“European Airs Coming From a Black Face”

Posted on July 13, 2021

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Image from Amazon.com

from: Roland Hays JUNE 3, 1867-JANUARY 1, 1977

Roland Hayes, the first internationally removed African – American classical singer was born in Gordon County and performed at this site, the former Calhoun High Auditorium. Hayes opened doors for African – American concert and opera performers and elevated Negro spirituals to the classical level, singing them in concert with operatic areas. He sang in seven languages.

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Radiolab tells the astonishing story of Roland Hayes in their series about The Vanishing of Harry Pace (“It was Motown before Motown, FUBU before FUBU: Black Swan Records. The label founded exactly 100 years ago by Harry Pace”). This episode featured scenes from Christopher Brooks’ and Robert Sims’ biography, Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor.

Closeup of Roland Hayes and portion of a Daily Evergreen article covering his upcoming concert.

Roland’s story leaves me breathless, especially the account of the night he stood face-to-face with an audience of hateful Nazis at Beethoven Hall in Berlin, Germany in May 1924.

OMG. What an inspiration!

Equally moving is Terrance McKnight’s description of going deep into himself at times of high stress as a concert performer: remembering his grandmother, her resilience and power, and the history of the powerful, resilient Black ancestors who came before him:

When you’re in that moment you have to pull on something – pull from something. I remember first doing concerts, you know, hosting big concerts. I would always say, “Come on, Grandma.” I would be backstage, and I would bring her out with me because I knew some of the things that they went through and lived through…And were able to come out on the other side of. When I get up into a situation where I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, that’s where that kind of courage comes from. And all my ancestors up here with me, you all move back so I can get up to this microphone and speak. They could have thrown anything at him while he’s standing on that stage. But he just closed his eyes and went to a place – probably a place that his mother took him as a child, a deep place of faith.

Viewers can see Roland in this deeply mindful state in this stunning 1927 portrait: Roland Hayes in Song, Carmel, by Johan Hagemeyer (American (born The Netherlands), 1884–1962).

Like Frida Kahlo, Hayes suffered an accident that would nearly end his life, but he believed that he was spared in order to share his art with the world, and when he recovered, that’s just what he did. I imagine that he suffered from chronic pain after the accident and found that music allowed him to “escape” it, to transcend it. Listening to him certainly allows the audience to escape, to transcend, our pain.

Todd Mordhorst, from Re-Exploring History, celebrates Roland Hayes in a blog titled, Acclaimed Tenor Roland Hayes Frequented Pullman, in which he compares Roland’s success to contemporary pop stars:

Nearly a century before Billie Eilish or Drake, Roland Hayes was one of the hottest tickets in music. And over the course of 33 years, the Pullman campus was a regular stop for the man world-renowned for his mellow tenor voice and his wide-ranging musical selections.Hayes is believed to be the first black classical musician to make a commercial recording, and at his peak in the 1920s he was earning around $100,000 annually, when the average American made $750.

And yet I never heard of him until now. I am so glad that Radiolab is focusing on Black History. There’s so much to learn; there is so much truth is buried under so many lies. I look forward to learning more about Roland Hayes and listening to him sing, in languages I speak and languages I don’t!

And if I ever get to Calhoun, GA, I’ll definitely visit the Roland Hayes Museum.


lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com