While we may find it easy to be drawn into the speaker's point of view, the concrete details of the poem, those which interrupt the narrative, force us to call into question the speaker's excessive sentiment. We might note first that Malindy never appears in the poem; the only singing represented is that of Miss Lucy, whose song is described by the narrator as "dat noise." In fact, it is the futility of Lucy's dedication to singing—"Put dat music book away; / What's de use to keep on tryin'?"—that launches the speaker into his tribute to Malindy. In effect, the poem begins with the discord of Miss Lucy's song which the speaker attempts to restructure into harmony. Unfortunately for the speaker, just as his embellishment reaches its peak (with the "sinnahs" crying at Malindy's feet), he is interrupted by a blues voice of dissension. We can infer what the listener's comment was by the speaker's response:
In these lines not only is the efficacy of the gospel questioned but, perhaps, the very existence of Malindy as well. In the next stanza the speaker attempts to continue but is completely undermined as we reach the final stanza:
Instead of Malindy we are introduced to Mandy, and, with the image of the crying child, harmony has once again fallen into discord. The speaker's failure to harmonize leaves him desperate—"Let me listen, I can hyeah it"—and somewhat alienated from Mandy and the rest. Yet there is a sense that in the last lines Malindy's song has taken on a more poignant, personal relevance for the speaker, in the sense that his narrative's fictiveness has been exposed. We might even imagine the speaker singing the final three lines (with all of those long vowel sounds), beginning a kind of blues song out of the narrative which fails. In such a reading, Dunbar undermines the stereotype of the gospel singer Malindy and, at the same time, affirms the power of blues creativity. The speaker's exaggeration is subverted, but his creativity, faith, and spirit are confirmed.
From "Paul Dunbar and the Mask of Dialect." Southern Literary Journal 25:2, (Spring 1993).
“When Malindy Sings” appeared in Dunbar’s second collection of poems, Majors and Minors. Because it is a dialect piece, Dunbar placed it in the latter half of the collection, subtitled “Minors.” Ironically, “When Malindy Sings” quickly became one of Dunbar’s most popular poems and has since become perhaps his most anthologized dialect poem.
“When Malindy Sings” was inspired by Dunbar’s mother’s constant singing of hymns and Negro spirituals. In particular, Dunbar attributes the powerful melody and unmatchable phrasings to particular natural gifts of black singers.
The narrator, himself apparently a house servant, admonishes all to keep quiet as Malindy, probably a field slave, sings various songs of religious import. Miss Lucy, perhaps the plantation mistress, is told that her trained singing from a written score is no competition for Malindy’s natural talent; indeed, the birds, though they sing sweetly, hush of their own accord when Malindy sings her superior melodies. Whenever Malindy sings, the narrator observes, it is a singular spiritual experience, one that should be taken advantage of every time.
In this early poem, Dunbar’s gifts as a poet are evident: the meter and rhyme are regular, as are the quatrains that make up the poem. Furthermore, Dunbar is quite adept at creating images and imparting feeling through his use of sensory detail, talents he would continue to employ and capitalize upon in succeeding works.