I was sleepy. But I couldn't get to sleep; there was too much on my mind. So I started to type
a short story. A detective story, like Sherlock Holmes, but a true story. I wanted to solve a crime committed three quarters
of a century ago.
It isn’t a murder mystery; the crime was Plagiarism, copying someone else’s writing
and claiming you wrote it yourself. I doubt if you can even go to jail for it but you can get sued for it.
I had been browsing through a poetry book I inherited from my poetry-loving Mother. After I
read a poem I had never seen before I thought “I like it! From now on it’s going to be one of my favorite poems.”
The book is entitled “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” published 1936, Doubleday & Co.
Let me read the first stanza of that four stanza poem. But first I’ll tell you it’s
in African-American dialect, and sometimes people think that writing in dialect is insulting to the people who speak
that way but I don’t think so. No one says that black spirituals, like"Were you dere when dey crucified my Lord?" is
insulting to black Americans. Many of them came from slavery times when slaves had nothing to look forward to but the promises
of their religion.
But here’s the first verse:
Pore Lil’ Brack Sheep
Pore lil’ brack sheep dat strayed away
All los’ in de win’ and de rain,
An’ de Shepherd He say “O hirelin’,
“Go fin’ my sheep again!”
An’ de hirelin’ frowns, “O Shepherd,
Dat sheep am brack an’ bad.”
But de Shepherd He smile like de lil’ brack sheep
Is de onliest lamb he had,
Is de onliest lamb he had.
It was written by Ethel M. (Colson) Brazelton. Please remember that name.
I think we both understand the Shepherd was Jesus, and we’ve heard the parable the poem
was based on.
The Hireling, I think, is someone who was hired to help care for the sheep but doesn’t
care nearly as much as the Shepherd. But does he represent something more? And who was this Ms. Brazelton? And when did she
write it? And was she African American?
I vowed to find out the answers, and I launched myself on a roller coaster that you wouldn’t
At least I had a computer to help with my research. I started by Googling everything I could
find about Ethel (Colson) Brazelton. Ethel Colson (her maiden name) was credited with other poems I haven’t found. I
did find a book “How to Read Poetry,” she had written in elegant standard English. One quote: “The best
argument that can be advanced in favor of marriage is that marriage has been found happy. The best of all reasons for reading
poetry is because one loves it. And the best way to read poetry is with the love that, for love’s sake, finds its own
pathway, works its own miracles of sympathy and understanding.”
I wish that analogy held true today, when most marriages end in divorce. Do you suppose most
marriages were really happy then?
But I still haven't found Ms. Brazelton's picture or race or D.O.B. or D. O. D. No help, either,
at our public library.
I’m not making this up. The next evening I was browsing through another of Mother’s
books entitled “The World’s Best Loved Poems” published 1927 by Harper & Brothers. I found the same
poem there. A shorter version; whereas the first has four stanzas this version omits the second and third.
Then I read at the end the poet’s name, Paul Laurence Dunbar! All right! Who stole that
poem and whom did they steal it from? Don’t nobody leave dis room!
I did find that poem several places on the web, some with as many as seven stanzas, but always
with the name of Ethel Colson, and learned it’s been set to music in the “Cross and Crown Hymnal,” the hymnal
of the Pillar of Fire denomination, that is still going strong and has its headquarters in Zarephath, N.J., between Trenton
and New York City. I wrote to them and they sent me a copy of page 553 of their hymnal, “The Lil’ Brack Sheep,”
words by Ethel Maude Colson, music by someone named Lucy Rider Meyer. The copy shows part of the facing page and it is also
in black dialect with music by the same Lucy Rider Meyer but the name of the poet was beyond the edge of the copy. Do you
suppose those words were also by Ethel Colson? I wrote to the Pillar of Fire again to ask “Who wrote those lyrics on
We’ve all heard that to solve a crime a detective must search for clues. And the first
clue is that every place I’ve seen the poem on the web it’s been attributed to Ethel Colson - The only place I’ve
seen it with Paul Dunbar’s name was in The World’s Best-Loved Poems. Score a point for Ethel Colson!
I found out a lot more about Paul Dunbar. His picture shows him as a slender, young black man,
and he wrote in either dialect or standard English, which he preferred. But his readers preferred his black dialect
And he was considered to be the first great African-American poet.
