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Black Swans
rec. 1918-1922
No texts
PARNASSUS PACD96067 [79:02]

Black Swan was one of the labels that recorded black classical artists in the period covered in this exploratory disc – the period being 1918 to 1922. Paramount did too, though there are none here, but boutique labels such as Broome Special were active, thankfully, and some artists, prominently Roland Hayes, paid Columbia to have personal records pressed. All these avenues are present in Parnassus’ CD which allows the listener an opportunity to listen to artists – predominantly vocal artists – prominent at the time, at least in the black community, given that major record companies routinely rejected classical black artists, such as Hayes, for having no sales potential.

There are some special names in this disc. There’s Harry Burleigh, friend of Dvořák, singing and probably, à la George Henschel, accompanying himself on the piano in a 1919 recording of his own arrangement of Go Down Moses. This is an important disc though the singing is really little more than effortful. Edward Boatner from New Orleans is a bass-baritone but has a lighter sounding voice than Burleigh. He sings two spirituals for the same label as Burleigh, Broome, and probably in the older man’s arrangements. He has an idiosyncratic open vowel – his ‘u’ is exceptionally wide.

Here are the only known disc recordings of pianist and composer R Nathaniel Dett, though he had made piano rolls back in 1912. No Juba Dance, alas – why ever not, as Leslie Gerber asks in his notes – but at least we get a couple of his other droll character pieces. There is a run of pieces by soprano Florence Cole-Talbert which includes her first two sides, for Broome, and then Black Swan and (not here) Paramount. It’s known that unlike the other opera performers represented in this disc she gave at least one staged performance in the 1920s; the title role in Aida in Cosenza, Italy. Though she does essay one spiritual, her métier seems to have been Franco-Italian opera. Her Lakmé Bell Song is spirited, though not always technically impeccable, but she sounds to have been a fine artist. The spiritual she sang was arranged by Clarence Cameron White whose pieces were played and recorded by such as Kreisler, Spalding and Heifetz. He was himself a fiddle player and performs two of his pieces; Cradle Song, heard in a very swishy copy and Lament, based on a spiritual. He’s a pretty poor player, with an impoverished vibrato and very shaky intonation, but I found it fascinating listening to him.

Hattie King Reavis was a contralto, though there’s nothing about her in the biographical notes in the booklet. She recorded for Black Swan and her voice is unsteady and not desperately impressive. The track listing should be reversed by the way. Track 13 is the Gounod and 14 is Dett’s arrangement of Make More Room. Then there’s the great tenor Roland Hayes; seven sides on Columbia Personal (expensive to have made, financially ruinous if not sold). The repertoire divides into opera – Gounod, Leoncavallo, Donizetti, Verdi - a popular song and spirituals. They were all recorded in May or June 1918 and show a major artist. His London Vocalion sessions were still a few years in the future, and he kept going into the 1950s for Vanguard and Heritage (review), still in warm voice, still characterful. There’s a particularly lovely performance of Steal Away to Jesus, probably with pianist Lawrence Brown and a small ensemble.

Soprano Antoinette Garnes recorded two sides for Black Swan and one for Broome and another (again not here) for Paramount. It’s a meagre return for a singer about whom little seems to be known. Her Rigoletto Caro Nome is better than her rather inconsistent Traviata Ah! Fors’ e lui but her Haydn song is good. Even given the miserably limited opportunities for black artists at this time, and indeed for much later, it is a shame that Garnes isn’t better known.

As a touching envoi we hear part of a WNYC broadcast from April 1944 in which ‘Mayor La Guardia talks to the people’ and Burleigh, nearing 80, sings Jean-Baptiste Faure’s Les Rameaux – the voice, of course, has long since gone but he’s bravery incarnate. Gerber has slightly misremembered what La Guardia says as Burleigh finishes; not ‘wasn’t that wonderful’ but ‘wasn’t that beautiful’.

This packed disc runs to 79 minutes. It includes discs of real rarity by singers of historical importance. Steve Smolian has extracted all he can from these acoustics; apart from the Columbias these small labels were hardly state-of-the-art productions or pressings, so what emerges is more than creditable. It is a nice touch to include photographs of the record labels on the back of the booklet and I pay my own personal tribute to the devotion shown by all concerned in bringing this project to fruition.

