Snore & Guzzle header image 1

Mother Superior

September 29th, 2008 · 17 Comments

The Story of Nancy Dupree

nancy dupree

~by Michael R. Neault

This article has been published in YETI 07, which is available at Powell’s, Barnes & Nobles and most fine music stores. You can also purchase a copy online at the YETI website. If anyone has further memories of Nancy Dupree, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.

PART I

Nancy Dupree was an exuberant educator whose career in education was cut prematurely short because of her radical methods. She was also a poet, an outspoken activist, a playwright, an actress, a musician, an insomniac, a Christian-to-Muslim convert, a Black Panther and a loving mother. She lived in Rochester, NY for the last 16 years of her life and left an indelible stamp on the community. The impression she left was so deep that now, 28 years after her death, many of her friends and students still remember her character with crystalline clarity.

The path that led me to the art of Nancy Dupree was unexpectedly labyrinthine. In 2005, a friend of mine at Nonesuch records recommended a mix by Canadian musician Koushik. I listened to the mix, which was filled with bizarre library music, downbeat soul and esoteric funk. However, none of the songs were labeled, leaving the listener to wonder at the origins. Among these selections was a song that stood way out from the bunch. The song was a small choir of children, who sounded (to me) like African American kids from the south and they were rhapsodizing about James Brown, with a spare, melancholic accompanying piano track. The kids sang about his transition from a process to an afro, called him “the king of soul,” and imitated his emphatic “uh-huhs” and “good gods.” I tried a couple lyric searches to track down the song, but I could feel the internet laughing at me in my endeavor.

His hair was slick and shiny
His hair was slick and shiny
James Brown
Now he sports his afro
He’s thinkin black, Lord oh Lord I’m proud
Now he’s the king, the king of soul
Hey hey hey
Uh! With your bad self, Uh! It’s funky Uh! I can’t stand it! Uh! Good God!

Needless to say, nothing came up. I posted the song on my website with a plea for listeners to help me i.d. the song.

Fast forward one year to 2006. It’s February and James Brown has just passed away. James Brown remixes, tributes, covers and classics are flooding the radio waves. I received a note from a friend in New York city who reported that he had just heard the James Brown song on WFMU and the musician responsible was named Nancy Dupree. I immediately looked up the artist and a profile popped up on Smithsonian Folkways, along with a file containing the liner notes. The full title said, “Ghetto Reality: Composed and sung by Nancy Dupree with a group of Rochester, N.Y. youngsters.” The album was released in 1970. I immediately grabbed a phone book and flipped to the “D” pages. I was surprised when the musician finally turned up, but even more so when I realized that the recording was made in the town where I live. The phonebook had nothing on Dupree. So I started looking up all the names listed on the credits. However, most of the singers were girls, which meant they had probably changed their last names. Again, nothing.

The public library had the record in their stacks, so I went to retrieve the vinyl. I started to explain the background story to the librarian, and asked for advice for further research. This librarian didn’t have any suggestions, but another woman overheard the conversation and she said, “Wasn’t she a playwright or something?” This resulted in a call to the local history department where a folder was located containing newspaper clippings about Nancy Dupree. I anxiously read the clippings and discovered that Nancy Lorraine Dupree passed away April 23, 1980 at the age of 44. She died of leukemia and had kept her illness a secret from family and friends until just a few months before she succumbed to the illness.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate a single person mentioned in any of the articles, and the story stalled for another year. In the meantime, I asked everyone I knew about Nancy Dupree. I even played the record repeatedly in the movie theater where I work, hoping to bait someone who may have known her. The trail eventually led to her daughter, Tia Dupree Barnes, now living in Brandywine, MD and the story opened up from there.

Nancy Dupree – Introduction Song from Sweet Thunder

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

PART II

The liner notes from her record of poetry, “Letter to Young Sisters” provides a good background on her life, and was most likely written by Nancy Dupree herself, but in the 3rd person:

“She’s a southerner who did her growing up in Sumter, South Carolina. She graduated three times: from Lincoln High School in Sumter, from Virginia State College in petersburg, and from Mills College in Oakland, California.

