Zenobia Powell Perry

Zenobia Powell Perry's prolific song compositions include musical settings of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Frank Horne, James Weldon Johnson, and others, as well as Spiritual and religious settings and songs setting her own texts.

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    Zenobia Powell Perry was born in 1908 to a well-educated middle-class family in Oklahoma. In 1925, Perry graduated from high school determined to study music, so she began her studies at Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929 and with private teachers, and eventually went to the Tuskegee Institute, where she also studied education. After Tuskegee, Perry became part of a black teacher training program which was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Perry’s first university faculty position was at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, later called University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), from 1947 to 1955. From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master’s degree in music in composition at Wyoming University. From 1955 until 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

    Perry began writing her own music during the 1950s. She was a prolific composer, writing for orchestra and bands. She even composed a mass. Her opera about the Underground Railroad, Tawawa House, based on the history of Wilberforce, Ohio, premiered in 1987 and was revived in 2014. Her compositions have been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, West Virginia University Band and Orchestra, and other performing ensembles, as well as by many singers. Perry’s music is classical and incorporates contrapuntal, tonal, mild dissonance, with some jazz and folk influence. Her compositional style is deeply rooted in singing traditions, reflected in its melodic integrity, and in the length and balance of her phrasing.

    Despite two divorces, the death of a son, and the challenges of raising a daughter on her own, she continued working towards advanced degrees while also working as a professor. In 1962, she joined the NAACP to aid in the civil rights struggle. Perry received numerous honors and awards, particularly after her retirement in 1982, related to her teaching, composing, and volunteer community work. But the most significant tribute is the continuing performances of her works by a devoted group of musicians, many of them former students, and by those who have only recently discovered her works. To date, only one piece has been published, although her name is beginning to appear in reference books, as well as in publications about black American composers and women in music. Zenobia Powell Perry died in 2004 at the age of 95, leaving behind a rich legacy. She stands rightfully alongside other black composers of her generation.

    – Amy Catherine Helms

    This biography was created in 2022 as part of The Savvy Singer, an EXCEL Lab course at the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and a collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation via the Classic Song Research Initiative.

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    An Anthology of African and African Diaspora Songs - 60 Songs

    Composer(s): H. Leslie Adams, David N. Baker, Margaret Bonds, Charles Brown, H. T. Burleigh, Valerie Capers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Arthur Cunningham, Harriette Davison Watkins, William Dawson, Mark Fax, Bruce Forsythe, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Adolphus Hailstork, Jacqueline Hairston, Maud Cuney Hare, Jeraldine Herbison, Jonathan Holland, Sylvia Hollifield, Langston Hughes, J. Rosamond Johnson, Thomas Kerr, Lena McLin, Undine Smith Moore, Andre Myers, Camille Nickerson, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Eurydice Osterman, Robert Owens, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Zenobia Powell Perry, Rosephanye Powell, Florence Price, Dave Ragland, Nadine Shanti, Carlos Simon, Hale Smith, Irene Britton Smith, Brandon Spencer, Hilbert Stewart, Howard Swanson, George Walker, Aurelia Young

    Song(s): Amazing Grace (H. Leslie Adams)
    Christmas Lullaby (H. Leslie Adams)
    Sence You Went Away (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Heart of a Woman (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Alarm Clock (David N. Baker)
    The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Margaret Bonds)
    Caring (Charles Brown)
    Desire (Charles Brown)
    Your Eyes So Deep (H. T. Burleigh)
    Your Lips Are Wine (H. T. Burleigh)
    Autumn (Valerie Capers)
    Elëanore (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    The Willow Song (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    Minakesh (Arthur Cunningham)
    Stars (Harriette Davison Watkins)
    Out in the Fields (William Dawson)
    The Refused (Mark Fax)
    With Rue My Heart Is Laden (Bruce Forsythe)
    Suspiro d’alma (Antônio Carlos Gomes)
    If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Longing (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Loveliest of Trees (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Dormi, Jesu (Jacqueline Hairston)
    Gardé Piti Mulet Là (Maud Cuney Hare)
    I’ll Not Forget (Jeraldine Herbison)
    Little Elegy (Jonathan Holland)
    In Time of Silver Rain (Sylvia Hollifield)
    The Founding Fathers (Langston Hughes)
    This is My Land (Langston Hughes)
    L’il Gal (J. Rosamond Johnson)
    Soliloquy (Thomas Kerr)
    Amazing Grace (Lena McLin)
    The Year’s at the Spring (Lena McLin)
    I Am in Doubt (Undine Smith Moore)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Undine Smith Moore)
    For a Poet (Andre Myers)
    Chere, Mo Lemmé Toi (Camille Nickerson)
    Gué, Gué, Solingaie (Camille Nickerson)
    Mshila (Fred Onovwerosuoke)
    Entreaty (I Am the Rose of Sharon) (Eurydice Osterman)
    Could I but Ride Indefinite (Robert Owens)
    Die Nacht (Robert Owens)
    From the Dark Tower (Robert Owens)
    The Lynching (Robert Owens)
    The Secret (Robert Owens)
    Madrigal (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
    O Children of Men (Zenobia Powell Perry)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Rosephanye Powell)
    Spring (Florence Price)
    The Sum (Florence Price)
    Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dave Ragland)
    Mangez, Boulez (Eat, Drink, Be Merry) (Nadine Shanti)
    Prayer (Carlos Simon)
    Troubled Woman (Hale Smith)
    Why Fades a Dream? (Irene Britton Smith)
    Dream Variations (Brandon Spencer)
    Spring Song (Hilbert Stewart)
    One Day (Howard Swanson)
    I Went to Heaven (George Walker)
    Norris Swamp (Aurelia Young)

    Voice Type: 36 Songs are for High Voice - Medium to High Voice
    24 Songs are for Medium - Medium to Low Voice

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    Art Songs and Spirituals by African-American Women Composers (Vivian Taylor, ed.)

    Composer(s): Margaret Bonds, Betty Jackson King, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Undine Smith Moore, Julia Perry, Zenobia Powell Perry, Florence Price

    Song(s): Calvary (Spiritual) (1954) - Betty Jackson King
    Come Down Angels (Spiritual) (1978) - Undine Smith Moore
    Dry Bones (Spiritual) (1946) - Margaret Bonds
    Free At Last (Spiritual) (1951) - Julia Perry
    He's Got the Whole World In His Hand (Spiritual) (1963) - Margaret Bonds
    I Am in Doubt (1975) - Undine Smith Moore
    I'm a Poor Li'l Orphan in This Worl' (Spiritual) (1952) - Julia Perry
    In the Springtime (1976) - Betty Jackson King
    Is There Anybody Here That Loves My Jesus (Spiritual) (1981) - Undine Smith Moore
    It's Me, O Lord (Spiritual) (1988) - Betty Jackson King
    Lord, I Just Can't Keep from Cryin' (Spiritual) (1946) - Margaret Bonds
    Love Let the Wind Cry… How I Adore Thee (1977) - Undine Smith Moore
    My Dream (1935) - Florence B. Price
    My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord (Spiritual) (1937) - Florence B. Price
    Night (1946) - Florence B. Price
    Song to the Dark Virgin (1926) - Florence B. Price
    The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1942) - Margaret Bonds
    Three Dream Portraits (1959) - Margaret Bonds
    Watch and Pray (Spiritual) (1972) - Undine Smith Moore

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