Sarah Webster Fabio

Before the break, I gave a talk at Penn State’s Africana Research Center, which supported my trip to the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The Smithsonian Institution took over Moses Asch’s Folkways Records along with its archive and collections in 1987. My talk was on Sarah Webster Fabio, who recorded four albums of jazz poetry with Folkways in the 1970s.

Webster Fabio comes from an extraordinary educational background. After graduating high school at fifteen years old she enrolled at Spelman College and later transferred to Fisk University, where she studied poetry with Arna Bontemps. She began graduate studies at San Francisco State College in 1963, earning an MA in “Language Arts, Creative Writing with a Special Emphasis on Poetry”—she did so while raising five children.

In 1966, Webster Fabio began publishing her poetry more widely and traveled to Dakar, Senegal to read at the First World Festival of Negro Arts. It was around this time that she took a teaching position at Merritt College in Oakland, where student activists were demanding Black Studies and Ethnic Studies courses. At Merritt, Webster Fabio taught Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (founding members of the Black Panther Party) as well as Ron Karenga (who founded the US organization). This fact has earned her respectful nicknames like “Panther Teacher” and the “Mother of Black Studies.”

As her poetry career began to take off, she moved from Merritt College to UC-Berkeley. Soon after, her genre-defying creative essay, “Tripping on Black Writing,” appeared in Addison Gayle’s anthology, The Black Aesthetic (1971), solidifying her credentials as a critic.

In 1972 and 1973 Webster Fabio recorded back-to-back albums: Boss Soul and Soul Ain’t : Soul Is. Her next album was Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues in 1976, followed by Together / To the Tune of Coltrane’s Equinox in 1977.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper

Her last album includes a seldom discussed—yet no less important—contribution to the sub-genre of Coltrane poems. It also features a recording of what is perhaps her most well-known work, “Tribute to Duke.” It was one of two poems by Webster Fabio included in Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech & Black Music as Poetic References (1973).

But Webster Fabio synthesized influences from jazz with those from R&B, soul, and funk. “Alchemy of the Blues” is a “Juju for Ray Charles” according to the liner notes.