These three graduations convinced her that she was qualified to announce to the world, “Get ready, ’cause here I come!” She came and found out that the world was truly ready … had been ready for a long time … and the wrestling match was on. Wrestling with money, marriage, motherhood, divorce; wrestling with reality…wrestling with life. She looks back and wonders how she survived because she knows now that she was not EVEN ready.

What she has to show for it all is her own personal individual sanity, a child most precious to her, a few worldly possessions, and some poems. You are invited to take the poems, fold them neatly, and tuck them away in the corner of your soul reserved for food.”

Nancy Dupree was born to a middle-class black family in the South, her mother was a beautician, and her father was a bricklayer. Nonetheless, Nancy was able to steep herself in literature: “As an only child, with both my parents working I would read anything I could get my hands on. And we always had lots of books and magazines around the house. Reading was my entertainment and my escape, and to this day I have always been interested in reading from a wide spectrum of areas. A writer must read.”

The reference to food in the last sentence of her mini-bio — urging the listener to tuck her poems away in the corner of of your soul normally reserved for food — is a pretty good indication of how important the arts were to Nancy. They were not relegated to the margins of life, they were essential to survival, and enmeshed in quotidian affairs. Nancy Dupree was endowed with an extraordinary sense of purpose in her life, and her work. She is frequently described as strong-willed. However, that may very well be an understatement.

The confidence is palpable in her eyes when you observe photos of her from the 70s. She wore a well-patroled afro, simple, comfortable clothing and kept her chin at a slightly-above 90 degree angle — daring anyone to disagree with her. In fact, she had so much self-confidence that she was always working to imbue those around her with confidence. It was this very confidence that got her into trouble later on.

Nancy arrived in Rochester, NY in the summer of 1964. Coming from the South, she had an image of the North as being a region free of the hatred and discrimination rampant in the South. However, the summer of ‘64 in Rochester was anything but peaceful. Full-scale race riots erupted during a block party after black residents reacted to a routine arrest of a black man.This was followed by three days of violence in the streets of Rochester. Eventually, the National Guard was called in for damage-control. This was the first time they had been called to a Northern city during the civil rights era. It was amidst this tense atmosphere that Nancy Dupree touched down.

She was hired as a music teacher in the public school system and took up residence at School no. 4, between Genessee and Jefferson Streets, on the west side of Rochester. In the 1960s, the school was composed of a predominately white teaching and administrative staff, and a black student population.

Nancy would’ve been in her late 20s. She was naive, but optimistic about her new position. She explained the situation in the notes for Ghetto Reality. “When I came to Rochester in 1964 I thought that the whole business of teaching music to elementary school children would be breezy, uncomplicated, and probably very boring. After all, they were LITTLE CHILDREN. Little children were a bit energetic, but the gentle voice of an adult would bring them to a screeching halt, whereupon they would rush to their seats with their angelic ‘Yes, Ma’m’ blowing in the wind. Well…as they say down South, ‘Not hardly!’”

If there was a state curriculum in place for elementary school music, Nancy probably didn’t adhere to it. Over the 5 or 6 years that she worked at School No. 4, she introduced Afrocentric ideas and black history into her classes. She exposed the students to musicians such as Odetta, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Ella Fitzgerald, Miriam Makeba and Leontyne Price — especially Leontyne Price. Price was an opera singer, but also explored African American folk music. Her commanding voice was on heavy rotation in the classroom. However, she also had a strong respect for classical music, and could just as well be caught listening to Beethoven. She cultivated a highly respected school choir that performed at local functions. And it was with this choir that she decided to make a full-length LP, with songs that the children themselves had written, to be called “Ghetto Reality.” But Nancy didn’t want the album to be something that only the students and their parents would hear. She wanted distribution.

