Fi-yer! A Century of African-American Song





A Century of African-American Song




William Brown, tenor • Ann Sears, piano








Fi-yer! A Century of African-American Song




The music generally recognized as most authentically American blues, ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and its descendents has deep roots in African-American culture and musical traditions. Equally important in African-American life though less well known is the tradition of concert music. The concert genres of art song and spiritual arrangements have a history dating back to the Federal period when the United States was still struggling to separate its own unique cultural and artistic identity from European influences. During the early nineteenth century a great many prominent American musicians and composers were British immigrants or Americans primarily influenced by the British heritage which shaped most of American life. As the minstrel show assumed a prominent place in American musical life, mainstream American composers and African-American composers such as Frank Johnson, A. J. R. Connor, and Henry F. Williams wrote charming, light-hearted parlor songs reflecting the forms, harmony, and limpid melodies of their British antecedents; some Louisiana composers wrote equally attractive songs using French texts and occasionally showing the influence of opera. Enclaves of free black Americans formed many of the first benevolent societies and African-American churches where educational opportunities and economic independence were more available to them than in other parts of the young United States.




In the mid- to late nineteenth century two extraordinary composer-pianists appeared in the American South. The first was Thomas Greene Bethune (1849-1908), born into slavery in Georgia and sold in infancy along with his mother to the Bethune family. The blind child was discovered to be a musical prodigy and given piano lessons by the Bethunes. He was an accomplished pianist and budding composer by age nine, when he began his touring career under the name of "Blind Tom." Bethune's programs fairly bristled with an extraordinary diversity of music: European music, such as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and Beethoven sonatas; operatic potpourris; and improvisations and imitations created on the spot. He also accompanied himself while singing his own songs. Few of Bethune's published songs have survived, but those which are extant show his familiarity with parlor song conventions as well as folk and spiritual traditions. "That Welcome Day" is a simple strophic song with a primarily chordal accompaniment setting basic harmony. The power of the piece lies in its very simplicity. The singer describes meeting his mother and the angel Gabriel, talking about "that welcome day" when presumably freedom from life's struggles comes and mothers and children are reunited in the company of the angels. The simple, lyrical shape of the melodic line with its eloquent rising intervals underlying the words "morning" and "day" reflects the profound optimism of many spirituals. They depict a world in which Heaven is a tangible place: families are together; the physical needs of life food, shelter, and clothing are abundant; justice comes equally to all; and love and acceptance surround all beings.




Thomas Bethune remained under the management of the Bethune family for most of his long and successful concert career, and much of his music was copyrighted by members of the Bethune family. His parents' efforts to gain custody of him and his career following the Civil War were fruitless, as the judicial system of the South continued to privilege white people through the nineteenth century.1 The many contemporaneous observations of Bethune make it clear that he was probably an autistic savant, who despite his enormous musical gifts was incapable of living independently.2 In one sense the Bethune family provided opportunities for Thomas Greene Bethune which he could not have obtained otherwise. They guaranteed him the necessities of life, provided him with a musical tutor who taught him new music and helped notate his compositions for publication; and they arranged the extensive concert tours which took him all over America and to other parts of the world. At the same time Blind Tom's life shows a common pattern for African Americans in the nineteenth century: the parameters of their lives were almost completely dictated by the dominant white culture. Both Blind Tom's private and public lives were controlled by the Bethune family, and he had virtually no control over his fame or fortune.




