Robert McFerrin, Sr.

History Hunt: Robert McFerrin, Sr.

This week, we’re continuing our celebration of American artists and moving forward in time to meet someone who, for a time, shared a building with another History Hunt-featured artist, Marian Anderson!

Robert Keith McFerrin, Sr. was born on March 19, 1921 in Marianna, Arkansas, one of eight children! Like many of the musicians showcased on History Hunt, McFerrin’s love of music began early. As a boy, he joined his church choir and sang soprano, and he was also a talented whistler.

McFerrin’s father was a strict Baptist minister, he didn’t want McFerrin to learn any music but gospel songs. McFerrin respected his wishes and took advantage of the opportunities available to him, which included joining two of his siblings and participating in a travelling church music trio when he was thirteen.

But as much as his parents wanted to keep their son near, they knew that McFerrin would have a better chance at a good education elsewhere. And so, when McFerrin finished Grade 8, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, Missouri.

Despite McFerrin’s great musical skills, his original plan was to become an English teacher. He changed his mind, however, when he joined the choir in high school. His wonderful voice so impressed the choir director, Wirt Walton, that his teacher took him on as a private student for the next four years.

Walton had just as strong opinions about the music McFerrin should sing as McFerrin’s father had. Ironically, though, the music Walton didn’t want McFerrin singing was pop music…and gospel! McFerrin, however, recognised the importance of the music he’d grown up singing:

“I believe that my singing of gospel music and hymns strengthened my voice and gave me the ability to sustain my singing and endure whatever role I was assigned to sing. The study of voice only served to secure musicianship and aid in the control of my voice.”

As his high school graduation grew near, so he could afford to study music at university, McFerrin put on his first solo recital. He used the money he raised to go to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. However, it seems that the university wasn’t a good fit for McFerrin, as he left after a year. He soon won a scholarship to study at Chicago Musical College instead, and within a year, he’d won the singing competition at Chicagoland Music Festival!

Before he could finish his studies at Chicago Musical College, though, the United States joined World War II, and in 1943, McFerrin was called to fight. He was very lucky indeed, as he survived unharmed and came back to finish his degree a year after the war ended, in 1946.

When he graduated, McFerrin moved to New York and began studying with Hall Johnson, who was a well-known musician in McFerrin’s day. He soon fell in love with fellow singer Sara Copper; they married within a year of McFerrin’s arrival in New York.

It was here in New York that McFerrin’s career as a singer really began. In 1949, when he was 28, he got his first part on Broadway in Lost in the Stars. It wasn’t a large part, but it led to more–a lot more. He won a scholarship to the Tanglewood Opera Theatre and starred in the opera Rigoletto by famous composer Giuseppe Verdi. He also was one of the musicians in the first opera performed by a major American opera company, Troubled Island, by William Grant Still.

From here, McFerrin’s popularity only continued to grow. But in spite of this, when his manager suggested he audition for the prestigious Metropolitan Opera during their “Auditions of the Air” competition, he decided against it. He didn’t feel ready to join something so big. His manager knew he could do it, though. She was so convinced, she filled out the audition form, signed it as “Robert McFerrin,” and mailed it off. Imagine McFerrin’s surprise when he got a phone call saying he’d won the right to audition for something he’d never applied to!

Even though he wasn’t sure he was good enough, McFerrin decided to accept the audition. It was a good thing he did: he placed first out of everyone, becoming the first African-American to do so. That earned him yet another scholarship to Kathryn Turney Long School, where he learned stage skills like fencing and ballet.

Usually, winners of the Metropolitan Opera’s competition earned a contract and six months’ training. McFerrin, however, received over a year of training–but no contract. Fortunately, McFerrin didn’t mind and was glad to learn what he could.

In January 1955, McFerrin and Marian Anderson became the first African-Americans to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Anderson performed first, and McFerrin followed three weeks later. This wasn’t the only way the two were connected–as mentioned earlier, the two shared a building for a time. McFerrin lived on the ninth floor and Anderson on the tenth. Sara Copper, McFerrin’s wife, would even occasionally meet Anderson in passing (and from the sounds of things, was pretty starstruck about it!).

Performing at the Metropolitan Opera wasn’t all that McFerrin did during this period. On a European tour in 1956, McFerrin became the first African-American to sing at the opera house Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy. The next year, when he was 37, he and his family moved to Hollywood so he could provide music for the film version of Porgy and Bess (the opera that brought Ruby Elzy fame).