But how does one sell a home-made recording of school-children singing songs they have written, with only a piano for accompaniment? The project had little glamor, and even less commercial appeal. Nancy somehow secured a deal with Folkways records. While Folkways was by no means a major label, it had respect in the 60s, having distributed the records of Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Nancy’s daughter Tia recalls how a deal was struck with Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways records. “I’ll tell you how she ended up on Folkways. She was on an airplane going somewhere, and Moses Asch happened to be on the airplane also. And she basically talked him into allowing her to do this record Ghetto Reality. She told him all about her students. She told him how she had these songs — and she kept pushing him. She wouldn’t let it drop until she got this project done!”

The power of persuasion was another instrument in Nancy’s repertoire, and she would readily wield it for the sake of her students. Asch was not the only personality that she charmed. Over the course of her relatively short teaching career, Nancy Dupree brought B.B. King, Muhammad Ali and Roland Kirk to her school to speak to the children. Nancy was very fond of jazz, and Tia recalls that these characters would often show up at her house to catch a hearty Southern meal before moving on. “She was very tenacious, she had a very strong will. She was willing to go and do almost anything. She wasn’t afraid to step out there. She was always trying to show her students a different side of life and a different angle on music. She didn’t want to just show them Mary Had a Little Lamb. She wanted them to see their own music. And she wanted to them to see people who were doing well, performing their music. She just wanted to broaden their horizons.” Nancy would approach these artists after a show and convince them to visit School No. 4 with very little to offer in return, other than their personal satisfaction. “She didn’t care,” Tia said, “she was like — I’m Nancy Dupree, I’m just as good as you are!”

nancy dupree

Nancy & B.B. King

nancy dupree

Nancy & Muhammad Ali. Photographs courtesy of Tia Dupree Barnes

The recording of Ghetto Reality began in 1969, and the project was a collaboration between the students and their instructor. However, Nancy merely guided the project, and allowed the students to communicate their feelings. I found one of the lead singers, Hilda Moore — originally Hilda Gause — still living in Rochester, and able to remember the recording as clear as day. She would’ve been about 12 years old when the record was made.

“That was such an experience. I remember when it was first brought to us as students. It was just so overwhelming for us to be asked to do an album. When she presented it we were just, ‘Oh my god!’ We were falling all over the place. That just doesn’t usually occur… I can remember it like it was yesterday. That’s because it was so exciting. And it was something that I don’t think any of the kids in the city would have the opportunity to experience, and at such a young age…to go to a recording studio!? I mean, we were flabbergasted.”

Hilda even remembered singing the song about James Brown. “He was someone we could look at and say, OK he’s someone who’s the same skin color as us. He’s making music and we want to share something about him. We want to sing about him.” Nancy had a few comments about it in the sleeve notes for the record: “My children idolize James Brown. His Rochester performances are usually on Saturday night, and the following Monday finds them still full of the sight sound and feel of him. It was on such a Monday this song was created.”

“She just wanted to find out how we expressed our views of him,” Hilda said. “It was where he was born, how he wore his hair, stuff like that. Things that kids would say. You know, you’re looking from a kid’s perspective. And that’s what made it so much fun and enjoyable for her to work with us on it. It was how we were expressing ourselves about different things.”

Nancy Dupree & Rochester School-children – James Brown

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Nancy was able to tease out the student’s feelings, and fashion them into punchy songs with depth, humor and relevance. In an interview with the Democrat & Chronicle in 1977, Nancy said about the recording process, “I tried to help them with songs. Most of the songs in the books they gave us didn’t make sense, didn’t relate to their lives. So we got together and started changing some of the songs around and eventually we started composing songs on our own.”

