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Inside ‘When the Caged Bird Sings’

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
   When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
   When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats her wing
   Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For she must fly back to her perch and cling
When she fain would be on the bough a-swing;
   And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why she beats her wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
   When her wing is bruised and her bosom sore,—
When she beats her bars and she would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
   But a prayer that she sends from her heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven she flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Adapted from the poem Sympathy (1899) by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Program Notes by Mark Clague

When the Caged Bird Sings is something new and old at the same time. Like an oratorio, it fuses orchestra and chorus into a sacred service, here bringing the sounds of the Black American church into the concert hall. Like an opera, it tells a timeless story with words, music, drama, costumes, and characters. Four powerful voices command the stage: a soprano (the mother), an alto (the daughter), a tenor (the guidance counselor), and a baritone (the father). The entire chorus speaks as the community, while a subset represents Black congregants in worship. The narrator is both sage and celebrant, timeless and all-knowing. She is an ethereal pastor—unseen by the other characters—but always at the center of the drama. The composer originally called the composition “a gathering,” signaling that it was a communal ritual, bringing people together as an act of healing, hope, and celebration. When the Caged Bird Sings is all of these.

Text and music have been created and woven together by composer Dr. Nkeiru Okoye, a woman of African American and Nigerian heritage, to explore themes of perseverance and triumph. It is the story of the transformative power of Black womanhood. It speaks of hope and possibility, while it is also a warning that past traumas will be repeated, until such a time when the community listens, learns, and is itself transformed.

Dr. Okoye’s work draws from a powerful well of Black history. Inspired by the life and work of Dr. Maya Angelou, When the Caged Bird Sings pulses with the strength of countless Black women whose courage and creativity have changed history: the poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, journalist Ida B. Wells, entrepreneur C. J. Walker, vocalists Sissieretta Jones and Marian Anderson, author Zora Neale Hurston, dancer Katherine Dunham, activist Rosa Parks, singer Billie Holiday, politician Shirley Chisholm, athletes Althea Gibson and Serena Williams, activists Coretta Scott King and Dr. Angela Davis, actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and First Lady Michelle Obama. These and countless others exemplify the exceptional and everyday activism that has shaped our world. Their stories echo in Okoye’s music, in the words spoken and sung through the Black church, as acts of faith, hope, courage, and community.

Woven throughout When the Caged Bird Sings is the story of “Cerise” [Cherish], a young Black woman that the world seeks to doubt and diminish merely because of the color of her skin and braids in her hair. Cerise, whose name itself signals her parents’ love and protection, nevertheless encounters racial prejudice in her neighborhood, which is predominantly White — sometimes overt, often surreptitious, always relentless. Her family offers support and solace. At one point, she falls victim to peer pressure in an attempt to fit in. Her high school counselor intervenes. She recovers, escapes the cage of discrimination, triumphs, and gives back, adding to the legacy of Black womanhood, and adding her voice to a historical chorus of those who transformed adversity into opportunity. “She sets herself free,” as the lyrics state. Her story also parallels the composer’s own. It is the all too personal story of lived experience, but one less autobiographical than simply human and universal. As the composer has remarked, “Cerise is not a stereotype. She’s just a girl.”

When the Caged Bird Sings is organized into five parts, each titled after a Maya Angelou book or poem:

Part I

Gather Together in My Name introduces us to the cast and invokes the drama’s central question, “Who am I supposed to be?” It is a question that vexes each of the tale’s protagonists.

Part II

Now Sheba Sings the Song focuses on the first part of Cerise’s story — her mother’s joy at her birth. The tenor offers praises and what the composer calls a “valentine to all Black women.” The narrated choral number, “Sometimes Life Gets Ugly,” presents the emotional crux of the composition. It gives voice to a pernicious inner dialogue, a voice telling African American women that they are “too dark, too poor, too ugly, too broken…unworthy, subhuman.”

Part III

And Still I Rise tells the second part of Cerise’s story, of her relentless determination despite the forces holding her back. Her father laments that his new job as a junior vice president was “still not enough” to protect her.

Part IV

I Shall Not Be Moved recounts a crisis for Cerise. The tenor, representing her high school guidance counselor, recounts the story of collapse and collision. The music here is punctuated by references to the Dies Irae [Day of Wrath], a melody associated with the Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church that represents turmoil and confusion.