Blind Tom's successor was John William Boone (1864-1927), who concertized under the name "Blind Boone." Boone lost his eyesight at the age of six months, but otherwise was a normal, healthy child. Like Bethune, he exhibited unusual musical aptitude very early in life. Fortunately for Boone, the parallels end there. Born in Missouri at the very end of the Civil War, Boone escaped both the vicissitudes of slavery and some of the oppression of the deep South. He was sent to the Missouri Institute for the Education of the Blind by local townspeople in Warrensburg, Missouri, but Boone found a musician's life far more attractive than learning a trade.3 He befriended a fellow student who tutored him in piano playing, and he took every opportunity to escape the school and visit the Tenderloin district of St. Louis, where some of the early forms of ragtime were taking shape. After some terrifying experiences as an itinerant musician, Boone encountered John Lange, Jr., a successful African-American businessman who turned his entire attention to the management of Boone's career. Soon Boone's solo career evolved into the Blind Boone Concert Company, a touring group consisting of Boone and usually a singer or two, who would fill out the program with arias, songs, and recitations. Boone had heard a Blind Tom concert early in his life, and his programs are modeled after Blind Tom to an remarkable degree. Like Bethune, Boone included a great diversity of music in his concerts: "classical" music by Liszt, Chopin, or Beethoven; imitations, of which the most famous was "The Marshfield Tornado;" plantation songs; and operatic potpourris. Boone had the opportunity for some formal study, and in his published music emphasized the importance of careful "scholarly" interpretations of his music. He also published some piano medleys which were closer to the more informal music of the day, showing him to be an important contributor to early ragtime. His plantation song "Whar Shill We Go When de Great Day Comes?" shows his pianistic ability, with its melody in octaves and large skips in the left hand accompaniment. Less happily, it shows something of the cultural context of the late nineteenth century, when heavy dialect was used by both white and black composers, reflecting the stereotyping of southern blacks so common in still existing minstrel shows and in ragtime and coon songs which aroused much antipathy from critics and from leaders in the black community. As Boone's career neared its end in the first quarter of the twentieth century, his company encountered a rising tide of racism and he gradually reduced the scope of his tours. Nevertheless, he was a successful pioneer in many ways. His willingness to engage a black manager in the racist climate of the late nineteenth century was an inspiration to other African-American entertainers. The critical and financial success of his company enabled him to provide humanitarian support to many schools, churches, and benevolent societies throughout America, often in the form of proceeds from benefit concerts.4 By the time of his death in 1927, he had seen the appearance of a new generation of African-American artists who had new and exciting opportunities in the area of concert music, thanks partly to the groundbreaking careers of pioneers like Thomas Green Bethune and John William Boone. The availability of musical training and performance allowed the succeeding generation to steep themselves more deeply in western European art music traditions.




Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was born only two years later than John William Boone. However, Burleigh's formal education, the opportunities open to him in the Northeast, and his longer life extended his influence much further than most of his contemporaries. Singer, composer, music editor, vocal coach and teacher, Burleigh influenced American music in many ways. His earliest important contribution to American music was his demonstration of African-American spirituals for no less a personage than Antonin Dvorak during his tenure at the National Conservatory in New York. Burleigh went on to be a concert singer, giving recitals throughout the United States. Two of his most prestigious performances were for President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII in London. Like Bethune and Boone, he performed a wide variety of music. His recital programs included European and American art songs and oratorio and opera arias, as well


as his own art songs and spiritual arrangements. Noted first for his art song compositions, Burleigh published his most famous spiritual arrangements after reaching maturity as a composer. Both his art songs and spiritual arrangements were widely sung and recorded, particularly after the landmark publication of his "Deep River" spiritual arrangement in 1917.5 Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh was the grandson of an ex-slave. The spirituals and singing traditions Burleigh learned from his grandfather provided him a connection with vernacular African-American music, especially spirituals, which gives Burleigh's music a unique power of communication. Burleigh, along with later composers R. Nathaniel Dett and Hall Johnson, wished to preserve the spirituals, which were falling into obscurity as slavery times became distant memories and musical traditions changed. While the musical community argued how to deal best with the spiritual tradition, the performing community voted through participation: Burleigh's concert arrangements of spirituals were the earliest arrangements for solo singer and piano to be widely distributed, and they have remained favorites with singers and audiences since their initial publication. The emotional power of these pieces is enormous, whether one is hearing them for the first or the hundredth time. The poignant texts lay bare the depths of spiritual life experienced by the anonymous yet articulate authors of these works. Hate is returned with love and resignation; God's love and justice are inevitable and available to all; peace and joy are an eternal certainty.6 Burleigh's arrangements capture the expressiveness of the vocal inflections found in the oral traditions of folk music, and in combination with the religious message of the texts and his richly expressive harmony, have proved irresistible to musicians everywhere.




Burleigh's early "Sleep, L'il Chile, Go Sleep" (1902) is a lullaby set to a melody which Burleigh may have arranged from the folk tradition. Like Burleigh's compelling spiritual arrangements, this piece communicates through simplicity. Its strophic character is made more interesting by the subtlety of the accompaniment, in which Burleigh makes expressive use of different registers of the piano, and by the vocal control demanded of the singer, who must be able to sing a wide range of dynamics through long phrases. The language of the text captures the flavor of the South so authentically that the dialect seems natural.