Throughout the album, Nancy’s Afrocentrism and black pride was exhibited prismatically through her students. Think back to the James Brown lyrics: “His hair was slick and shiny / Now he sports his afro / He’s thinkin black, Lord oh Lord I’m proud.” Nancy was a proponent of natural African beauty, and it was an ideal she preached to her students. Linda Murray, a later pupil who worked under Nancy’s tutelage at a local community group, remembered the message well. “When I first met Nancy, if a young lady came to work for the organization, or if I see a young man, I would say, ‘Nancy, did you see the new guy? I say, he’s got good hair!’ ‘Whadyou mean baby?’ ‘I say, he got good hair.’ ‘She’d say, you mean he’s got caucasian hair?’ ‘I say, well yeah.’ And she said, ‘Well why do you say he got good hair, and your hair is bad hair?’ I was taught somewhere that the straighter your hair was, or the closer your hair to a Caucasians, that was known as good hair, but natural hair on a native African, was deemed as ugly. Nancy was walking around everyday with a message that said: ‘Stop thinking like that. We gotta stop that right here. We gotta tell our daughters to cut it out.’”

Other songs on the Ghetto Reality embedded progressive notions into the lyrics. A song about what the kids wanted for Christmas started by listing tangible objects, but evolved into the following line: “I want my freedom; I want it now. Don’t tell me about tomorrow. I want it now.” Another song, called “What Do I have,” reinforced the black-is-beautiful message, and cited important moments in black history. The album was recorded shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and “Docta King” is a reminiscence about the man, with lines like: “The man was as pure as baby’s breath. His words were love and brotherhood.”

Another song, “Call Baby Jesus” evoked the image of Jesus Christ from the perspective of a young black student. Hilda explained, “It expressed what Baby Jesus looked like to us — what did we picture Baby Jesus as? Again it’s a description from kids.”

Call baby Jesus, Call baby Jesus, big brown eyes
wooly hair, choc-olate, choc-olate, choc-olate face

“The way we did choc-o-LATE. We didn’t just do chocolate. We added some little consonants. He has big brown eyes, so we were describing ourselves. I get all warm inside when I talk about it.” Nancy added her own introduction to the song in the notes: “Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a black christmas. After doing our homework, we complied.”

Nancy Dupree & Rochester School-children – Call Baby Jesus

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Almost all traces of Nancy Dupree have disappeared from School no. 4. Their library doesn’t even carry the recording she made with the school choir in 1969. No one at the school remembers Nancy, or that the record was even made. The album would have to sit more than 30 years before people started to dust off the album once more.

nancy dupree

PART III

Any public reaction to Ghetto Reality has been lost to time. What we do know is that the album was released in 1970, and the very next year, Nancy Dupree was fired from School no. 4. What should have been a time of satisfaction and achievement quickly turned to misfortune. The circumstances surrounding Nancy’s departure from School no. 4 are muddy and the story varies, depending on who you ask.

One story is that Nancy insisted on wearing soft-soled sneakers rather than high heels, as was the decorum of the day. Sneakers proved to be a deal-breaker with the administration and neither Nancy nor the administration would back down. Linda Murray worked under Nancy’s guidance for many years in the 70s and got the story from Nancy herself. “I remember her being fired from no. 4 school because she refused to walk around — 10 and 12 hour days — with high heels on. The female teachers, they were the enemy too. When in fact, they should’ve gotten behind her and said: Now look, Nancy’s right. My feet are killing me at the end of the day from walking around in these high heels. Nancy was right, but she was persecuted because of it. In looking at Nancy, Nancy always told the truth, and I think there those in the system that hated her for being so johnny-on-the-spot. And then there was this group that loved her too, for daring to go and say it in public.”

The shoe story is probably true, but it was only part of the larger conflict at hand. Carolyne Blount, executive editor of About…Time magazine for 35 years, was a friend of Nancy’s and worked with her as an editor in the 70s. In relation to Nancy’s situation, she observed that “public institutions are not as accepting to black oriented issues.” Ghetto Reality was a radical, political record that involved very young students in the black community. In class, Nancy was insinuating topics from black history into the curriculum. Her teaching methods were unorthodox and progressive, and it was unlikely that she was consulting with administration before unleashing her thoughts in class.