Part V

A Song Flung Up to Heaven depicts the triumph and transformation of Cerise, now a grown woman. Here, a lyrical flute melody represents the butterfly — a living symbol of transformation that echoes in the poetry of Maya Angelou. It serves as an example of true beauty, but a beauty that often masks the change that has made its realization possible, that masks the trauma that inspired such transformation.


Musically, When the Caged Bird Sings is rooted deep within the sounds of the Black church, couched in concert music tradition. Okoye’s compositional voice travels seamlessly between styles: the romantic, minimalist, gospel-inflected, and improvisatory. The melodic passion of a solo vocalist often foreshadows the lyrical contours of specific hymns and spirituals, shifting from minor to major and blossoming into full arrangements of traditional sacred melody, such as “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” or “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.”

According to the composer, the goal of When the Caged Bird Sings is to celebrate the transformative power of Black women and use the power of art to transform the world. The drama closes with an original hymn of the same title. Okoye’s lyric encapsulates the journey, traveled and envisioned:

When a caged bird sings
Despite captivity
I think it means that in her dreams
She can see
beyond the bars
And beyond her tears
beyond her scars
And beyond her fears
She is transformed
And she set herself free.

Maybe not coincidentally, the composer’s own name—Nkeiru—means “the future is greater than the past” in her Father’s native language of Igbo. In this sense, When the Caged Bird Sings envisions a world in which a parental prophecy is fulfilled. When the Caged Bird Sings is both prayer and promise. Through this work, Okoye gives voice to the hope that we, as the audience, will be changed. That we will understand our nation and world as more capacious and come to “see Black women in a different way.” Yet When the Caged Bird Sings is also Dr. Okoye’s own personal proclamation as an artist and person. With pride, it shouts to the heavens on behalf of all Black women—“we are triumphant…we are doctors, lawyers, educators, entrepreneurs, and we are FABULOUS.”

Hear additional insights from composer Nkeiru Okoye and U-M’s Kenneth Kiesler and Eugene Rogers.

Gershwin’s Unexpected Inspiration Behind ‘An American in Paris’

On Sunday, November 12, the Akropolis Reed Quintet will open its debut UMS recital with George Gershwin’s An American in Paris arranged by saxophonist Raaf Hekkema. University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor Mark Clague, also director of the U-M Gershwin Initiative, shares some background on the composer’s unexpected inspiration behind this iconic work:

George Gershwin

Paris in the 1920s served as a kind of spiritual home for American art, especially for music as New World composers required a refuge from the pervasive influence of the German masters. Yet, the essential inspiration for George Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris was not the Eiffel Tower, but New York City’s Hudson River. In January 1928, Gershwin began work on an “orchestral ballet” starting with a melody he had sketched out nearly two years earlier on a trip to Paris. Contemplating this snippet which he had labeled “Very Parisienne,” Gershwin looked out from his home on 103rd Street toward the Hudson. “I love that river,” Gershwin later reported, “and I thought of how often I had been homesick for a sight of it, and then the idea struck me—An American in Paris, homesickness, the blues.” He continued to work on the piece while visiting Europe that summer.

Overall, Gershwin’s tone poem follows a three-part ABA structure in which an intrepid American traveler revels in the dizzying soundscape of Paris, is overcome by memories of home, struggles to recover, and finally triumphs over his homesickness, enthusiastically returning to the sights. Gershwin later offered this succinct program to the work:

This piece describes an American’s visit to the gay and beautiful city of Paris. We see him sauntering down the Champs Elysées, walking stick in hand, tilted straw hat, drinking in the sights, and other things as well. We see the effect of the French wine, which makes him homesick for America. And that’s where the blue[s] begins…. He finally emerges from his stupor to realize once again that he is in the gay city of Paree, listening to the taxi-horns, the noise of the boulevards, and the music of the can-can, and thinking, “Home is swell! But after all, this is Paris—so let’s go!”

In 1928, of course, the sale of alcohol was illegal in the U.S, but not in Europe. In a letter preserved in the Library of Congress, Gershwin endorses the use of An American in Paris for an anti-prohibition concert!