Burleigh art songs were sung in recital and recorded by the leading artists of the day, such as John McCormack, to whom "By the Pool of the Third Rosses" (1916) is dedicated. Burleigh's comfort as both singer and composer in the art song genre is perfectly clear here. The rocking movement in the accompaniment depicts the sighing of reeds; the touches of chromatic harmony appear at the most expressive moments in the text; and the singer's hand shows in the intelligent setting of vowel sounds in a most singable fashion. The singer's impulse shows even more in the sweep of the melodic line, which rises in several waves to the climax at the end.




Burleigh's younger contemporary, R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), taught for many years at the Hampton Institute. One of his brightest students was soprano Dorothy Maynor, at whose request many of his spiritual arrangements were written and to whom they were dedicated. Like Burleigh, Dett both wrote art songs and sought to preserve the spiritual tradition through concert arrangements; and like Burleigh, Dett understood and recreated the rhythmic and vocal character of the authentic oral tradition of the spiritual through his concert works. Dett's "Ride On, King Jesus" (1940) and "I'm A-travelin' to the Grave" (1943) were both arranged for Dorothy Maynor. Written somewhat later than Burleigh's most familiar arrangements, these pieces show the continuation of the spiritual tradition in the black community, and how art song and vernacular tradition influenced each other. It was completely fitting that Dorothy Maynor sang Dett's spiritual arrangements and art songs at the 1940 Library of Congress concert celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which ended slavery, for Burleigh, and later Dett, represented a new era in American music.7 African Americans were at last achieving recognition, not only for their role in the rhythmically fascinating genres of vernacular music, but also in the concert and art music world too long denied them.




Many of Burleigh and Dett's fellow composers found that the world of entertainment and popular music offered possibilities for well-trained and talented musicians. One of the most influential men in black musical theater was Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), who studied violin at Oberlin, at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and later at the National Conservatory in New York with Dvorak. Cook abandoned his concert career early in favor of composing and conducting, including a stint as composer and director for the Williams and Walker Company. He wrote several musicals, and was especially noted for his songs, which combine elements of folk music with a sophisticated and distinctive approach to harmony. His collaborations with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson are particularly effective, uniting Cook's grasp of folk music style with Dunbar's poems in southern dialect. Cook's songs show a marked sensitivity to the voice, evidenced by the lyrical vocal line of "Wid de Moon, Moon, Moon" (1907), a sweet, quiet love song. He could also write in a rhetorical, dramatic style, as in "An Explanation" (1914), which tells a humorous story about life in the black community and how members of the group tease each other. In 1914 the stereotypically racist texts of ragtime songs were still current.8 This piece takes the African-American stereotype of the "chicken stealer" and turns the stereotype into an inside joke, with African Americans laughing at the stereotype from within their own circle. It takes a special singer to interpret the caricature and relish the irony enough to make the humor clear.




Composer (Francis) Hall Johnson (1888-1970) founded a small choral group in the mid-1920s, like Burleigh and Dett hoping to preserve the spiritual tradition. The success of the Hall Johnson Choir and its 1928 concerts led to Johnson's serving as choral director for The Green Pastures, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and later for its film production in 1936. Johnson's understanding of the religious intensity and strength encoded in the spiritual is nowhere more obvious than in "Fi-yer!" (1970) and in "Po' Mo'ner Got a Home at Last" (1949). Most spiritual arrangements are in major keys; both these examples are in F minor and show how expressive minor modes can be. "Po Mo'ner" is in a slow, heavy tempo, and the vocal line is supported with a spare accompaniment; this is a very introspective arrangement, as the singer talks to himself about joining the angels. "Fi-yer!" is a setting of a Langston Hughes poem which draws from both spiritual texts and work songs. The singer of this song has sinned and knows it; fire is going to burn him, and the listener has to decide whether it is a cleansing fire that will be enough to take him to Heaven, or whether it is the everlasting fires of Hell. Johnson omitted the verse of Hughes's poem which might have made the singer's end clearer: "I been stealin',/Been tellin' lies,/ Had more women/Than Pharaoh had wives."