Tia Dupree was quite young when her mother was let go from the school, but she remembers it like this: “She stopped working in 70 or 71. I just remember the circumstances. And as I understand it – now this is just what I remember my Mom talking about – the principal did not like what she was doing. I guess it was too black for him. They basically fired her.” The students did not take Nancy’s departure lightly. “The day that she was supposed to leave,” Tia recalls, “the students found out, and the students were in an uproar. Because the students loved Ms. Dupree! The students were crowding around the front of the school because they didn’t want her to leave. And the principal — or whomever — called the police…on elementary school students!” More than anything else, this is what disturbed Nancy Dupree — that the administration would call the police on children who were still in grade school. Nancy was like a mother to many of these children, worked hard to educate them as she saw fit, and it must have been deeply hurtful to see her congregated students disbanded by the cops.

Hilda Moore, who was in 5th grade at the time, recalls the confusion surrounding her departure from School no. 4. “I distinctly remember it was a very sad occasion. I was one of her favorite students. She mentored me a lot, with music and history – black history, in the music world. We cried. We cried to our parents. It fell on deaf ears. We had a lot of questions.”

PART IV

Nancy bounced around from job to job in the 1970s, not staying at any one place for long. Poetry became an expanding force in her life. She made two solo poetry records, both again released by folkways: Letter to Young Sisters, and Sweet Thunder. She performed her poetry all over town — churches, libraries, community groups, coffee shops — she even performed at the Attica Correctional Facility. “Nancy was all over the joint,” Linda Murray said. “She went to schools and she read her poetry — I don’t think there’s an organization in the city of Rochester that hasn’t had a poetry reading by her. Nancy made an impact everywhere she went. There was not too many people who did not know Nancy. What she didn’t make in funds, she made in exposure.”

nancy dupree

Her performances and recordings were never read word-for-word, they were recited from rote memory. When I asked her daughter about this, she said, “She would never ever read a poem. She insisted on reciting her poetry from memory. Because she wanted it to be conversational.” Her recordings are unlike other poetry records. There is little reverence for a stoic atmosphere. An audience was invited into the studio and encouraged to respond to the poems. The result is dynamic, and not unlike witnessing a church sermon. And in some ways, Nancy Dupree was sermonizing. Only, it was her own unique credo she was preaching.

She took up with her second husband, who was a Black Panther. The relationship did not last long. However, Nancy continued to be involved with the party. Her involvement with the Panthers was well concealed, and not much is known about her activities with them other than that she was associated with the group. Linda remembers her speaking about it, but says, “She was always real vague about it. I do know some things. It was told to me on the down-low. And Nancy was like, ‘Don’t you ever have this conversation with anybody.’ And I didn’t. Cus I was afraid myself. She was involved with some underground activities… She never carried it to a level where she risked being incarcerated.” However, she didn’t conceal her support of her contemporary, radical black leaders. The walls of Nancy’s home were decorated with portraits of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton.

Nancy’s relationship to men was thorny. She had two failed marriages, and she expressed her feelings about men in her poetry. There was no symbol or subtlety in her thoughts on the matter. Occasionally, the tone comes off as bitter, but it’s likely that her anger was a protective mask for her disappointment. It’s best to hear it from the woman herself:

Nancy Dupree – The Brothers

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The language and tone of Nancy’s poetry was natural as day. She wrote, spoke and sang — without apology — in the patois of black Americans. In the notes to Ghetto Reality, she made a clarification about the title of the song, “Docta King.” She said, “We don’t say doctor.” The word doctor was emphatically underlined by hand.