The piece not only captures Gershwin’s personal experiences in France, but here the composer uncovers a new depth of artistry. His early success with Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway shows made him both hugely popular and wealthy, yet classical composers and critics remained skeptical of his aspirations to write serious music. Many dismissed works such as Rhapsody in Blue (1924) as untutored. Written just four years later, An American in Paris exhibits Gershwin’s trademark popular appeal, yet musically it is a one-movement symphony, as closely related to the economical construction of Beethoven as to the jazz stylings of Fletcher Henderson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. The musical building blocks of Gershwin’s tone poem are small motives that could only be imagined for instruments. These are repeated and passed from one voice to another in a rich tapestry of counterpoint. Gershwin’s motives represent everything from laughing passersby and taxicabs (a three-note motif featuring real car horns) to drunken tourists stumbling down the street and a brisk walking tune to accompany a stroll along Paris’s romantic Left Bank.

You may hear the colorful influence of French composers such as Claude Debussy and Les Six that Gershwin was consciously trying to evoke, as well as a bit of J. S. Bach’s famous “Air” in the bluesy “homesick” trumpet theme. The reed quintet arrangement by Raaf Hekkema of the Calefax Reed Quintet captures all the excitement, reverie, jazzy verve, and storytelling drama of Gershwin’s full orchestra original.

Listeners curious to know more might pick up Howard Pollock’s monumental study George Gershwin: His Life and Work or Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music by U-M Professor Emeritus Richard Crawford. Fans of An American in Paris, in particular, might also want to rent the MGM film of the same title. It won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture and features Gene Kelly, pianist Oscar Levant, and love interest Leslie Caron in bringing the story of Gershwin’s musical poem to life. The movie influenced a recent Broadway show.

Hear the Akropolis Reed Quintet perform An American in Paris, Sunday, November 12, 2023 in Rackham Auditorium.

More Info & Tickets

Happy 200th Anniversary, Star-Spangled Banner!

Jerry Blackstone and students in rehearsal
Photo: Conductor Jerry Blackstone and University of Michigan students rehearse “The Star-Spangled Banner” in advance of their concert at Hatcher Library.

September 14, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the U.S. national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s amazing to me that the date is here! My own fascination with the anthem grew out of my teaching of an almost annual course on American music. The first class in this course always focused on the question of what an explicitly “American” music might be and why (if at all) national identity might be important. In hopes of forging a connection with my students and getting a great discussion going, I began using the U.S. Anthem as a vehicle to consider the question of national identity in music. All of my students have some relationship to the song, whether they grew up singing it in school or even if they are an international student visiting the University to study who is struck by the unusual prominence of the song in American life.

I often play Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock Anthem as part of this session, but wanted to showcase a recording of the original song Key used as a melodic vehicle for his lyric—“The Anacreontic Song”—as well as of the first version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in full 1814 style. It surprised me that I couldn’t find either. So, since this is the University of Michigan and we had ready access to a great recording venue and incredibly talented student musicians, we made our own! My colleague Jerry Blackstone, who conducts the UMS Choral Union among his duties directing choral music at the University as a whole, signed on as a collaborator and took the project to a new artistic level.

Our recordings are now published as part of a two-CD set titled Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  It has been featured by the Smithsonian, The New York Times, C-Span, Encyclopedia Britannica and others and its related videos have been viewed over 55,000 times on Youtube. Just today the Library of Congress released its video of the July 3, 2014 recital by Thomas Hampson that features our music. It was a lifetime thrill to be joined by University of Michigan alumni singers and to be able to present my research with Hampson at the Library’s Coolidge auditorium. Pretty good for a class project!

Jump to 6:12 for Mark Clague and Thomas Hampson:

As I continued to do research, I found the story of America’s Anthem to be ever more fascinating. Its bicentennial offered the further opportunity to share my love of the song and its story more widely. For me, the story of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the story of American democracy in action. It’s also about the vitality of music in our lives. The anthem is more than a song; it’s a sounding board that helps us figure out who we are and who we want to be.