African-American performers and composers continued to build on the successes of Bethune, Boone, and Burleigh, and later, Dett and Will Marion Cook. Acclaimed singer Roland Hayes (1887-1977) became one of the international music world's most celebrated tenors in the 1920s to 1940s. When he published his spiritual arrangements My Songs: Aframerican Religious Folk Songs (1948), he continued Burleigh's synthesis of the rich heritage of nineteenth-century folk music with European art music, and he too provided a model for future African-American artists who aspired to concert work. His spiritual arrangements are so thoughtful and beautiful that one can only wish he had composed art songs. "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" and "Sister Mary Had-a But One Child" both have accompaniments comparable to Schubert in their descriptive, mood-setting figuration. Like his father and grandfather, John Wesley Work III (1901-1967) taught at Fisk University from 1927 to 1966, continuing the preservation of the spiritual tradition through his compositions and teaching. The motivic unity and touches of imitative writing in his "Soliloquy" (1946) show how sophisticated the concert tradition had become among African-American performers and composers. Another artist who wrote significant art music compositions while drawing on the folk tradition was


composer Florence Price (1888-1953), whose works won various composition prizes and whose Symphony in E Minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The first African-American woman to be recognized as a composer, Price had studied piano and organ at the New England Conservatory, where she also studied composition with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Her lovely art song "Night" (1946) is a beautiful wedding of text and music. Price's ability as a pianist shows here, for she writes a richly-textured, impressionistic accompaniment which paints the text with changes in harmony, rhythm, and range. Her close friend and colleague Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was also active in the Chicago area, attending Northwestern University and later the Juilliard School of Music. Perhaps her most famous works are The Negro Speaks of Rivers and "Three Dream Portraits" to texts by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, whose proud, ironic voice represented African Americans of the era so profoundly. Bonds pays tribute to two pioneers in the third portrait, "I, Too." Langston Hughes's text plays off Walt Whitman's, whose earlier poem celebrates freedom and equality; the musical content clearly echoes Burleigh's earlier Whitman setting, "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," a heroic but bitter acknowledgment of the slavery experience. Bonds's skillful handling of the brilliant, provocative poetry along with more contemporary harmony places these among the most effective American art songs of the twentieth century.




According to the standards of traditional music history, William Grant Still (1895-1978) achieved the most significant success in concert music. He studied at Wilberforce University and Oberlin, and continued private study with composers George Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. Still's musical journey took him through the entire range of styles in African-American music. He made band arrangements for W. C. Handy's Beale Street Blues, and he played in the pit orchestra of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along of 1921. However, he always continued to work in concert music areas, composing orchestra, chamber, and vocal works. He drew on the folk and jazz elements of African-American music, fusing them with European classical musical styles. His Afro-American Symphony was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Symphony in 1931 under Howard Hanson, marking the first time a well-known American orchestra played a major orchestral work by a black composer. Still also wrote six operas, including A Bayou Legend (1941) which appeared on Public Television in 1981. Still's achievement in the art music world and his recognition through performances and fellowships allowing him to compose full time established his place in American music history. Yet Still always acknowledged his roots and influences in African-American folk music, saying in the program notes in the score to the Afro-American Symphony: "I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level." The contemporary harmony of "The Breath of a Rose" (1928) rests on repeated rhythmic gestures which might recall folk traditions, but here, as in much of his other work, Still has thoroughly synthesized vernacular and art music influences to create a style uniquely his own. Like his musical forefathers, he continued to meld inspiration from African-American vernacular music with concert traditions, showing that the fire ignited by the African-American experience in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America still burns brightly through the twentieth century.




Ann Sears


Wheaton College


Norton, Massachusetts




1For more extensive discussion of the management of Bethune's career, see Geneva Southall, Blind Tom: The Post-Civil War Enslavement of a Black Musical Genius, Book 1 (Minneapolis: Challenge Productions, Inc., l979), and The Continuing Enslavement of Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer (1865-1887), Book 2 (Minneapolis: Challenge Productions, Inc., 1983).




2For further discussion of autism and musical genius, see Darold A. Treffert, M.D., Extraordinary People: Understanding "Idiot Savants" (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).




3This institution is known today as the Missouri State School for the Blind. See Ann Sears, "John William 'Blind' Boone, Pianist-Composer: 'Merit, Not Sympathy Wins'" in Black Music Research Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1989, p. 225.




4Melissa Fuell, a soprano who toured with the Blind Boone Concert Company, describes Boone's frequent donation of concert proceeds to needy organizations in her biography of Boone, Blind Boone: His Early Life and Achievements (Kansas City, Missouri: Burton Publishing Company, 1915).