Usage of the black vernacular was still a controversial issue in the 1970s. Linda Murray remembers a story that illustrates this. “She did a newsletter for Action for a Better Community… At first when started doing her newsletter, it had a real white feel, a real European, Caucasian feel to it. And when you read it, you said, Oh, this is like something a white woman wrote. Nancy changed the flavor of the newsletter because she wasn’t pleased with the contents of it. And it was changed to, like: Wassup y’all. So she began to write it in a Southern dialect. White folks was mad. And the black folks was madder! Nancy was doing ebonics 30 years ago. The black folks were more pissed than the white folks were — thought she was makin us look stupid! I think she was 30-40 years ahead of her time. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, maybe God will send her back 10 years from now and she’ll come back and she’ll say, ‘See! I told y’all!’”

Nancy Dupree took the black language and worked to re-appropriate it to the status of art. In the poem, My People Is, Nancy put it this way:

“I have all due respect for proper grammar / I can proper the grammar anytime, anywhere, anyplace / However, I do not feel this is the time or place / I’m going to speak the language the way my peoples speak it, Yes I is”

Sherry Tshibangu worked at Action for a Better Community with Nancy, and was taken under her wing. Nancy guided her on to college after high school, and they kept in communication. Sherry described her language as, “absolutely colorful.” Here is a letter Nancy wrote to her in November of 1975, after she had just arrived in Georgia for school.

Hey Sugar,
You is there! Praise the lord Sherry. I am glad you are in Atlanta. I could jump through Dan’s hat-band. Things were so shaky that I was actually kind of scared. But you is there – wonderful, absolutely wonderful, fabulous! You ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait until you dig on them radiant fall colors set against their delicious blue skies washed with golden sunshine. Or til you smell the warm spring breeze heavy with freshly cut grass and fragrant flowers. Or til you wallow in them summer nights washed with moon and full of cricket songs. You in the south honey! The south is sweet. You will be especially sensitive to it because you lived here in the toilet so long. One good thing about living in the toilet is that it sho nuff teaches you to appreciate the open air…

~Nancy

Sherry credits Nancy as being a major influence on her life. “She was a dynamite woman!” She said, and described her personality as “electrifying.” If there’s one consistent thread I keep hearing about Nancy Dupree, it was that she was tirelessly encouraging to people – especially young black women. In the same interview I quoted earlier, done for the Democrat & Chronicle, she was speaking about her newest album, Sweet Thunder. She said, “My purpose is to communicate to folks that they are not by themselves in their pain. My people need to be soothed because our souls are rubbed raw from the pressure we are forced to endure… I see us as a magnificent people and we need to be told that, we need to hear that.”

Linda Murray said Nancy would say to her, “Look in the mirror and see a black woman, and stretch 2 or 3 inches higher, and push your chest out, and be glad that you was born black. That’s pride in your heritage! ”

PART V

Nancy Dupree became ill around 1978. She concealed her illness from others until her sickness became obvious to those around her. While Nancy was very outspoken about her feelings in her poetry, she was simultaneously secretive and mysterious about certain aspects of her life. She never discussed her age, rarely discussed the Black Panthers, and would not divulge any information about her illness.

Sherry Tshibango recalls when she realized that Nancy was sick. “I distinctly remember when she fell ill. And I would not consider myself an outsider, I was almost a part of the family, but she would say “Baby I’m fine. Sugar, I am fine.” Her stomach started swelling, and I would say, “Nancy, what’s going on?” “Sugar, I said I’m fine.”

When news of her illness seeped out along the wires in early 1980, the community was initially upset, but rallied to show support. Not knowing how long she had to live, a group of artists set about to actualize a play she had written over the past couple years. Called Ebony Roses, it was a slice-of-life play about women waiting at a bus-stop and talking.

On February 25th, 1980, the Rochester Times Union carried a story by Angela Dodson, who acted in the play Ebony Roses. “Eleven women had come together out of love for Nancy Dupree and her work. We struggled to get to know one another, we fought sometimes, we cried sometimes, we laughed, we talked, we worked. And Saturday we saw the fruits of that work and that love. I felt it most deeply when I heard Nancy Dupree holler ‘Preach!’ after I did one of her lines.”