When the filming was finished, McFerrin had a difficult decision to make. Although it had been important for him to join the Metropolitan Opera at the time, the racism of the 1950s was severely limiting his roles. At this point, he’d sung in only one opera every year, and never in a leading role. And so he quit his job at the opera to further his career in Hollywood.

He and Sara Copper began their own studio and he taught there for the next fifteen years, with some exceptions–such as when he was hired to teach in Finland! He and Copper eventually divorced, and McFerrin moved back to St. Louis. He kept singing for the rest of his life. In fact, one of his notable later performances was when he was 72. He was the guest singer for the St. Louis Symphony, which was conducted by none other than his son, who had become a famous musician in his own right!

Below is a recording from 1956 of one of McFerrin’s performances with the Metropolitan Opera, where he played the role of King Amonasro, the father of the title character, Aida.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Robert McFerrin at Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music
Robert McFerrin Sr. at The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
McFerrin, Robert Keith, Sr. at BlackPast.org
Robert McFerrin Sr.; Was First Black Man to Sing With the Met via the Washington Post
Singer Robert McFerrin, father of Bobby, dies on Today.com
Opera singer who broke racial barriers honored on Lawrence Journal-World
Robert McFerrin, Sr. at Encyclopædia Britannica
Robert McFerrin at Wikipedia.org
Aida at Wikipedia.org
Robert Mcferrin at Fine Art America (image source)

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Visible Music

Recently, I was introduced to the art of Melissa S. McCracken, and what a fascinating discovery that was! McCracken has what’s called “synesthesia,” where a person’s senses are connected in unusual ways. As McCracken puts it on her website:

I paint music.
Until I was 15, I thought everyone constantly saw colors. Colors in books, colors in math formulas, colors at concerts. But when I finally asked my brother which color the letter C was (canary yellow, by the way) I realized my mind wasn’t quite as normal as I had thought.
 Basically, my brain is cross-wired. I experience the “wrong” sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful “brain malfunction” of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song. Having synesthesia isn’t distracting or disorienting. It adds a unique vibrance to the world I experience.

Thanks to this brain difference, McCracken now paints the music she sees so the rest of us can share a little piece of her world.

Here’s “Interlude II” by Soulive (click to expand the picture):


(The second interlude begins around 0:50.)

And here’s “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix (click to expand the picture):

Her other paintings of music can be found on her website, which I’ve linked above. I highly recommend checking it out!

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

History Hunt: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

This week, we’re staying in the United States and moving back a century in time (more or less) to meet a musician who sang for a queen!

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born Elizabeth Taylor in either 1809, 1817, 1819, or 1824…or possibly another date entirely. No one knows for certain. We do know, however, that she was born Natchez, Mississippi. Her mother was named Anna Greenfield and her father’s family name was Taylor–there isn’t any record of his surname. We also know that, for the first part of Greenfield’s life, all three of them were slaves.

At some point after Greenfield’s birth, however, the man holding her family as slaves died, and his widow, also named Elizabeth Greenfield, moved to Phillidelphia and brought Greenfield with her. The adult Elizabeth Greenfield later became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Most Quakers were against slavery, and so Elizabeth Greenfield soon freed all her slaves and gave them money to help support them in their new lives.

While Greenfield’s father (and perhaps mother) moved to Liberia in Africa after being freed, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield remained behind and took the last name of the adult Elizabeth Greenfield. She taught herself how to play the guitar, the harp, and the piano, in part so she could accompany herself when she sang.

Greenfield loved to sing. She performed in church, and, in spite of the awful racism of the time, was able to take singing lessons for a while. Though her lessons were limited, her genius at singing was incredible: she had a range of nearly four octaves and was able to sing everything from the soprano range down to bass!

In 1844, Greenfield moved to Buffalo, New York, and made her public debut as a singer there in 1851. It was the first of many concerts–she spent the next two years touring throughout the United States.

Being respected as a singer the way she should have been did not come easily for Greenfield. Although she was no longer a slave, slavery was still legal in parts of the United States. In order for white audiences to take her seriously, she sang “opera arias, sentimental parlor songs, ballads of the British Isles, and the occasional hymn.” (Chybowski) This was what white people considered “civilised” music, because it was believed then (and sadly still these days) that certain music was “better” than others. Unsurprisingly, the “better” music was always music considered “white.”