5See Jean Snyder, "Harry T. Burleigh and the Creative Expression of Bi-musicality: A Study of an African American-Compoer and the American Art Song," unpublished dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1992, for the names of over three hundred singers who sang and recorded Burleigh's songs and spiritual arrangements during Burleigh's lifetime. Many of the leading opera stars and recitalists of the time are among them: Marian Anderson, David Bispham, Clara Butt, Amelita Galli-Curci, Louise Homer, Roland Hayes, John McCormack, Nellie Melba, Ezio Pinza, Paul Robeson, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Maggie Teyte, and Helen Traubel.




6One of the most enlightening articles about the power and meaning of spirituals in the nineteenth-century African American community is Howard Thurman's short but profound Deep River: An Interpretation of Negro Spirituals (Oakland, California: The Eucalyptus Press, 1945).




7Dorothy Maynor, soprano, and Arpad Sandor, piano. Historic Performances from the Library of Congress. CLC-1, Library of Congress.




8For a clearer understanding of the use of dialect in turn-of-the-century African-American music, see Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 76-79.




9Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed., (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 431-434.














Roland Hayes (1887-1977)


Ezekiel Saw de Wheel - Ezekiel I:21-23 (1948)


Ezekiel saw de wheel, Way up in de middle of de air,


Ezekiel saw de wheel, Way in de middle of de air.


Ezekiel saw de wheel of time, Ev'ry spoke was of human kind


A wheel in a wheel, Way in de middle of de air.


O de big wheel run by faith, An' de lit'l wheel run-a by de grace of God,


A wheel in a wheel, Way in de middle of de air.


Way over yonder in de harvest field Way in de middle of de air


O de angels a-shovin' at de Chariot-wheel Way in de middle of de air.


Mind my brother how you walk on de cross Way in de middle of de air


O your foot might slip an' your soul get lost Way in de middle of de air




Thomas Greene Bethune (Blind Tom) (1849-1908)


That Welcome Day (1881) - Words and music by Blind Tom


I met my mother in the morning, Talking about that welcome day,


I met my mother in the morning, Talking about that day.


Zion's children coming along, coming along, coming along,


Zion's children coming along, Talking about that day.


I met brother Gabr'el in the morning, Talking about that welcome day,


I met brother Gabr'el in the morning, Talking about that day.




Florence Price (1888-1953)


Night (1946) - Louise C. Wallace


Night comes, a Madonna clad in scented blue.


Rose red in her mouth and deep her eyes,


She lights her stars and turns to where,


Beneath her silver lamp the moon,


Upon a couch of shadow lies


A dreamy child, The wearied Day.




Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)


Sleep, Li'l Chile, Go Sleep! - (1902) - George V. Hobart


De night am long an' de col' win' roar, Sleep li'l chile, go sleep!


Yo' Pappy he doan' come home no more, Sleep li'l chile, go sleep!


I wonder he sees us all alone, Wif nuffin to eat escept a bone;


An' do he hear yo' Mammy moan? Hm Sleep, li'l chile, go sleep!


Sleep, li'l chile; sleep, li'l chile, sleep, sleep, sleep!


De stars am hid an' de sky am black, Sleep li'l chile, go sleep!


Yo' Pappy am gone an' he doan' come back. Sleep, li'l chile, go sleep!


He say "goodby!" an' he gone away Till come dat everlastin' day


An' it seems sech a long, long while to stay! Hm Sleep, li'l chile, go sleep!


Sleep, li'l chile, sleep, li'l chile, sleep, sleep, sleep!




R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)


I'm A-trav'ling to the Grave - Negro Spiritual (1943)


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave, I'm a-trav'ling to the grave, my Lord,


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave For to lay this body down.


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave, I'm a-trav'ling to the grave. my Lord,


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave For to lay this body down.


My father died a-shouting, Singing "Glory, hallelujah!"


The last word he said to me Was about Jerusalem.


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave. . . .


My mother died a-shouting, Singing "Glory, hallelujah!"


The last word she said to me Was about Jerusalem.


I'm a-trav'ling to the grave. . . .




Roland Hayes (1887-1977)


Sister Mary Had-a But One Child (1948)


Sister Mary had-a but one child, Born in Bethlehem.