Jonathan Woolf

1. Harry Burleigh (baritone): Go Down Moses (arr. Burleigh) (piano accomp. probably Burleigh)
Broome Special 51-A (matrix 45-1-1) (Fall 1919) [2:06]
2. Edward H.S. Boatner: (bass-baritone) I Don’t Feel Noways Tired (probably arr. Burleigh)
Broome Special 54-A (matrix 85-3-2) (Fall 1919) [2:25]
3. Edward H.S. Boatner: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (probably arr. Burleigh)
Broome Special 51-B (matrix 85-2-1) (Fall 1919) [2:59]
4. R. Nathaniel Dett (piano): Dett: In the Bottoms – Barcarolle
Broome Special 54-B (matrix 86-2-1) (Fall 1919) [2:48]
5. R. Nathanial Dett (piano): Dett: Magnolia Suite – Mammy
Broome Special 55-b (matrix 86-1-1) (Fall 1919) [2:55]
6. Florence Cole-Talbert: (soprano) Delibes: Lakme – Bell Song (in French)
National Music Lovers 1028-A (matrix Black Swan 7103) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:25]
7. Florence Cole-Talbert: The Last Rose of Summer (anon.-Moore)
Black Swan 7104-B (matrix 7104-B) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:01]
8. Florence Cole-Talbert: Dell’Acqua: Vilanelle (William Leonard King, piano)
Broome Special 52-A (matrix 34-3-2) (Fall 1919) [3:28]
9. Florence Cole-Talbert: Arditi: Il Baccio
Black Swan 7104-A (matrix 7104-A) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:20]
10. Florence Cole-Talbert: Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen Anon. (arr. C.C. White)
Broome Special 55-A (matrix 34-2-1) (Fall 1919) [3:31]
11. Clarence Cameron White: (violin) White: Cradle Song (William Leonard King, piano)
Broome Special 53-B (matrix 35-4-1) (Fall 1919) [3:31]
12. Clarence Cameron White: White: Lament (William Leonard King, piano)
Broome Special 52-B (no visible matrix) (Fall 1919) [3:44]
13. Hattie King Reavis: (contralto) Make More Room Anon. (arr. Dett)
Black Swan 7106-B (matrix 7106-B) (late 1921-early 1922) [2:29]
14. Hattie King Reavis: Gounod: There Is a Green Hill
Black Swan 7106-A (matrix 7106-A) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:37]
15. Roland Hayes: (tenor) Leoncavallo: Pagliacci – Vesti la giubba (labelled “Arioso”) (in Italian)
Columbia Personal 62281 (matrix 62281-) (May 4, 1918) [2:56]
16. Roland Hayes: Donizetti: L’elisir d-amore – Una furtiva lagrima (in Italian)
Columbia Personal 91503 (12”) (matrix 91503) (May 25, 1918) [4:14]
17. Roland Hayes: Verdi: La forza del destino – Sollenne in quest’ ora (with G. Sumner Wormley, baritone)
Columbia Personal 91508-1 (12”) (May 26 or June 14, 1918) [4:21]
18. Roland Hayes: Katherine A. Glen: Twilight
Columbia Personal 62282 (no visible matrix) May 4, 1918) [1:59]
19. Roland Hayes: Anon.: Bye and Bye
Columbia Personal 91512 (matrix 91012-) (June 15, 1918) [2:50]
20. Roland Hayes: Anon.: Steal Away to Jesus (probably Lawrence Brown, piano)
Columbia Personal 91502 (12”) (matrix 91502-) (June 25, 1918) [4:47]
21. Roland Hayes: Anon.: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Columbia Personal 62050 (approx. Dec. 21, 1917) [2:41]
22. Antoinette Garnes (soprano): Verdi: Rigoletto – Caro Nome
Black Swan 7101 (no visible matrix) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:09]
23. Antoinette Garnes: Verdi: La Traviata – Ah! Fors’ e lui (exc.) (in Italian)
Black Swan 7102 (no visible matrix) (late 1921-early 1922) [3:51]
24. Antoinette Garnes: Haydn: My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair
Broome Special 53-B (matrix 77-1-1) (probably 1921) [2:08]
25. Harry Burleigh: Jean-Baptiste Fauré: Les Rameaux (in English, as “The Palms”)
WNYC broadcast, April 2, 1944, “Mayor La Guardia Talks to the People” [2:58]

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