Greenfield received mixed reviews wherever she went: sometimes people were able to accept her as the brilliant singer that she was who had fought hard against racism for the right to share her music. Sometimes they refused to. Once, in 1853, someone threatened to burn down the hall where she was scheduled to perform. She ignored the threat, sang anyway, and the concert was a success (and, it turned out, the threat was an empty one).

Some of her critics were her fellow African-Americans, and they had a very legitimate point. Frederick Douglass, the famous anti-slavery activist, once criticised her for performing in a white-only venue. According to the owners of the hall, it was all right for an African-American musician to entertain white people there, but African-Americans weren’t allowed to enjoy music.

In April 1853, Greenfield arrived in London to begin touring in England. However, she immediately ran into trouble: the manager she had hired cheated her, refusing to pay for her expenses as had been agreed. She dropped him and looked for a patron to help her get her tour going again. She soon found someone–two someones, as a matter of fact. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white anti-slavery activist. The other was the Duchess of Southerland!

From then on, Greenfield had no need to worry about being able to share her music. Not only did the Duchess of Southerland become her patron, but so did the Duchess of Norfolk and the Duchess of Argyle! She even got to take music lessons again, from none other than the royal music advisor George Smart. And a year after her arrival came what must have been the highlight of her career: on May 10, 1854, she performed for Queen Victoria!

Unfortunately, in spite of her popularity, shortly after her performance for Queen Victoria, she once again ran into money problems. She had to end her music lessons and return to the United States to tour closer to home.

For the next decade or more, she toured across the United States with at least one stop in Canada. She did fundraising concerts for elderly and orphaned African-Americans, created and directed an opera group, and opened a music school in Philadelphia for the next generation of African-American singers. And, when the Civil War broke out in the United States, she spoke out in favour of equality for all peoples. She joined famous anti-slavery activists Frances E. W. Harper…and Frederick Douglass, the very person who had criticised her willingness to perform in halls that banned other African-Americans from attending. It speaks well indeed of both of them that they were willing to let bygones be bygones for their vitally important cause.

There are no recordings today of Greenfield’s performances and it’s difficult to know her exact repertoire, as it often wasn’t listed in the newspapers of the time. However, here’s a selection that was included in a recent concert dedicated to Greenfield:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
*Please note that the URL of one source uses outdated terminology for Black people

“The Black Swan in England”: Abolition and the Reception of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield by Julia Chybowski
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Biography.com
African American Concert Singers Before 1950 by Darryl Glenn Nettles
Becoming the “Black Swan” in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s Early Life and Debut Concert Tour by Julia Chybowski
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor at Encyclopedia.com
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor at William Still: An African-American Abolitionist
Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor (1819-1876) at Blackpast.org
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Encyclopædia Britannica
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Find A Grave
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield at Negro Artist.com
Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History (image source)
Opera Exposures to Present The Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield Story 2/6 at Broadway World.com

Mix and Match Genres

I enjoy pop music as much as the next person, but sometimes it’s fun for it to be shaken up a bit. And sometimes it’s fun for it to be shaken up a lot.

Postmodern Jukebox is a group headed by Scott Bradlee that has done dozens of remixes of recent and classic pop songs in genres from doo-wop to 1920s pop and in the styles of everybody from Marilyn Monroe to the Beach Boys. Here’s just one of their many remixes–there are plenty more on Youtube if you like what you hear!

Margaret Allison Bonds

History Hunt: Margaret Allison Bonds

When I was researching this week’s featured musician for History Hunt, I came across this sentence:

One of the first black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

And that was what made me decide to write about Margaret Allison Bonds for this week’s History Hunt. It sounds to me as if it’s time to shine a spotlight on her alone!

Margaret Allison Bonds was born Margaret Jeannette Allison Majors on March 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was a musician, as was her grandmother, and her father was a doctor. Though her parents divorced when she was only four, Bonds had a good relationship with both her parents throughout her life.

Her mother and grandmother were the ones to raise her, and it was after her parents’ divorce that Margaret Majors became Margaret Bonds, “Bonds” being her mother’s name before marriage. Right from the beginning, her mother recognised Bonds’ musical talent–she started giving Bonds piano lessons when Bonds was only three years old. By the time Bonds was five, not only had she moved on to study with another piano teacher thanks to winning a scholarship, but she had written her first piece of music! It was called “The Marquette Road Blues,” and it was only the first of many works Bonds would compose.