And there’s more! Dunbar was a buckeye. His parents were both slaves in Kentucky 'til
his father escaped to Ohio, a free state, via the underground railroad, but was still a fugitive by Federal law.
His mother was owned by a white family that loved poetry and recited it aloud and she loved it too. They married and their
son Paul Dunbar grew to love literature as much as his mother did.
Paul was born in Dayton Ohio in 1872, only seven years after the thirteenth amendment outlawed
slavery, and he was the only black kid in his class at Dayton Central High school. Outside of school, racism was fierce, but
his schoolmates liked him and he held various offices, including President of the Literary Society and Class Poet. And (I’m
not making this up) he formed a lifelong friendship with two classmates; one (in his graduating class) was named Orville,
who had an older brother named Wilbur. They made bicycles, and eventually built the world’s first airplane. The Wright
brothers were two of Dunbar’s close friends!
But here’s a second clue that Dunbar didn’t write the poem: The Lil’ Brack
Sheep has a technical problem that you wouldn’t expect from a first rate poet like Dunbar. My favorite poem is resolved
by the final word - “me.” It rhymes with “me.” It seems obvious that only an amateur would try to
rhyme a certain sound with itself; that’s an identity, not a rhyme, and just as obvious that probably no sound in our
language is easier to rhyme than "me"; there’s “free” and “whee!” and “fiery” and
“reciprocity” and “benevolently” and biology- I’ll bet you could make a list of 200 words that
rhyme with “me.” But in this poem that important word rhymes with itself. Would a first rate poet ever do that?
But here’s a Dunbar poem in standard English; it’s the middle stanza of a poem, a tribute to the Union soldiers
killed in the Civil War, entitled
(And remember, this is by a guy whose own parents were freed from slavery by that war.)
Ah, but this joy which our minds cannot measure,
What did it cost for our fathers to gain!
Bought at the price of the heart's dearest treasure,
Born out of travail and sorrow and pain;
Born in the battle where fleet Death was flying,
Slaying with sabre-stroke bloody and fell;
Born where the heroes and martyrs were dying,
Torn by the fury of bullet and shell.
Ah, but the day is past: silent the rattle,
and the confusion that followed the fight.
Peace to the heroes who
died in the battle,
Martyrs to truth and the crowning of Right!
Would the poet who could write as magnificently as that ever rhyme “me” with
“me”? I don’t think so. That’s another point for Mrs. Brazelton! But I still love “The Lil’
Dunbar had regular correspondence with many famous people. Among them was poet James Whicomb
Riley wrote mostly in the rural dialect of Indiana and I went to grade school and high school
in Indianapolis where Riley’s home on Lockerby Street is a museum and where Riley is considered a hero. My own parents
lie at rest in the same cemetery as Riley; We Hoosiers don’t think Riley was insulting us by writing in Hoosier dialect!
The Wright brothers, in addition to their bicycle shop, had a printing press, and with Orville’s
help Paul Dunbar printed a newspaper. The Dayton Tattler was printed especially for black people. But it was unsuccessful
and he realized he’d have to write for everyone, black and white.
And in his short lifetime, for he died only sixteen years after leaving high school, Dunbar
published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, the librettos for an opera and several stage
musicals, and the lyrics for several songs. But nothing called “The Lil’ Brack Sheep,” that I could find.
He married Alice Ruth Moore, also a published poet and writer, and they sometimes worked on writing projects together.
And his fame wasn’t just on this side of the Atlantic. One of his stage musicals was presented
at Buckingham Palace, London, and he was so popular in England that he went on tour there, giving readings of his works.
And I wish I could end it there but I must include the bad with the good. His health was bad.
He had tuberculosis and sometimes came down with pneumonia and felt so rotten that he tried to self-medicate, with alcohol,
and became a drunken wife beater. When leaving the hospital after her worst beating Alice didn’t go back home and never
contacted him again. He pleaded with her to come back to him but she never responded.
What a tragedy! We all know people with more than their share of physical problems who can still
keep control of their own lives.
Now back to Ethel (Colson) Brazelton. Her hymn about The Lil’ Brack Sheep was apparently
almost the theme song of the Pillar of Fire church for it’s mentioned several times being sung in special services they’ve
had in the past. And remember the tunes of that song and the song on the facing page were by Lucy Rider Meyer.