And-a every time-a the-a baby cried,


She'd-a rocked Him in the weary land,


She'd-a rocked Him in the weary land.


O Three wise men-a to Jerusalem came, They travelled very far


They said, "Where is He born King of the Jews, For we have a-seen His star?"


King Herod's heart was troubled, He marvelled but his face was grim.


He said, "Tell me where the Child may be found, I'll go and worship Him,


I'll go and worship him.


Sister angel appeared to Joseph, And gave him-a this-a command.


"Arise ye, take-a your wife and child, Go flee into Egypt land.


For yonder comes old Herod, A wicked man and bold.


He's slayin' all the chillun From six to eight-a days old,


From six to eight-a days old."




(Francis) Hall Johnson (1888-1970)


Po' Mo'ner Got a Home at Las' (1949) - Negro Spiritual


Oh, no harm, no harm, no harm, Tell Brudder 'Lijah,


no harm, no harm, Mo'ner [Mourner] got a home at las'!


Oh, sinner, sinner, ain't you tired o' sinnen'?


Fall down on-a yo' knees an'-a jine [join] de ban'-a wid de angels.


No harm, . . .


Oh, mo'ner, mo'ner, ain't you tired o' mo'nen'?


Fall down on-a yo' knees an'-a jine de ban'-a wid de angels.


No harm, . . .


Oh, preacher, preacher, ain't you tired o' preachen'?


Fall down on-a yo' knees an-a jine de ban'-a wid de angels.


No harm, . . .




R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)


Ride On, Jesus - Negro Spiritual (1940)


O ride on, Jesus, ride on, Jesus, Ride on, conquerin' King!


I want t' go t' hebben in de mo'nin'.


O ride on, Jesus, ride on, Jesus, Ride on, conquerin' King!


want t' go t' hebben in de mo'nin'.


If you see my mother, O yes, jes' tell her for me, O yes,


for to meet me tomorrow in Galilee; Want to go to hebben in the mo'nin'.


If you see my father, O yes, Jes' tell him for me, O yes,


for to meet me tomorrow in Galilee; Want to go to hebben in the mo'nin'.


O ride on, Jesus. . . .


If you see John de Baptis' Jes' tell him for me,


For to meet me tomorrow in Galilee; I want to go to hebben in the mo'nin'.




Will Marion Cook (1869-1844)


An Explanation (1914) - James Weldon Johnson


Jedge profoun'; settin' down, Tryin' Brudder Johnsing for a-lib'lin' Brudder Brown


Solemn jury, full o' dignity, Wid de pompous manner ob de ol' darkey.


Jedge arose, den he took a pose,


An' thus he spake in tones dat rang an' thrilled an' chilled an' froze:


"Noble bredderen, mos' hones' men,


Br'er Brown will question Johnsing ob de wherefores an' de when."


Br'er Brown spoke brief: "Look heah! 'Splain to me de reason Ho!


Why yo' said to Squire Lee


Dat dere wuz twelve ol' chickenstealers in-a dis town, includin' me?"


Bruder Johnsing ansyer'd: "Ef he tol' yo' dat, my brudder, why,


He said sumpin' dat warn't true, warn't true,


Kase what I said wuz dis: Dat dere wuz twelve wifout includin' you!


I said, wifout includin' you-oo-oo-oo-oo!"




Wid de Moon, Moon, Moon - Negro Love Song (1907) - William Moore


O wonder is my love in de sky wid de moon,


Or is she down de valley wid roses of June?


I wonder is she dreamin' wid de birds in de trees,


Or nes'lin' by the roadway of the sof' summer breeze?


O, mah love is in de sky wid de moon, moon, moon,


An' mah song is in de valley wid de rose, rose, rose;


O, mah song is in de valley wid de rose, rose, rose;


But mah love is in de sky wid de moon, moon, moon.


Sometmes I feel de win' blowin' wahm 'long de way,


Sometimes I heah de woodbirds awakin' de day;


An' den I dreams mah love is wid de roses of June,


An' jes' a-singin' songs to me, de sky an' de moon.




John William Boone (Blind Boone) (1864-1927)


War Shill We Go When de Great Day Comes (1892)


Whar shill we go when de great day comes


Wid de blowin' of de trumpets and de bangin' of de drum,


How many po' sinners will be cotched out late


En find no latch ter de golden gate.