Interestingly enough, Bonds’ mother and grandmother disagreed about what Bonds should do when she grew up. Her mother thought she ought to be a pianist like her. Her grandmother, however, thought she ought to be a composer. As it turns out, they both got their wish–Bonds became both a pianist and a composer!

It certainly helped Bonds on her path that, throughout her childhood, she met many famous African-American musicians, composers, and writers. This was thanks to her mother, who frequently hosted gatherings at their home. She was able to learn from these more experienced artists and grow as in her abilities–though sometimes she was more interested in having fun with one of her friends than paying attention!

When Bonds was eight, she started winning scholarships, from both the Chicago Musical College and the Coleridge-Taylor Music School. (The second school, interestingly enough, was named after previous History Hunt composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor!) She used her scholarship from the Coleridge-Taylor Music School to study piano; five years later, she began learning how to compose from another teacher.

Bonds was only sixteen when she won a scholarship and was accepted at Northwestern University. Unfortunately, at this time, segregation was ongoing in the United States–laws that made it illegal for Black people and white people to do things like go to the same schools, public places, live in the same neighbourhoods, and generally participate in daily life together. Even though Bonds was studying at Northwestern University, she wasn’t allowed to live in any of the campus housing or even use the university pool. The constant racism she faced was extremely discouraging, but she fought on, kept winning prizes, and graduated from the university with first a Bachelor of Music and then, the very next year, a Master of Music.

The same year she received her Master of Music, she played at the Chicago World Fair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–the first Black person to ever perform with that orchestra. She received positive reviews from even white critics, and from then on, she performed all over Chicago. She composed her first and only operetta (a children’s story called Winter Night’s Dream), as well as a musical theatre version of Romeo and Juliet, called Romey and Julie.

She also taught, beginning while she was still in university, and at least one of her students was white. That was something very rare indeed during segregation in the United States, but Bonds’ genius was undeniable. And, when she was only twenty-four, she started a school for music, ballet, and art, called the Allied Arts Academy. Unfortunately, the school had to close after only two years due to a lack of money, and not long after, Bonds moved to New York.

Bonds worked hard to make ends meet in New York, composing and performing almost nonstop. But once again, she won another scholarship, this time to the famous Julliard School of Music. The scholarship was for composition lessons, but she also continued to take piano lessons at the time–after all, you’re never too old to learn!

Bonds went on tour in 1947 and had another first with an orchestra in 1950: once again, she was the first African-American to perform, this time with the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra. She founded the Margaret Bonds Chamber Music Society in 1956, and the group had their first concert at Carnegie Hall–one of the most sought-after places to hold a recital in the world!

Soon came an exciting period for Bonds: the 1960s. Not only had she become so successful that entire concerts were being held of just her music (one in 1963 and another in 1967), but this was the era of the Civil Rights movement, during which African-Americans fought for equal treatment under the law. Bonds was involved with the struggles at this time and composed music to encourage supporters of the movement. One example was the symphonic piece Montgomery Variations, which she dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. There was even a “Margaret Bonds Day” in Chicago, on January 31, 1967!

She also was becoming famous not just in the United States, but all over the world. Her work Ballad of the Brown King had a premiere at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and her music was being performed in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal as well. Bonds really wanted to go to the premiere, but unfortunately, she didn’t have the chance.

Though Bonds achieved a huge level of success, one of her many talents worked against her: she kept many of her compositions in her head, and so it can be hard to find sheet music of themthese days! That said, unlike last week’s History Hunt composer, Amanda Aldridge, Bonds’ music is still available on Youtube. Here’s her arrangement of the traditional African-American spiritual, “Dry Bones”:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, by Helen Walker-Hill
“The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds,” by Alethea Nadine Kilgore
Margaret Allison Bonds at AfriClassical.com
Margaret Bonds at Afrocentric Voices
Margaret Bonds at Wikipedia.org

My Neighbour Tweet-toro

I’m a huge fan of the anime films produced by Studio Ghibli, and slowly but surely I’m watching my way through their backlist. In addition to telling wonderful stories about characters who act and think just like real people, these movies have some of my favourite soundtracks ever.

So, when I came upon this duet between a bird and its human performing the theme from My Neighbour Totoro, I couldn’t have been more delighted. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did!

Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge with Haitian Ambassador Joseph L. Dejean

History Hunt: Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge

Note: This post discusses racist subject matter. Discretion is advised.

This week, we’re back to Britain to meet a composer of many names–and just as many talents.

Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge was born on March 10, 1866 in a suburb of London, England. Her mother was a white opera singer (and supposed Swedish countess) Amanda Pauline von Brandt and her father was the famous Black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who also was a talented singer.

Because of her parents’ musical background, Aldridge and her siblings’ musical talents were strongly encouraged. Her mother would take them to classical music concerts at the famed Crystal Palace, and Aldridge was able to study both singing and piano almost from the start of her life. And it paid off–when she was fifteen, Aldridge sang with an orchestra at the very same Crystal Palace she’d visited as a little girl!

When she was seventeen, Aldridge won one of nine scholarships for singers to study at the Royal College of Music–the same college where Samuel Coleridge-Taylor studied first violin and then composition. There she was lucky enough to study with the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, who had a music teacher in common with her mother.

Aldridge was an excellent student who had very good report cards, and within three years of starting classes at the Royal College of Music, she began her performance career. It was here she started using another name: Amanda Ira Aldridge. She was proud of her father’s achievements and wanted to show it–and to show that she had inherited every bit of his genius.

At her performances, she sang a wide range of music, including works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Maud Valérie White (soon to be featured on History Hunt!). She became a very popular singer who received excellent reviews praising not only her voice but her intelligence–impressive for the prejudiced time she lived in.

Later, Aldridge took on yet another name: Montague Ring. This time, however, she used it not for performing, but for composing.

Her first published piece was called “Clorinda.”

Clorinda, by Montague Ring

Clorinda, Aldridge’s first published composition (under the name Montague Ring).

Her next compositions, however, are harder to understand. During this time, in Britain and the United States, there was a type of music that was very popular, called “coon songs.” They were used by white people to laugh at black people and the way it was thought they lived. In Britain, many people didn’t know that these songs weren’t a normal part of American music, but that didn’t mean the songs weren’t very racist. And while most composers of “coon songs” were white, not all of them were.

It’s hard to know what Aldridge’s reasons were for writing such ugly music. She might have been one of the people to think these songs were only an American tradition. She might also have been affected by the racism of the time. When someone is surrounded by people telling them they aren’t as good as everyone else, even if they know the others are wrong, it can be hard not to believe it a little. Regardless, it’s important to remember that this music once existed so that we can learn to never make it again.

That said, Aldridge was still a skilled composer, and she made sure that many of her pieces weren’t too hard for ordinary people to play. She also worked with local poets and African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to promote their works through her music.

Even when she was busy with composing, Aldridge continued to perform. In fact, she and her sister Luranah even performed together in a concert in 1914, taking turns singing.

Unfortunately, Aldridge’s singing career ended too soon: a bad case of laryngitis left her voice damaged. She could sing short phrases, but she could no longer perform as she once had. She also stopped publishing her compositions–her last piece was released in 1934–and maybe stopped composing altogether. No one knows why. But she still didn’t give up on music, because by that time, she had become an extremely well-respected singing teacher. In fact, some of the greatest singers of her time studied under her, including Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson–previously featured on History Hunt!

Aldridge kept teaching long past the age most music teachers retire. In fact, when someone asked her when she was eighty-seven if maybe it was time to slow down, she answered, “Life without music would be unbearable. I cannot keep still. So many things are happening that I must be active to see it all.” (Andrews) And the very next year, Aldridge appeared on the TV show Music For You, even though she didn’t actually own a TV herself!

Unfortunately, most of Aldridge’s music is out of print, and so I was unable to find an example of her work to share. If anyone knows where I can find any of her music to listen to, I’d greatly appreciate it.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Amanda Aldridge, Teacher and Composer: A Life in Music by Joyce Andrews (Note: Outdated terminology for black people is used in this article. Mature subject matter is also discussed.)
Aldridge, Amanda Christina Elizabeth [pseud. Montague Ring] on Oxford Index
Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge on Wikipedia
List of music students by teacher: A to C: Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge on Wikipedia
Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge, aka Amanda Ira Aldridge on POC in Western Music History (Note: Tumblr is a 13+ website. This article is safe for all ages.)
Image source for image of Clorinda
In Search of Coon Songs, Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Song on The Parlor Songs Academy (Note: Discussion of racist subject matter and racist imagery in the article. Discretion strongly advised.)