You could write a small book out of Meyer’s life. She was an important woman in the history
of the Wesleyan movement, which includes, today, the United Methodist Church and the African Methodist Church. She and her
husband founded the Chicago Training School for training Methodist Deaconesses. She must have been a brilliant woman, not
only musically, but having earned a Medical Doctor degree, for she had planned to be a medical missionary until her fiancÚ,
a Methodist minister, died.
And she even tried her hand at fashion design! I found her picture on-line wearing a dress she
designed as a uniform of the Deaconesses at the Chicago Training School. And, well, she looks like she’d be a barrel
of monkeys at a party. But what would you expect? A bare midriff?
The Wikkepeadia encyclopedia has this discription of her: “American social worker and
educator whose activity within the Methodist church was aimed at training and organizing workers to provide health and social
services for the poor, the elderly, and children.”
Elsewhere on line I read that she experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit, which brought her
the conviction that she must do something for others, and she went to North Carolina to teach in a school for freed slaves
in a hostile community, under the Friends’ Society.
Later she and her husband founded the Chicago Training School. She also taught young underprivileged
girls from the inner city. But I found out Ethel Colson was from Chicago. Do you suppose one of Meyer's students was Ethel
Colson, and teacher and student became friends and wrote hymns together? It makes a good story but I can’t back it up,
And then I found - OH NO! The Church of the Pillar of Fire was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan!
That group of white-sheeted guys in pointy hoods who spread hatred of blacks, Catholics, Jews, and foreigners in general?
And does it make sense that they’d have at least two black dialect pieces in their hymnal?
But I read that the Jersey Klan tried be a friend of blacks. I read several places on-line that
In June 1924 a hooded Klan delegation walked into the Sunday services at a black church, the St. Phillips Baptist Church,
east of Trenton. The leader reached inside his robe and handed over a $50 check to the congregation's building fund.
"We ask you to accept this contribution to encourage Protestant Christianity among Negroes,"
a Klansman told the astonished worshipers.
And then I got a phone call from Zarephath, N.J. A gentleman who works for the Pillar of Fire
Church called to tell me that the Cross and Crown Hymnal is still in print and in use by their denomination and the Lil‘
Brack Sheep has been one of their most loved hymns from the beginning.
But as for Page 552, the only author’s name is the initials “L.R.M.” which
couldn’t possibly stand for Ethel Maude (Colson) Brazelton. And he said he’d have another man call me, with perhaps
And we talked about the Ku Klux Klan and he said at
the time of Al Smith (presidential candidate, 1928), he & a huge number of other political figures were members or admirers
of the KKK, to counter efforts by Roman Catholicism to spread Rome’s influence in our government but I’m still
woefully short on personally verified information about that.
And here’s another clue about who wrote that poem. Dunbar’s dialectical spelling
often differs from The Lil’ Brack Sheep. In the Lil’ Brack Sheep there’s a line
“Lo, here is de ninety an’ nine,
But dere way off from de sheep fol’
Is dat lil’ brack sheep ob mine.”
The word "here" has the conventional spelling, h-e-r-e. But now let's read Dunbar's "Death Poem."
It's about his own death but has a light, almost humorous air.
Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass
Whah de branch’ll go a-singin’
as it pass
An’ ‘wen I’s a-lying low,
I kin hueah it as it go
Singin’ “Sleep, my honey; tek yo’
res’ at las’.”
Lay me nigh to whah hit mek a little pool,
An’ de watah stan’ so quiet lak
Whah de little birds in spring
Ust to come an’ drink an’ sing
An’ de chillen waded on dey way to school.
Let me settle w’en my shouldahs draps
Nigh enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
Fu’ I t’ink de las’ long
Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes’
Ef I’s layin’ ‘mong de t’ings I’s allus knowed.
The word hear is spelled “h-u-e-a-h,” and “here“ is spelled “hyeah,”
whereas in “The lil’ Brack Sheep.” “Here” is spelled the usual way. And in the first stanza
above “Where” is spelled “W-h-a-h” while in the “The Lil’ Brack Sheep” it’s
spelled the usual way, “where.”