In the article, Dodson shared some of her personal feelings about the playwright. “Dupree is critical of black men and shows no great love for white people. From time to time, we wondered how black men would react to the play… Dupree’s work was also rawer than most of the poetry I liked. Most of it was more like long passages of prose than short spurts of verse. Did I like her poetry? I didn’t know. There were rumors that there might be a demonstration against the production. The play presented black men negatively and was divisive, some said. We asked ourselves: Is it too negative? Is it saying things I didn’t endorse? Is it good poetry? Is it stage worthy? Is it divisive?”

The production was finished in time, and staged with Nancy in attendance. She was brought to the theater in a wheelchair. Dodson describes her presence: “She was just grinning from every pore, and wore a long black Qiana dress and handsome flowered cape, with matching clutch bag.”

After the play, Nancy Dupree wept.

She lived two months longer.

CODA

After James Brown died in 2006, Nancy’s ode to the Godfather of Soul leaked out into cyberspace and could be found on a bevy of blogs and independent radio shows. In 2005, NPR did a featurette on Ghetto Reality as part of a longer story about children’s funk records. The album is now available on Amazon, the Smithsonian Folkways website and several other boutique distributors have also picked up on it. The prestigious Dusty Groove records in Chicago had this to say about the album: “Nancy Dupree was one of the most righteous music teachers you could ever have — and here, she’s working with some young kids from the rough side of Rochester, in an album of simple tunes that have a surprisingly soulful edge to them. Nancy plays piano, and the kids sing either solo or in ensemble format. The record’s got a starkness that’s extremely compelling…”

The well-informed Waxidermy.com also took note of Ghetto Reality, and described it like this: “Absolutely compelling music made by little black school children. I often see this described as a “funk record”, but I feel that is somewhat misleading and probably has some people expecting a Jackson 5/Sylvers type thing, which it isn’t. What we do have here is far more interesting. Just Dupree on piano & the kid’s singing give this record a sparse, yet intense sound that ranges from jubilant on tracks such as the tribute “James Brown”, to harrowing and mournful on “Docta King” – a lament to the late Martin Luther King Jr. A great record that will capture the imagination totally. I smile just thinking about it.”

Nancy Dupree would not let the wicked rest, but for those pure in spirit, her art could arouse an overwhelming sensation of warmth and comfort. Even 39 years later, the Waxidermy reviewer says, “I smile just thinking about it.” Her old friends remember her fondly. Juanita Reed said, “She loved laughter. She liked talkin’, loved singin’ and poetry.” When I asked her friend Iris Banister if she had ever heard her poetry, she replied, “She was walking poetry.” Linda Murray said, “All I know is that when I think of her, I smile. I wanna say, thank you Nancy. Thank you for bringing me into the fold and letting me see some things at a young age that have served me well until age 55.” Maya Angelou’s, Phenomenal Woman has been likened to Nancy Dupree, and I think it’s appropriate to end with an excerpt from her poem.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.

nancy dupree

Tags: Essays & Articles

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Em-dash // Oct 4, 2008 at 7:21 am

    This is phenominal. What an rare find for a story. I’m sure were it not for your digging nobody would have heard this story at all.

  • 2 ish // Nov 8, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I just listened to Sweet Thunder and wanted to know more about Nancy Dupree. Thanks so much for the tribute.
    There are downloads of all her albums here: http://blackclassical.wordpress.com/index.php?s=nancy+dupree

  • 3 Fran // Feb 11, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Nancy was my roommate at Virginia State for 3 years. We both majored in music. I was very happy to read this information about her life.

