Sweethearts of Rhythm

Written by Marilyn Nelson
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Marilyn Nelson's Sweethearts of Rhythm
illustrations by Jerry Pinkney

Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.

Ages 9-Adult

The instruments tell the story

I had never heard this story before picking up this book and I’ll bet you haven’t either!

As if an all female, almost all African-American band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm , playing and touring the music of jazz Swing isn’t unusual enough, lace it through the backdrop of WW II, Japanese internment camps, the segregated South, Jim Crow laws and you have a recipe for gumbo or fireworks. Or both.

While bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Europe, The Sweethearts of Rhythm were blowing, drumming and strumming their hearts out to packed houses across the American South, Washington D.C., Harlem and even a USO tour.

“…The jitterbug was one way people forgot
the rapidly spreading prairie fires of war.”

In the hands of those less accomplished than Marilyn Nelson, (three time National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor Medalist) and Jerry Pinkney, (2010 Caldecott Medal winner), Sweethearts of Rhythm, a book of poems and accompanying pictures could have been a riotous disaster. But in glorious detail, historical and fictional, both writer and illustrator pushed themselves to come up with new ways to tell the story of this almost forgotten, multi-racial group of female musicians.

The poems are written from the viewpoint of each instrument played in the band. Using rhythms of swing itself and varying meters of poetry, each poem is titled after a song of the era. The conceit is that the instruments are in a pawn shop long after the war and disbanding of the group, talking to each other about their former “owners”.

Listen to Lady, Be Good as the tenor sax tells of Roz Cron’s playing.

“My girl ran away from home with a suitcase and me
To play in a band whose musicians were a beautiful scale
of browns. They were women whom music was making free.
My favorite story happened when my girl learned how to wail.”

The poem goes on to say that Roz, who was white, had to apply make-up to “pass” for being black. One night she wailed so much on her sax, she perspired and her make-up came off. If that wasn’t a strange turn of events! We know far more about male actors in blackface hamming it up in vaudeville acts or blacks wanting to lighten their skin “to pass” as whites than we do about white women trying to look black. Before the Civil Rights Act, in the south it was illegal for black and white musicians to play music together in public.

Roz’s sax then says, she dashed out before the police found her;

“…She jumped in a cab with me, and we sped to the train.
We met up with the rest of the band on the tour’s next stop.
She had to promise never to work up a sweat again!”

These poems do not trip lightly off the tongue, especially if you are used to a sing-songy rhyme scheme (think Jack Prelutsky) or an iambic pentameter flow of words as in Shakespeare’s Sonnets or Robert Frost. And Nelson’s use of the word “funambulate” even sent me to the dictionary. Upon finding it meant ropewalking, I thought its precision was gorgeous.

“No trumpet has ever been tempted
not to funambulate
on the filament of a melody…”

One has to slow down to hear the contrapuntal accents, read them out loud, again and again to feel their jazzy beat.

Sweethearts of Rhythm

Jerry Pinkney grounds and enhances the words with his images. Layers of watercolor, ink, newsprint and collage give a vibrant and satisfying depth to scenes of women playing instruments, dancing or depicting historical events of the Swing era. Sepia-toned images punctuate the colorful ones, portraying the difficult themes of segregation, internment and war. Review continues.

illustration from the book collaged with a still from a movie featuring The Sweethearts of Rhythm

There are modern poets writing mainly for adults, Kevin Young comes to mind, in whose poetry you hear a strong, musical tradition. But Marilyn Nelson has created a book that can be enjoyed by those of many ages. The complexity of the poetry and depth of the artwork speak to us however old we are. Their syncopation fairly bounces off the page. Open it. Listen to the trumpet talking about Ernestine “Tiny” Davis. Take The “A” Train.

“Every swing tune tells a story without words:
The truth of people breathing in unison,
the democracy of harmonies and chords,
unique, disparate voices raised as one.”

Sweethearts of Rhythm reminds us to enjoy the sweetness of life, the poetry and movement of our bodies and souls even as we too are steeped in a time of conflicts, racial tensions and economic fears. Pick up a copy of this book, dust off your old LP’s or digitally enhanced remakes of 1940’s swing, and read, baby, read.

More picture books about the black experience.

Read more of Suzanne's reviews.

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