Chorus: O 'ts no use fer ter wait twell termorrer


De sun mustn't set on yo' sorrer


Sin's ez sharp ez a bamboo brier


O Lord! fetch de mo'ners up higher!


When de nashuns of de earf is a standin' all aroun'


Who's a gwine ter be chosen fer ter w'ar de glorly [sic] crown,


Who's a gwine fer ter stan' stiff-kneed an bol',


En answer to der name at the callin' er de roll?


Chorus: O! you better come now ef you comin'


Old Satun is loose en a bummin'


De wheels er distrucksun is a hummin';


Oh come 'long sinners ef you comin'.


De song er Salvashun is a mighty sweet song


En de Pairidise [sic] win' blow fur en blow strong,


En Aberham's bosom hits saft en hits wide,


En right dar's de place whar de sinner ought ter hide!


Chorus: O you nee'nter be a stoppin' en a lookin'


Ef you fool wide ole Satun you'll git took in


You'll hang on de aidge en git shook in


Ef you keep on a-stoppin' en a lookin'


De time is right now en dish yer's de place


Let de sun er salvashun shine squar' in yo' face,


Fight de battles of de Lord, fight soon er fight late


En you'll allers find a latch ter de golden gate.


Chorus: O 'ts no use fer ter wait twell termorrer


De sun mustn' set on yo' sorrer


Sin's ez shar ez a bamboo brier


Ax de Lord for ter fetch yo' up higher!




Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)


By the Pool at the Third Rosses (1916) - Arthur Symons - Respectfully dedicated to Mr. John McCormack


I heard the sighing of the reeds In the grey pool in the green land,


I heard the sighing in the green land The sea wind in the long reeds sighing


Between the green hill and the sand.


I heard the sighing of the reeds At noontide and at evening,


And some old dream I had forgotten I seemed to be rememb'ring.


I hear the sighing of the reeds.


Is it vain, oh, is it in vain That some old peace I had forgotten


Is crying, is crying to come back again? Is crying to come back again




John Wesley Work III (1901-1967)


Soliloquy (1946) - Myrtle Vorst Sheppard


If death be only half as sweet as life, I will not fear, I'll shed no tear,


Nor will I ask my friends to weep;


But quietly go, like melting snow Upon a mountain's steep gray height.


Or wafted gently on a breeze I'll drift among the trees


Like lovers' laughter Echoing down a lane.


Or I will follow, willingly, The soft spring rain Around the river's bend.


If death be only half as sweet as life, I will not fear to go.


I love life so! I love life so!




William Grant Still (1895-1978)


The Breath of A Rose (1928) - Langston Hughes


Love is like dew On lilacs at dawn; Comes the swift sun And the dew is gone.


Love is like starlight In the sky at morn, Starlight dies When day is born.


Love is like perfume In the heart of a rose, The flower withers, The perfume goes.


Love is no more Than the breath of a rose, No more Than the breath of a rose.




Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)


Three Dream Portraits (1949) - Langston Hughes


Minstrel Man - for Lawrence Winters


Because my mouth is wide with laughter and my throat is deep with song,


You do not think I suffer after I have hid my pain so long.


Because my mouth is wide with laughter you do not hear my inner cry,


Because my feet are gay with dancing you do not know I die. You do not know I die.




Dream Variation - for Adele Addison


To fling my arms wide in some place in the sun,


To whirl and to dance till the white day is done,


Then rest at cool evening beneath a tall tree


while night comes on gently, dark like me, That is my dream.


To fling my arms wide in the face of the sun,


Dance! Whirl! Whirl till the quick day is done.


Rest at pale evening a tall, slim tree


Night coming tenderly, black like me.




I, Too - for Lawrence Winters


I, too sing America, I am the darker brother,


They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes;


But I laugh and eat well and grow strong,


Tomorrow I'll sit at the table when company comes,


Nobody'll dare say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," then,


Besides they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.




(Francis) Hall Johnson (1888-1970)


Fi-yer! (Fire!) (1970) - Langston Hughes


Fi-yer, fi-yer, Lord, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


Oh, Fi-yer, fi-yer, Lord, Fi-yer gonna burna-a ma soul.


Oh, Fi-yer, fi-yer, my Lord, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


I ain't been good, I ain't been clean, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


I been stinkin', low-down mean, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


Oh, Fi-yer, fi-yer, my Lord, Fi-yer gonna burna-a ma soul.