  • 4 Something About the & // Feb 12, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    [...] 1. I am hitting the road on February 22nd and making a pilgrimage from the Southwest to the Northwest to concentrate on freelancing (design and writing), travel, agronomy and maybe some mandolin. I really hope to have a chance to focus in on writing. I’ve got a couple things in print as we speak, pick up the most recent copy of CinemaScope for an article I wrote on the Eameses and pick up the next edition of YETI magazine to see an article I wrote about a radical school teacher from Rochester. [...]

  • 5 Doug Schulkind // Feb 19, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Michael,
    To those of us who have worried the mystery of this remarkable woman, I say a thousand thank-yous. I have treasured those magnificent Folkways recordings for ages. Sister Dupree was a gift to humanity and your research and thoughtful tellings is a gift as well. Praises.

  • 6 bridget linder // Sep 19, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    I performed a couple of plays with Nancy Dupree when I was young. Nancy was a very close friend of my family and we were always at her apartment on the north side of Rochester. Tia came to visit my family a couple of years ago with her large brood and I think Nancy would have been so proud of her.

  • 7 John V // Nov 26, 2009 at 2:13 am

    Great research!

    This LP is mentioned in MOJO #193 [12/09], just so you know

  • 8 Helena // Jan 29, 2010 at 1:24 am

    What an inspiring story. This belongs in every American History Book.

  • 9 Guy L // Apr 25, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Thank you so, so much for this. I just came across the LP she made with the kids in Rochester, and I’m absolutely in awe of it and the rest of her achievements.

  • 10 Jessica // Apr 25, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve had the James Brown song in my itunes unlabeled for years now. Great job researching. Thanks again.

  • 11 Rev. Douglas A. Smith // Nov 29, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    I was just reminiscing about my dear music teacher last night. This is amazing! She is nearly souly:) soley responsible for many of my life and career choices. She helped to introduce me to the arts at such a young age. I can still hear her voice. I can still see that beautiful afro and those sweet black and proud lips telling me that “my lips were flapping in the breeze!” I was always a great conversationalist, apparently, even as a third grader. I love that woman who made us feel proud to be little black kids from the ghetto.
    That half has not been told about the this dear servant of God.
    I remember like it was yesterday.
    I love her like now.
    I miss her like crazy.

  • 12 James Rowe // Jan 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Enjoyed reading about Nancy DuPree. My grandmother, Catherine DuPree was from Sumter SC. I never knew her or any of her family. The only thing I ever heard about her is she married Jake Rowe, my grandfather. Maybe Nancy and I are related.

  • 13 Nancy Dupree at Eye Ball - "Somewhere between edutainment and entercation…" // Jul 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    [...] that almost all of the information is drawn from Snore And Guzzle‘s biographical essay ‘Mother Superior‘. There is very, very little information about Dupree available beyond liner notes, and [...]

  • 14 Dr. James E. Mumford // Nov 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Nancy was my classmate at Virginia State University. She was a beautiful bud and it is a pleasure to read of her opening into a beautiful flower. You go, Nancy! JAM, Girl!

  • 15 Kevin Brown // Mar 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    I just stumbled across this today. My mother and Nancy Dupree were friends and I remember being a bit awe struck by her when I was a child. She had such a powerful presence. Thank you for the lovely read!

  • 16 Gideon K // Sep 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Excellent article. I can’t praise it enough. I stumbled upon this whilst looking up about ‘Ghetto Reality’, as it has been something I’ve been meaning to search out for sometime.

    What a great story about what seems to have been a great woman.

  • 17 Sabrena Branch // Oct 3, 2012 at 12:40 am

    I discovered the Sweet Thunder album when I was about 12 years old. Born and raised in Rochester, I guess my mother sat in on one of her poetry sessions. I remember relating to every word she spoke, I hung onto them like lingering perfume. I imagined what she was like. The Internet was not a tool then. I thank you Sister Dupree for filling my soul with Love and comfort through the years. I played Sweet Thunder tonight before discovering this wonderful back ground information. Listening to this album over the years encouraged me to write, even in death I was impacted by her electrifying life!

Leave a Comment