University of Michigan Events & Live stream

You can learn more about the song through a whole series of campus events at the University of Michigan this fall, beginning this weekend with #Anthem200 celebrations as part of the Michigan Marching Band halftime show and a 1-hour grand opening recital at the Hatcher Graduate Library on Sunday, September 14 at 4 pm. (It’s just before you head to Hill Auditorium to hear Itzhak Perlman at 6 pm). Attend the events in person, or watch online via live stream.

I truly hope you’ll be able to visit the U-M Library exhibit which features items from U-M’s incredible collections, especially the William L. Clements Library which preserves (and thus we will display) one of only a dozen surviving copies of that original 1814 sheet music edition that started our whole project.

Other Star-Spangled Banner Resources
Complete listing of events at the University of Michigan
U-M American Music Institute

The Heart of History: Reconsidering the Great American Songbook

Editor’s note: Looking to hear selections from The Great American Songbook live? Audra McDonald performs on September 15, 2013.

Photo: Ira and George Gershwin, Beverly Hills, 1937 (Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts (used by permission).

If a nation kept a diary, it would be in its songs. Song is where poetry meets praxis, where the imagination hits the dance floor and the ineffable finds expression in the everyday. Verse envelops life’s detail to offer both prosaic insight and poetic pleasures; yet, in song, music expands the emotional richness of lyrical syntax, transforming words into dreams, disappointments into wisdom. Cast in the delight of melody, harmony, and rhythm, song thrives even without specific meaning.  In lyrical enigma resides possibility, whether in Schubert’s Lieder or on Top 40 radio, song’s ambiguities invite association to make the popular deeply personal. Some becomes “our song,” as music collides with living. These human riches of song may well transcend time and place, yet song is equally historic, preserving ideas and events that forged a path to the present.

In the United States, entries in the Great American Diary of Song include ballads by a signer of the Declaration of Independence—Francis Hopkinson—and spirituals that tell of the strengths, sufferings, and hope of African American slaves. The legendary songwriters of Tin Pan Alley, of Broadway, of Hollywood strove for hits to catalyze immediate commercial success, yet surprisingly often they created classics that captured the concerns, optimism, and challenges of the times. Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929), Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932) and “Over the Rainbow” (1939) by Harold Arlen and Harburg explore fundamental human themes while they articulate a time of traumatic change from exuberance to Great Depression and its aftermath in American history.

The Gershwin brothers had a particular knack for catching the spirit of the age and for all time. Their many love songs, such as the unknown gem “Ask Me Again” (rediscovered by Michael Feinstein and finally introduced to the public in a 1990 production of Oh Kay!), offer more than tales of heart meets heart, they tell of the everyday as universal—here in the nervous and joyous first blush of infatuation and the dreamy ideals of romance. “Fascinating Rhythm,” in contrast, merges the energy and optimism of the Twenties with its explosive cultural tension that marks jazz as the signal success of Harlem’s artistic renaissance and its quest for Civil Rights. Or maybe it’s the iconic lullaby “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, arguably the most frequently recorded song in audio history (in competition with only Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”) and one now forever associated with beloved UMS artist Audra McDonald in her 2012 Tony Award winning performance as Bess. The Gershwins’ creative strength is on vivid display in each rendition; their songs grow ever richer through the artistry of countless performers and performances.

It is thus with both great excitement and equal humility that the University of Michigan’s American Music Institute at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance announces the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. Created in partnership with the Gershwin family, this all-new series of publications will — for the first time — bring the rigor of scholarly editing to the realization of the Gershwins’ musical legacy. On the stages of Hill Auditorium, Britton Recital Hall, and Power Center, faculty artists and student performers will bring their interpretive energies to the Gershwins’ work to inform and refine the editorial process. The project as a whole will inspire a range of courses, talks, and research examining the cultural contributions of the Gershwins in context of a broad accompanying transformation of American life, from the Victorian Age through the Jazz Age up through today.

Video: Audra McDonald sings “Summertime” from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

An encyclopedia never to be finished, the Great American Songbook has much to say about the past as well as the present, making it a vital locus for research and study as well as performance on campus and in the classroom and on campus. Song does more than entertain, it celebrates, it informs, it heightens the moment as it encodes ideology for analysis. Most importantly, song gives history a heart. Whether given voice in the interpretations of the art’s great singers, or by a raucous chorus of kids in the family car, song recruits the beauty of the ages as a tool for understanding, here and now.