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“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”
An Interview with Marian Anderson
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
But I felt differently. I’d heard Roland Hayes sing them with the seriousness he did, and I knew that he had something within him that understood their meaning. I’d see people in the church, they’d clap their hands, tap the knee, and have their rhythm and sing their songs, and they didn’t need anything else. The music can be written down, but if you live where spirituals are sung and people give vent to their feelings then you’ll hear a note here and a note there which is not on paper. Have you ever heard the records of Mahalia Jackson? Well, listening to her records, there are all kinds of little things that cannot be put down on paper but come out of the soul, the heart and soul of the singer.
I must tell you about going to a meeting, a meeting in a huge tent.
A revival meeting?
Yes, unbelievable! Maybe two or three thousand people, or maybe even more. I was young when I first went to one, just a short way out of Philadelphia. There were some people just talking, talking and then they would start a hymn. You couldn’t hear all over the place, impossible, because it was too large, but like in a field of swaying corn, or wheat, a ripple would come your way, and you could hear voices, you could hear that it was music. Then it got nearer and nearer until you were engulfed in it. Somebody else takes it up and sings another verse and the song goes on and on and still like a wheat field the audience begins to move this way and that, to sway.
Four-voice, four-part harmony—it was absolutely, unbelievably gorgeous, gorgeous in your ear.
Y ou always included some spirituals in your programs, didn’t you? Which one did you sing most often?
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and another I love particularly, about Negroes being despondent—“Oh Lord, How Come Me Here.”
Sol Hurok became your manager in 1935. Did he remain your manager from then on?
Yes, and I still have a contract which he sent me to sign years ago. I never signed it. We didn’t have a contract for years, but I had a manager for years. He used to enjoy telling people that I wouldn’t even sign his contract.
He sounds like a fascinating man. Was he a good manager?
He was for me . It depends on how you knew the man. The experience of meeting him was to me a great thing because I had tried so desperately to meet him in New York. Impossible! Several people tried to arrange it but it was impossible. But I was singing in Paris one night, the Salle Gaveau, I believe it was, and he came backstage in the intermission and said, “I want to see you tomorrow morning.” So we went, and he was sitting behind a very large desk and his arms were out, like that, and he looked like a colossus.
Was he a very large man?
Not as large as I saw him, large and much larger than life. It was a terrific thing for my accompanist and me and before we left him that morning he said that he would like to manage some concerts for us when we came back to America. We were already under management in New York, and he wanted to know exactly how many concerts we had scheduled. It turned out there were only two concerts planned, and one of those was at my sorority. Mr. Hurok said that he would offer seven concerts and that we could have a few others if they went well. So I had a series of fifteen concerts that season.
And that was the first year?
Yes, and from then on he added and added and added until one season we had ninety concerts. That was really too much. We couldn’t keep that up all the time, but I generally did from ten to twelve or thirteen concerts a month.
Mr. Hurok did some things, a particular thing, that I thought was a little much. Some organizations get their whole series of artists from a particular manager, and they are sometimes at a loss to know whom to put in a place that might be left vacant [because of illness]. Mr. Hurok simply said, in this case, I would like you to engage [Marian Anderson]. The message came back that their roster was suddenly full. I heard that he said, well, all right, then maybe next year you don’t want to have so-and-so—the person who had been their main attraction for years.
A little pressure, right?
Well, one of my race had never performed there and while I feel at that point Mr. Hurok wasn’t looking at me so much as a Negro as he was looking at me as an attraction, I think that was the basis on which he was working.
Hurok must have had to deal frequently with the problem of race, particularly at the beginning, didn’t he?
That’s right, and I’m quite sure it came up more often than I would ever know.
You don’t think he told you about such incidents?
No, because as in the Washington affair …
The D.A.R. concert at Constitution Hall?
Yes. I was not aware of what was going on until one morning, in San Francisco, as I stood waiting for the cable car, I happened to turn around to a newsstand and I saw “Mrs. Roosevelt resigns from the D.A.R. because …” and then I saw “Marian Anderson” there. I didn’t know about it then.