Tell me, Brother, do you b'lieve, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul?


If yer want-a go to heav'n got to moan an' grieve. Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


Oh, Fi-yer, fi-yer, my Lord, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.


Tell me, Brother, can't you see? Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul?


Dem fi'ry flames wrapped all 'roun' me, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul,


Oh, Fi-yer, fi-yer, my Lord, Fi-yer gonna burn-a ma soul.








William Brown




Renowned for his "technical virtuosity, beautiful tone, and interpretive commitment" (The Boston Globe), tenor William Brown commands a repertoire encompassing practically all musical genres. He has performed with leading orchestras throughout the world including the Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Filarmonica, The Helsinki Philharmonic, Capetown South African Symphony, Czech National Symphony, The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. His operatic engagements include the New York City Center, Baltimore, Florentine, Goldovsky Opera, Rochester Opera Theatre, Orlando Opera, Opera South, and Ebony Opera. He has appeared on all of the major U.S. Network Television programs including NBC's "Today Show," CBS's "Good Morning America," and the CBC Network Television in Canada. His extensive recordings include CBS Records, London, Nonesuch, New World Records, Telarc, CRI, GunMar, Musical Heritage, and Albany Records.




Brown is an avid performer of 20th century music appearing with all the major American contemporary music ensembles. He has several compositions written for and dedicated to him by several major American composers. Ebony Magazine cited Mr. Brown as one of the 10 New Voices of the Eighties and his home state of Mississippi honored him with a William Brown Day. Besides his busy concert and operatic schedule, he is currently a Distinguished Professor of Voice at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.






Ann Sears




Ann Sears is Professor of Music and Director of Performance at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she teaches piano and courses in European and American music, including African American music and American musical theater. She holds degrees from


the New England Conservatory of Music, Arizona State University, and The Catholic University of America, where her doctoral dissertation was about American art song in turn-of-the-century Boston. She is well-known for her performances and publications in American music, and has presented papers and lecture recitals at national meetings of the Sonneck Society for American Music, the College Music Society, and the American Matthay Association. Concert appearances include the Badia di Cava Music Festival in Italy, the Master Musicians Festival in Kentucky, the State Department, Sumner School Museum and St. Patrick's in the City in Washington, D.C., the Gardner Museum and the French Library in Boston, and various schools and universities in the United States. Her research interests are American art song, the concert tradition in African American music, and American opera and musical theater. A compact disc, Deep River: The Art Songs and Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh, in collaboration with Oral Moses, bass, originally on Northeastern Records, will be reissued by Albany Records. This historic all-Burleigh recording includes many pieces by Burleigh which have not previously been recorded. She is currently review editor of the College Music Society journal Symposium.






Fi-yer! A Century of African-American Song


William Brown, tenor • Ann Sears, piano


1 Roland Hayes: Ezekiel Saw de Wheel (2:22) (Little, Brown and Company)


2 Thomas Greene Bethune (Blind Tom): That Welcome Day (2:01)


3 Florence Price: Night (1:09) (Edward B. Marks Music Corporation)


4 Harry T. Burleigh: Sleep, L'il Chile, Go Sleep! (3:22) (Will M. Cook)


5 R. Nathaniel Dett: I'm A-Travelin' to the Grave (2:59) (Mills Music Co.)


6 Roland Hayes: Sister Mary Had-a but One Child (2:31) (Little, Brown and Company)


7 Hall Johnson: Po' Mo'ner Got a Home at Last (3:33) (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


8 R. Nathaniel Dett: Ride On, King Jesus (1:46) (J. Fischer & Bro.)


9 Will Marion Cook: An Explanation (2:43) (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


10 Will Marion Cook: Wid de Moon, Moon, Moon (3:20) (Will M. Cook)


11 John William Boone (Blind Boone): Whar Shill We go When de Great Day Comes? (4:03)


12 Harry T. Burleigh: By the Pool of the Third Rosses (2:33) (G. Ricordi & Co.)


13 John W. Work: Soliloquy (2:27) (Galaxy Music Corporation)


14 William Grant Still: The Breath of a Rose (2:56) (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


Margaret Bonds: Three Dream Portraits (G. Ricordi & Co.)


15 Minstrel Man (1:57)


16 Dream Variation (1:49)


17 I, Too (1:44)


18 Hall Johnson: Fi-yer! (2:46)


Total Time = 46:12