My mother, Sarah Webster Fabio, was a precocious kid from Nashville, Tennessee. Her mother, Mayme, died when Sarah was 12 years old, leaving her and five siblings in their father’s care. My granddad was committed to seeing all three of his girls graduate from college and be well-married. He died on the day of the youngest girl’s wedding.
Sarah was the kid that went to college at 16. She started at Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia, and finished at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was 18 when she graduated. Then she met and married my dad, Cyril Fabio. They had three kids, a break, then two more.
It’s no exaggeration to say our mother always had an interest in the arts, particularly writing. She self-published nine books of poetry, including her Master’s Thesis. My mom was among a very active group of culture critics writing for local and national publications like Negro Digest, Black World and Black Scholar. Her work has been anthologized in many of the most important 1960s-era poetry collections.
I don’t know how you could count the number of poems my mother wrote. Poetry was her breath; she wrote more than 500, easily. From that body of work, Sarah recorded some of her poems on four albums for Folkways Records. The titles of those albums are: Boss Soul, Soul Ain’t: Soul Is, Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues and Together To The Tune Of John Coltrane’s Equinox.
Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is Sarah’s third album, and its title is derived from Rainbow Signs, her seven-volume self-published poetry journals. The booklet Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues begins with an offering of Black expression, a poem called “Of Puddles, Worms, Slimy Things.” Sarah writes it in an African-American dialect, an early English Patois that combines English with African languages. Then, she rewrites the same poem in standard English. The difference between the two demonstrates how a choice of language (intentional or expedient) colors the meaning and understanding of the text.
But the album, Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues is its own compilation. It borrows poems from various booklets in the Rainbow Signs series. And further, an analysis of the title’s three nouns (“Jujus,” “Alchemy” and “Blues”) helps a new listener access Sarah’s intent.
Jujus are practices that are derived from West African religions. Alchemy is the chemical reaction that transforms ordinary metals into gold. The Blues are a musical coping tradition rooted in the plantation cultures of Blacks from the deep deep South. I find these ideas helpful in accessing Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues more meaningfully.
Don’t Fight the Feeling, the backing band on Jujus, grew from a garage band started by my brother Ronnie, who was in high school, and his friend Wayne Wallace. At the time, guitar player Wayne was already in a different band. That band asked Ronnie to join, and eventually, Wayne and Ronnie left to start their own group, which became Don’t Fight the Feeling.
“Don’t Fight the Feeling was a goofy name but it reflected us, just as the names of other bands in those days reflected their members,” Ronnie says. “Don’t Fight the Feeling preceded our work with mom but she started to pull us into her work. We performed with her at the University of Pacifica and then the University of Stockton. Mom was booked on a boat excursion during that gig and from then on, we worked for her.”
But it was an experienced musician who had worked with our mom before Don’t Fight the Feeling that helped give the band direction.
“Leon Williams [who is credited as Denianke on the album’s credits], an established jazz musician, frequently performed with mother and there was no question about who knew or understood the music. Leon mentored us,” Ronnie says.
Williams was recruited by Sarah when he was a student, and he remembers wanting to support her poetry any way he could.
“Poetry combined with music was a thing [I was interested in]. I always had an affinity with poets and Sarah was just amazing,” Williams said. “She was a Renaissance person with high energy going in every direction. She was taking kids to school, organizing in her community, all while she worked an 8-to-5. At that time, Sarah was teaching at Grove Street/Merritt College.”
Other musicians and Fabios contributed to Don’t Fight the Feeling. My brother Tommy became the MC and our eldest brother Leslie was the percussionist. Williams was the primary woodwind musician, but Rick Hopton played on the album too, and Larry Vann — a well-established Oakland drummer — played snares and he gave Don’t Fight the Feeling its funky rhythms.
All of Sarah’s albums were created after a near-death experience, which brought an urgency to her wanting to leave a legacy, and made her four-albums-in-five-years output understandable. Returning to the Bay Area from Los Angeles on New Year’s Day in 1971 after celebrating with friends and family, a sudden fog between Bakersfield and Fresno caused her to lose control, and her car skidded off the road. She cracked her ribs, had broken facial bones and the seat belt caused her to fracture her writing arm. She had to have her jaw wired shut, and was in a cast for nearly a year.
The tediousness of her recovery ended up replenishing her artistic spirit, leaving her with a thirst for life. She collaborated with intensity. She knew her four albums on Folkways would translate her poems from the page to a permanent, lasting expression. She picked from her body of work the poems that would take her further than written text could ever promise. Around the time her albums started coming out, she started pursuing a PhD in American and African Studies at the University of Iowa, and took a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. It was there she was diagnosed with colon cancer, which ultimately took her life November 7, 1979.
While recording Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues, I asked my mom and producer Fred Cohen if I could film a documentary of my mother’s work, which eventually became Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah W. Fabio, a 30-minute film that served as my thesis project at Stanford. The film, which is preserved by the Black Film Center at Indiana University, ends with “Juju: For Grandma.” The film and this album confirms: These recordings unwrap the way Sarah heard her words.