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“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”
An Interview with Marian Anderson
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Oh, I’m certain of that, my dear. I want to tell you about something that happened. There was one hotel that never would take me, and it caused great difficulty in that particular place. Well, the last time we went South I was booked into that hotel. I was given a room with a bay window, and a huge bedroom, and then a sort of dressing room, and it was very, very nice. When I went down to pay my bill in the morning, the lady behind the desk said, “Look here” … and my heart began to pound, and I thought, now what is this? She said, “When you come down here again, don’t you go no place but here.”
It was the nicest thing you can imagine. Now that person might have been there all the time, but never had the opportunity to say that.
You have a reputation for being very calm as a performer. Are you naturally a calm person?
Well, I believe that I am a calm person. You know, some performers say, Oh, I’m see I to death, but I don’t believe I’m like that. My feeling is this, that if one is prepared to do the best she can under all circumstances, all the worry that might go on inside your head, or inside your body, won’t help a bit. It will hinder you.
Would you say then that you don’t suffer from stage fright?
I wouldn’t say that. I think you have to have a certain excitement, a certain anxiety, before you get out on the stage, because if you don’t it can be just an everyday affair.
It could be that singing in the church, which was a very large church in Philadelphia, allowed me to get used to standing and performing before people when I was very young. Some people study for eight or ten years, and then at their debut concert it’s the first time they’ve appeared before the type of audience which wants to find out for itself what Mary Jones is all about. Performers are tremendously concerned about that first audience. But my first audience, in church, was a huge one.
Why did you always sing with your eyes closed?
At first it was to close out everything. To turn myself in, you know, and to close out distractions. Sometimes you get an audience and some people are talking in the second, third row and that troubles you because you want to get to that person and you haven’t made it yet. Just automatically the eyes close and you have pictures in your head.
How do you approach an audience?
Well, my mother always said to me, “Remember when you go out on the stage, you’ve already made an impression before you’ve even opened your mouth to sing a note.” And that advice has stood me in good stead.
Do you sing to some particular person or group?
Yes, absolutely, and you know it’s amazing how you can stand there and you can literally read on the faces of people in the front rows whether they came to the concert of their own free will or if somebody sort of pushed them into going, or if they got a free ticket. And it’s a very satisfying thing to look out at one of those people when you have finished a song and find that the person has become interested. I am there to satisfy them and give them something I’d like to share.
You were first successful in Europe. Weren’t you tempted to stay? What made you come back?
It’s home. My mother was a wonderful, unassuming person. She was not a fighter, she didn’t talk loud. I never heard her voice raised in anger, but all through the years, Mother was always there. One of the things that made me happiest in my life was that I could eventually tell Mother, who worked hard every day, that she didn’t have to work anymore. She was a cleaning lady at Wanamaker’s, and she had been ill, and the doctor suggested that she stay home one particular morning. So I called up the head of the department and I said, “This is Marian Anderson, and my mother will not be coming in any more to work.” My mother was a person on whom they put the hardest things to do. I used to come from high school down to Wanamaker’s, and Mother would be digging in some little corner, feeling that the existence of the store depended on how clean she got that corner.
I would have come back from anywhere to my family.
What did singing spirituals mean to you?
Well, I had never lived in the South, and when I was young spirituals seemed to me to have come from the Deep South and away back. I knew I loved them, they meant something to me, but how they were rendered, where they came from, was a different thing. I know my aunt asked me one time, why did I have to sing spirituals. She didn’t care for spirituals at all. She didn’t consider the spirituals beautiful music, and they brought back to her the hideous things that had happened to the Negro. You know, so many of the songs deal with Heaven and the Lord and the day when you get up yonder—I’ll be there, I’ll be waiting for you, and Oh Lord, how come me here, wish I’d never been born.