specifically African American vernacular slang -- when he began to write fiction. 

As mentioned above, Songs of Jamaica is heavily marked by the influence of Walter Jekyll, who some years earlier had published a book of folk stories and dialect poems called Jamaican Song and Story (a well-produced version of this text can be accessed at Project Gutenberg). Jekyll seems to have had a philologist's fascination with Jamaican patois, and the verses in Jamaican Song and Story use it extensively. According to Wayne Cooper, it was Jekyll who encouraged McKay to use patois in his first books of poems (see Cooper, 27). Cooper also indicates that Songs of Jamaica was likely the first book-length publication of dialect poetry by a black Jamaican writer: "No black West Indian educated in the British imperial tradition had ever before attempted to use a local island dialect as his primary poetic medium" (Cooper, 35). To this reader, despite the sometimes distracting footnotes in the text, many of the verses in Songs of Jamaica hold up admirably and well as documents of the lives and voices of black Jamaicans a century ago. Moreover, more than a few of these early poems show considerable overlap with the themes that would be important to McKay later in his career: labor and working-class suffering, race, and sexuality. 

Authorship of the Footnotes 

One of the peculiarities of Songs of Jamaica is its extensive use of footnotes; each poem has been 5 and 20 footnotes, most of them philological in nature. We believe that at least some of these footnotes (and possibly all of them) were authored by Walter Jekyll. The only other scholar we have encountered who has commented on these footnotes is William J. Maxwell, editor of McKay's Complete Poems; Maxwell assumes that all of the footnotes were authored by Jekyll (see the passage from Maxwell quoted below). 

First, there's a fair amount of evidence that Walter Jekyll was deeply interested in philology and in Jamaican patois in particular, while it's not clear that the young Claude McKay (just 22 at the time these poems were published) had that kind of scholarly mindset. As mentioned above, Jekyll's preface to Songs of Jamaica is heavy on commentary on the phonology of Jamaican patois, and Jekyll's earlier Jamaican Song and Story collection has an extensive ethnographic and philological preface by Alice Werner. The individual "Anansi" stories in that collection also have extensive footnoting that bears some similarities to the pattern of footnoting found in Songs of Jamaica. For example, in Jamaican Song and Story, Jekyll has a footnote for "gully" at the end of "King Daniel" that reads simply as "precipice"; in the poem "Beneath the Yampy Shade" in McKay's Songs of Jamaica, the footnote for "gully" is: "Brook. The word is more generally used in the sense of precipice." Moreover, the text of the preface overlaps considerably with individual footnotes found throughout the collection. Take for instance this passage from Jekyll's preface

As a broad general direction, let it be observed that the vowels have rather the continental than the English sounds, while in the matter of the consonants the variation from English is of the nature of a pretty lisp.

The exact values of the vowels cannot, of course, be described, but they approximate on the whole more to those of Italy and France than to those of England. One sound, that of aw, is entirely rejected, and ah is substituted for it. Thus bawl, law, call, daughter, etc., become bahl, lah, cahl, dahter, etc. 

The "continental" pronunciation Jekyll alludes to is also echoed in several footnotes. For instance, here is a footnote from the poem "Whe' fe do?" :

"What to do? equivalent to 'What can't be cured, must be endured.' The e of whe' is the French é.

Given the repetition of a somewhat idiosyncratic assertion (and given that McKay would have learned whatever French he knew at the time directly from Jekyll himself), it seems fair to presume that Jekyll is the author of footnotes of this sort. 

For today's readers, by and large the footnotes might be superfluous, especially to readers with a basic familiarity with the sound and rhythm of Jamaican patois such as is heard in reggae music. That said, there are some terms that might be more obscure (i.e., "quattiewut"; "pupperlicks"). Here we have attempted to reproduce all of the original footnotes from the 1912 edition of the text using Scalar's Annotations feature. The notes are attached to individual phrases in the poems; they are also searchable using the magnifying glass above. 

Dedication Page: Sydney Olivier 

Another intriguing feature of Songs of Jamaica is the dedication page. Songs of Jamaica is dedicated to Sir Sydney Olivier, the Governor General of Jamaica in from 1907 to 1913. 

Here, McKay alludes to Olivier's support for greater racial parity in the British Empire (Olivier was a well-known Fabian socialist and veteran colonial administrator who had earlier been involved in debates about the role of the British Empire in spreading democracy around the world.) According to Cooper, McKay had actually met the Governor in person in 1911 when the latter visited Walter Jekyll at home.


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