One night recently when I was getting sleepy, by a stroke of pure luck I found an on-line copy
of The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, and it contains an article which talks with great optimism about improving
race relations and the progress being made by blacks. (It does note, sadly, that public lynchings were not uncommon around
And it had just what I was looking for. So I turned off the computer and went to bed. Next day
I turned it on again and - couldn’t find the darn thing anywhere.
Have you ever been surfing the web and after many clicks on many sites you found exactly what
you were looking for, or maybe even better than you were looking for, and when you went back to it later you just plain couldn’t
find it? Well, I couldn’t find it.
I’ll bet I spent two hours Googling everything I could think of and nothing worked. I
simply had to give up. Then I saw on the scrap of paper in front of me “April 1921” scrawled in pencil. I had
sleepily jotted it down. Going to the April 1921 issue of the magazine I found it immediately!
It was an intelligent thing to do, writing it down. But It’s humiliating to know I’m
smarter when I’m asleep then when I’m awake. And how had I accidentally found it in the first place? I have no
The article mentions such eminent black citizens as educator Booker T. Washington and literary
giant Paul Dunbar. It quotes Paul Dunbar’s “Death Poem” which we just read.
Then I turned the page and nearly cheered! There’s another poem, “The Lil’
Brack Sheep” by Ethel M. Colson. And there’s a footnote which told me my search had not been in vain:
“*The poem appeared anonymously in The Independent many years ago,” (I wish it had
said how many years ago! And what was The Independent?) To continue “and there was considerable controversy as to the
authorship before the name of the writer became public. Charles A. Dana, a critic of distinction, pronounced it the finest
American poem that had ever come under his observation.”
I’d venture a guess that Dunbar’s name had become so synonymous with black dialect
poetry that the guy who compiled the book for Harper Brothers had just assumed my favorite poem was by Dunbar.
So Mrs. Brazelton, I’m so happy to have met you and to have learned a little bit about
black people and white people in our beloved nation, and I’m still not sure what was your own race, and it probably
doesn’t matter. Or when you were born or when you died or where you were buried and that probably doesn’t matter
And I don’t know where Mr. Dunbar is buried either, but I hope it’s somewhere nigh
enough to de road that he kin hueah de chillen as dey goes t’ school.
Who was the hireling? Probably, all of us. And there must have been a reason for the sheep to
be black, so the hireling probably represents racism. And we remember that slavery was still fresh in people’s memories,
and possibly was still in existence if only you could tell us when your poem was anonymously published. You may have intended
for the hireling to represent slavery.
And I even think you had a reason for rhyming “me” with “me.” It’s
the most important word in the poem and maybe you wanted to call our attention to it. “Poetic license” allows
writers to do things like that.And I love your poem, in the four- stanza version
in which I first read it:
"Pore lil’ brack sheep dat strayed away All los’ in de win’ and de rain,
An’ de shephard He say “O hirelin’, “Go
fin’ my sheep again!” An’ de hirelin’ frowns, “O Shepherd,Dat sheep am brack an’ bad.”
But de Shepherd He smile like de lil’ brack sheep
Is de onliest lamb he had
Is de onliest lamb he had.
An’ he say, “O hirelin’, hasten! For de win’ an’ de rain am col’, And dat lil’ brack sheep
Out dere so far from de fol.”
An’ de hirelin’ frown, O Shepherd,
Dat sheep am ol’ an’ gray.”
But de Shepherd He smile like dat lil' brack sheep
Wuz fair as de break ob day,
Wuz fair as de break ob day.
An he say, “O hirelin’, hasten!
Lo, here is de ninety an’ nine,
But dere way off from de sheep fol’
Is dat lil’ brack sheep ob mine.”
An’ de hirelin’ frown, “O
De rest ob de sheep am here.”
But de Shepherd He smile like de lil’ brack
He hol’ it de mostes’ dear,
He hol’ it de mostes’ dear.
An’ de Shepherd go out in de darkness,
Where de night was col’ an’ bleak,
An’ de lil’ brack sheep He fin’
An lay it agains’ His cheek.
An’ de hirelin’ frown, “O
Don’t bring dat sheep to me.”
But de Shepherd He smile, an’ He hol’
An’ de lil’ brack sheep-is me
An’ de lil’ brack sheep-is me!