My attraction to the poetry of Margaret Walker was the result of a New York City subway trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan around February 1998. Printed on a placard from the Poetry In Motion series was a poem by Margaret Walker titled, Lineage. It began, “My grandmothers were strong.” As the subway train rumbled on, I was lost in the words of Ms. Walker’s heartfelt poetry. A few weeks later, I again became aware of the placard with Lineage on it. This time, I scribbled down the poem on a piece of paper, and when I got home, composed music for it. This was the beginning of For My People - A New Musical Work.
Each song has emerged slowly and over a ten year period. I have internalized each poem and tried to envision how Ms. Walker would have read, imagining her gravel toned voice and southern accent. It wasn’t until much later in the composing process that I actually heard recordings of Ms. Walker speaking her poetry. I was amazed and pleased that I had captured her voice, feelings and her way of storytelling.
After completing the initial ten song cycle, I made the decision to compose music for Ms. Walker’s most famous poem For My People. The original poem consists of ten sections and indicated that it should be expanded from a single voice performance to multiple vocalists. The first nine sections are written in a rhythmic style which features four lead vocalists interchanging lines and individual words complimented by a large choir and orchestra with rhythm section. The mixed-voice chorale is included in main sections of the piece as well to enhance the lyric content. To drive the vocals, there is a rhythm section which includes piano, bass, drums, guitar, and percussion. The tenth and final section of the poem is a slow prayer. I refer to it as the hymn section. It is out of time and conducted. It is a triumphant section as well as reverential. For My People is a work that lasts for about ten minutes. I consider it extremely important to have For My People performed in order to have the social and global issues that Margaret Walker wrote about emerge.