Well ahead of the connections that grew between music and poetry during the hip-hop era, several generations of African-American poets drew on musical influences in their works. The writers associated with the politically oriented Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s were especially active in this regard, joining spoken words with blues and jazz in an attempt to create a distinctively African-American form of poetic expression. Sarah Webster Fabio, active later in her life in the movement’s San Francisco Bay Area epicenter, gained attention during that era. But she had formed her own style well in advance of these developments, doggedly pursuing chances to express herself while she dealt with the responsibilities of marriage and family.
Fabio was born Sarah Webster in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 20, 1928. She was one of six children. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Webster, took one of the most important paths that led African Americans out of poverty: he worked as a Pullman porter for the Southern Illinois Railroad. Between that job and a real estate business he operated on the side, the family had enough money to send their academically talented daughter to Atlanta’s Spelman College. She graduated from high school in 1943, when she was only 15.
At Spelman, Sarah Webster majored in English and history. She moved back to Nashville in the summer of 1945, possibly because she had met her future husband Cyril Fabio II, a dental student at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College. She enrolled at Nashville’s Fisk University and graduated in 1946, after just three years of college. In June of 1946, soon after her graduation, she and Cyril Fabio were married.
Cyril Fabio put his dentistry skills to work in the United States military, and he was soon stationed in Florida. The Fabio family grew quickly: one son, Cyril Leslie Fabio III, was born on January 30, 1947, and another son, Thomas Albert Fabio, was born in January of 1948. By that time the family had been able to move back to Nashville, but they shuttled between Tennessee and Florida for the next several years. When she could, Sarah Webster Fabio took classes at Nashville’s Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College (now Tennessee State University). A daughter, Cheryl Elisa Louse Fabio, was born in 1949, and the 21-year-old Fabio found herself juggling classwork, the needs of three children under five, and the demands of being the spouse of a military medical officer.
Higher education became an even more distant goal after the Fabios moved to West Germany, again as a result of Cyril’s military career, in 1953. All through the family’s travels, however, Sarah was writing poetry. Once she was back in the United States, she took graduate English classes at Wichita State University in Kansas. Two more children were born, daughter Renee Angela in 1955 and a third son, Ronald Eric, in 1956.
After Cyril Fabio left the military, the family moved to California and settled in Palo Alto, near San Francisco. After getting her five children into school and involved in activities outside the home, Sarah Webster Fabio was finally able to return to her own education. She enrolled at San Francisco State College (now University) in 1963, completing a master’s degree two years later. From 1965 to 1968 she taught at Merritt College, a community college in downtown Oakland. She also served as an instructor at the East Bay Skills Center, teaching language skills to inner-city young people, and in 1966 she attended the First World Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal.
The flowering of Fabio’s teaching career coincided with tremendous growth in African-American literary creativity in the late 1960s. The Black Arts Movement was a loosely connected group of creative figures with ties to political organizations, ranging from progressive to militant, that arose within the larger counterculture scene. Fabio’s tenure at Merritt College has been credited with helping to introduce the ideas of the Black Arts Movement to Bay Area students. Her first book of poetry, Saga of a Black Man, was published in 1968.
Soon Fabio’s poetry was being published in the most vigorous and widely read African-American literary journals of the day: Black World, the Journal of Black Renaissance, and Negro Digest. More prestigious teaching appointments came her way; she taught, lectured, and read her poetry often from 1968 to 1971 at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts. Her next two books, A Mirror, A Soul (1971) and Black Talk: Shield and Sword (1973) were issued by the nationally prominent Doubleday publishing company.
Fabio’s poems were collected in a host of anthologies of the early 1970s, including The Black Aesthetic (1971) and Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973). She also collected many of her own poems in a self-published seven-volume set entitled Rainbow Signs. The works in that collection included “Of Puddles, Worms, Slimy Things,” which ran through its basic text twice: once in standard English (“Pity the poor worm who dares go it alone,” read one line) and once in truncated, telegraphic words that suggested black speech (“Hv merci on d po wrm who dares go it alone”). Many of Fabio’s poems dealt with music or were inspired by it. One of her best-known poems, “Tribute to Duke,” paid homage to jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington.
Fabio taught at Oberlin College in Ohio from 1972 (the year she and Cyril Fabio divorced) to 1974. She recorded two albums in 1972 on the Folkways label, Boss Soul and Soul Ain’t, Soul Is. After enrolling once again in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in 1975 she began to exhibit symptoms of colon cancer. She moved to live with her daughter Cheryl in Pinole, California, and mother and daughter collaborated on the 1976 film Rainbow Black, which featured many of Fabio’s poems in musical settings. Fabio died in Pinole on November 7, 1979.
Although she was not the first poet to record with musical accompaniment (Nikki Giovanni’s Truth Is On Its Way gained wide success in 1971), it is perhaps for her musical efforts that Fabio is best remembered. In 1975 she recorded one volume of Rainbow Black with musical accompaniment as Jujus: Alchemy of the Blues, and in the late 1990s that recording became one of three counterculture jazz classics reissued by Britain’s BGP record label. The recording included Fabio’s tribute to jazz great John Coltrane, who himself died young in 1967. “Sweet songs, you said, were gonna come again, My Man/and didn’t they?” Fabio wrote. “I mean they jetted in on a ray of radiance like the sun/to shine on those in our midst and/the still unborn in this hour of our great need.”
Race Results, U.S.A. (poetry), 1967
Saga of the Black Man (poetry), 1968
A Mirror, A Soul (poetry), 1971
Black Talk: Shield, and Sword (poetry), 1973
Jujus & Jubilees: Critical Essays in Rhyme about Poets, Musicians, Black Heroes, with Introductory Notes (poetry), 1973
The Rainbow Sign (poetry), 1973
12 Poems by Fabio at Smithsonian Folkways: