Jul 2, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 5

Roland Hayes and the Lost Generation. 

Here’s the extraordinary story of Roland Hayes, another great (and largely forgotten) creator of new cosmologies.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, writer Cord Jefferson, WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, and WNYC's Jami Floyd. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. Featuring interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

This episode featured scenes from Christopher Brooks' and Robert Sims' biography, Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor. Thank you to actor William Jackson Harper for helping us bring Berlin to life. 

This episode featured the following music:

Robert Sims Sings the Spirituals of Roland Hayes

Bill Doggett's collection of Black Swan records 

Black Swans: The First Recordings of Black Classical Music Performers 

Du Bist Die Ruh by Roland Hayes 

Were You There by Roland Hayes 

Vesti La Giubba by Roland Hayes

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The Vanishing of Harry Pace - Episode 5

SHIMA OLIAEE: Let's start. Let's start.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Shima Oliaee. And this is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB.

JAD ABUMRAD: So we finished our trilogy on the many lives of Harry.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Past and present.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we're going to keep expanding outward. I know we call this series The Vanishing of Harry Pace, but he was not the only one to be vanished. There are others like him who were similarly vanished, sometimes by their own design. Now, one of the things that has been really frustrating for us in reporting this series - haunting even - is that our central guy...

SHIMA OLIAEE: We don't have Harry's voice.

JAD ABUMRAD: No.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We don't have it. Harry got all of these other voices on records, like Ethel Waters, Trixie Smith.

JAD ABUMRAD: I mean, yeah. Take Ethel as an example. When you hear her voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ETHEL WATERS: (Laughter) I come along in that era. I was working in nightclubs (laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Like, when you hear her speak, it makes all the difference.

SHIMA OLIAEE: You know her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ETHEL WATERS: I could sing, dance, talk and whistle. I'd make you laugh, and I'd make you cry.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But Harry's kind of lost to us.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So one of the things we did early on is we called every archive that we could find, every record collector, asking, what do you got? What do you got? We were trying to find something.

JAD ABUMRAD: And along the way, we - that's when we met a dude that we did not expect to meet, a contemporary of Harry and his story.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah. It kind of became one of the most inspiring musical tales that I've ever heard.

JAD ABUMRAD: And it actually began with a misunderstanding on our part. We were actually hunting for Harry.

TIM BROOKS: It has a picture of the label. On the back, it has who's in it and the logo for Black Swan, I guess.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Tim, can you say your name and your title so we have it?

TIM BROOKS: My name is Tim Brooks. I'm a media historian.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We'd found our way to Tim because he's one of the few people who have records from the Black Swan label. In fact, people told us, you got to talk to this guy because he had just released a compilation called "Black Swan."

And...

TIM BROOKS: Do you want me to go get a copy of it?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah. We would love that.

JAD ABUMRAD: And these are all recordings from the Black Swan label, like, the early years?

TIM BROOKS: No, no. Actually, this is called Black Swans with an S on it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Turned out the compilation was not what we thought.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And it includes for the first time the Roland Hayes - the historic Roland Hayes recordings that were made in 1917, '18.

JAD ABUMRAD: Tim started telling us about this guy named Roland Hayes and these very old recordings that he'd hunted down with great difficulty. And we were like, cool. It's not what we're looking for, don't really want to go into this because this guy never recorded for the Black Swan label. But before we could redirect...

TIM BROOKS: I've got some of the actual records here...

JAD ABUMRAD: ...He pulled out this 100-year-old 78.

TIM BROOKS: ...Like this.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, look at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: He'd just start playing us stuff from this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah.

(Singing in Italian).

(LAUGHTER)

SHIMA OLIAEE: So this is a guy named Roland Hayes? What is he singing here?

TIM BROOKS: Well, this is the clown scene in "Pagliacci," a...

SHIMA OLIAEE: An Italian opera - 1892.

TIM BROOKS: ...Very dramatic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: He's dressed in a clown outfit, but he's a tragic clown. And tragedy is all around, yet he has to put on this face of happiness and laughs and so forth.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So he proceeded to tell us about this guy, Roland Hayes, who, at the turn of the 20th century, loved opera - like, really obscure opera.

TIM BROOKS: "Auch Kleine Dinge" by Wolf - is that on your playlist?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh (laughter).

TIM BROOKS: How about "Trocknet Nicht"?

SHIMA OLIAEE: No.

TIM BROOKS: "Trocknet Nicht"? "Wonne Der Wehmut" by Beethoven.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: And, you know, it was fine. We were just kind of going with it. But then, he pulled out this other record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TIM BROOKS: He also does an acapella version of "Were You There," the spiritual, which is absolutely hair-raising.

SHIMA OLIAEE: What is "Were You There" about?

TIM BROOKS: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, wow.

TIM BROOKS: (Singing) Sometimes it makes me want to tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Could we find that - could we find that recording of his?

TIM BROOKS: Oh, yeah. His technique was - despite "Vesti La Giubba" that you just heard - was to kind of under volume some songs. It's hard to describe. But the way he would sing was very intense. But it wasn't loud. It was not meant to overpower you. "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" is obviously a song about a hugely tragic and emotional event. And to sing it not (singing loudly) were you there when they - but to sing it so quietly and with no orchestra and no instruments and just with passion, but a controlled passion, that was often how he performed many of these.

JAD ABUMRAD: Do you mind if I - I'm so curious to hear it now. Do you mind if I just put it on for a few seconds?

TIM BROOKS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WERE YOU THERE")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Were you there...

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WERE YOU THERE")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) ...When they crucified my Lord?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, it’s very chilling.

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble. Tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Hmm.

TIM BROOKS: You hear that - that...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my God.

TIM BROOKS: ...Power?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my gosh.

TIM BROOKS: You can see he had a technique that was just electrifying.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. That's powerful.

TIM BROOKS: Ethereal almost, yeah.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: What I hear in there is somebody who's trying to communicate to an audience directly.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Terrance McKnight - musician, classical music host of WQXR. He worked with us on this episode.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: You know, sometimes when you hear an old recording like that, the vibrato is faster or something about their pronunciation of a word suggests a time period. But that was - I mean, that was just in the center of timelessness.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's an eerie feeling to hear a voice from a hundred years ago sound like it could be singing to you now at a rally or a church.

JAD ABUMRAD: And at that point, we were just like, wait. Who is this guy?

TIM BROOKS: So it's quite a story. It's quite a story actually.

ROBERT SIMS: Well, Roland Hayes is - I call him the father of African American concert singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GOD IS SO HIGH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) My God is so high, you can't...

ROBERT SIMS: What he accomplished was extraordinary. Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Yes, exactly right. That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GOD IS SO HIGH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Him is so wide...

JAD ABUMRAD: After Tim rabbit-holed us, we ended up calling these two guys, Christopher Brooks and Robert Sims. They wrote a biography of Roland Hayes.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Do you want me to start? Or Robert, do you want to start?

ROBERT SIMS: Go on, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Well, Roland Hayes' childhood...

TIM BROOKS: He was born in 1887, I believe.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Georgia specifically.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Not too far from where Harry Pace was born.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: He was essentially one generation beyond legalized enslavement.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Apparently, his mother had been born a slave.

ROBERT SIMS: That's Fanny. That's Mama.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: He was one of seven children - six boys and one girl. And he lost four of his siblings in pretty quick succession.

JAD ABUMRAD: Do we know how, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: We don't know.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But what we do know is that he was the main breadwinner of the family. Now, apparently, when he was a teen...

TIM BROOKS: His neighbor, white man, had a phonograph...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Tosca - "E Lucevan Le Stelle"

TIM BROOKS: ...And had a collection of classical recordings. And of course, Caruso.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E LUCEVAN LE STELLE")

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in Italian).

ROBERT SIMS: Caruso was the name that people talked about. Caruso was the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E LUCEVAN LE STELLE")

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: Enrico Caruso, the greatest opera star in history by some accounts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E LUCEVAN LE STELLE")

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: He built the record industry in many ways. He was such a celebrity.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Apparently, this neighbor played young Roland Hayes a Caruso record.

TIM BROOKS: And Hayes heard that voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E LUCEVAN LE STELLE")

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: ...And was transfixed by it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Roland Hayes would write that when he heard Caruso sing, the heavens opened up to him. And the beauty of what could be done with the human voice, it overwhelmed him.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: That happened for me.

JAD ABUMRAD: No way?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: That happened for me. I was in school. And I didn't know exactly - I knew I loved music. I knew that I wanted to be in music, but I didn't know exactly what it would look like until my glee club director gave me a ticket to go hear the Atlanta Symphony. And Andre Watts was on the bill that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: And man, when that dude walked out and started playing...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: ...The heavens opened up, and the angels were Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) I love it.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: Anyhow, getting back to Roland, not too long after his Caruso moment, he was at work.

ROBERT SIMS: He had a job working in a foundry, you know, where they do metal and all that. Go on, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: It was a paperweight foundry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: He was working at this factory that took raw steel and shaped it into fancy paperweights.

ROBERT SIMS: And something quite dramatic happened at that foundry.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: They were - it was - the metal had to be melted. And Roland Hayes gives accounts that he would wear these big brogan shoes. But you had to wear them loose because if the hot metal landed on them, you needed to get your feet out of them, like, kick them off very quickly.

JAD ABUMRAD: So on this particular day in 1903, Roland Hayes...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: He was in a conveyor belt.

JAD ABUMRAD: Pouring hot metal into containers. And apparently, he was standing too close to the belt.

ROBERT SIMS: And his clothes were caught in this conveyor belt, and it dragged him through this machinery three times.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, God.

ROBERT SIMS: And they thought that Roland Hayes was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my God.

ROBERT SIMS: And when he arrived at home in a full-body cast...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: His mother ran away out of the house because she thought that they were bringing home a corpse.

ROBERT SIMS: And that she had indeed lost another child.

SHIMA OLIAEE: There was no nearby hospital that would keep a Black man overnight, so Roland basically had to recover at home in this full-body cast. But astoundingly, he did recover, and this was just a few months after he encountered those Caruso records. And he thought his recovery was a sign.

ROBERT SIMS: He thought that God saved him...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Yeah.

ROBERT SIMS: ...For the purpose of being a great singer.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: An epiphany, if you will. And he cited his survival as one of the several epiphanies that he would have over the course of his life.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. How did he talk about it?

ROBERT SIMS: He believed that it was like the epiphany of the Apostle Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAULE, SAULE")

STILE ANTICO: (Singing in non-English language).

SHIMA OLIAEE: In the New Testament, Paul is on his way to Damascus when suddenly...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER CLAPPING)

SHIMA OLIAEE: He's struck blind. He believes he'll never get his sight back. But then after three days, it returns. And from then on, he's a believer.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: And he believed that this was his moment, that he was supposed to come forth and do this singing thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARNUNG")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

TIM BROOKS: Hayes' story from then on is one of the most inspiring stories in "Lost Sounds," I think, because, boy, he was one of those people that just knocked down the walls. He dedicated himself to that field, and, of course, everybody laughed at him. An African American in that field - like, you've got to be crazy.

ROBERT SIMS: Well, his mother said to him, hey; let's be practical about this. White people don't want to hear their European airs coming out of a Black face, and Black people might not be too keen on that, either.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: There was this thought that you were selling out if you were playing the music of the oppressor, music that was created on our backs. What are you thinking?

TIM BROOKS: But, boy, more you told him no, the more he was absolutely determined. And he...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DID YOU HEAR WHEN JESUS ROSE?")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Children, did you hear when Jesus rose? Did you hear when Jesus rose?

TIM BROOKS: ...Walked from the farm toward the North because he knew the only chance he would ever have would be in the North. He made it as far as Nashville, where Fisk University is located.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Fisk University was founded in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended.

JAD ABUMRAD: It's where DuBois studied, actually.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was created for all the freed men of Nashville.

TIM BROOKS: Even though he didn't have a high school education, he managed to ingratiate himself into the student body at Fisk.

JAD ABUMRAD: The school was so underfunded that it relied on its a capella choir to tour across the country and make money to keep the college going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Coming for to carry me home.

JAD ABUMRAD: Roland joined them.

TIM BROOKS: And there was a teacher there who sort of adopted him and took him under her wing.

JAD ABUMRAD: He would study with her in the day, and then at nights and on the weekend, he would sing in a quartet on the side.

ROBERT SIMS: Because Roland needed to make money.

JAD ABUMRAD: The teacher found out that he had been singing outside of school, and for some reason, she really didn't like that.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: She had been paying his tuition throughout his time at Fisk.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: And so when that came about, she withdrew it and said, now you have to leave.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Kicked out of Fisk, Roland continues to travel north past Tennessee, through Virginia, D.C., Maryland.

TIM BROOKS: Then he made his way up to Boston. He had no money still. He got some menial jobs.

ROBERT SIMS: First of all, arriving in Boston, he auditioned for five voice teachers. Three of them said to him, hey; this is impossible. An African American man can't have a concert career.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Robert says he did eventually find a teacher, a white man.

ROBERT SIMS: But this teacher, who ended up loving Roland like a son, would not allow Roland to take lessons in his studio.

TIM BROOKS: Because if he did, all of his white students would leave him. So he wanted Hayes to come to his home on the weekends and come in the back door. But Hayes, he kept promoting himself, doing - singing wherever he could, gaining followers and people who believed in him. And in 1917, he couldn't get booked at any major venues 'cause they wouldn't have him. He was Black. So he finally scraped up enough money to rent Symphony Hall in Boston.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Rent it?

TIM BROOKS: Rent it.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter). He rented a whole hall?

ROBERT SIMS: With orchestra.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And how did he get people to go?

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Yeah. There's an interesting story behind that.

JAD ABUMRAD: Apparently, the first thing he did was appeal directly to some big donors, like the governor of Massachusetts' wife.

ROBERT SIMS: He went to the governor's wife. And she said, I'm not about to sign on something that's going to be a failure before it even starts.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: She says, no. I can't have my name associated. So what Roland Hayes does - he gets a local telephone book and starts calling people. I just want to tell you about this new dynamic singer by the name of Roland Hayes who will do a performance at Symphony Hall on so-and-so date.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Apparently, he did this for weeks on end...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Just calling random numbers from the phone book. He paid for advertisements in the paper, paid to print his own tickets.

TIM BROOKS: And all of his followers sold tickets for him around the city.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Whoa.

TIM BROOKS: Yeah. The insurance company where he worked, you know, everybody, the president - everybody bought the tickets.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: And that strategy, according to him, worked because the entire facility was rented.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLENTY GOOD ROOM")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Good room in my father's kingdom, plenty good room.

TIM BROOKS: And the concert was a huge success, even though he had to pay for it himself...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

TIM BROOKS: ...And go into debt and everything. But they still wouldn't hire him. I mean, the record companies wouldn't record him. I told you. This guy is like a battering ram (laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Amazing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was so...

TIM BROOKS: So he decided he was going to make his own records if Victor and Colombia would not record him. And he did.

ROBERT SIMS: To make a recording was, like, a $300 deal. That's like $6,000 today.

TIM BROOKS: And he, again, raised money and paid to have custom recordings made essentially.

SHIMA OLIAEE: How would he do that?

TIM BROOKS: How did he do it?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah. Would he just go into the studio and pay for the space in a room?

TIM BROOKS: Yeah. Well, there were two record companies that ran the business then. They owned the patents. And one of them was Columbia. Columbia had a side business which was a personal recording service. And if you paid them enough, you could come into their studios with their technicians and make a record. You know, for the price, you would get a couple of records. And if you wanted to pay more, they'd make more copies for you.

But he raised enough money. He went into the Columbia Studios. It was acoustic recording. But there were people who really knew how to do it well. And he had to hire the orchestra, which cost extra.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh.

TIM BROOKS: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: This guy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) He's so great.

TIM BROOKS: And he made - what? - nine different recordings. He deliberately made different types of - recorded different types of repertoire. He wanted to do...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VESTI LA GIUBBA")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in Italian).

TIM BROOKS: ...Opera, like "Vesti La Giubba," that you just heard. He wanted to do some...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY AN' BY")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Oh, by and by - by and by...

TIM BROOKS: ...Spirituals - so "By An' By" and things like that.

JAD ABUMRAD: I'm going to play that as you talk.

TIM BROOKS: He showed how he could be the equal in each of these different kinds of recordings - the spirituals, the classical numbers, popular concert numbers. And he sold these by mail or by agents out around the country who would literally get a copy of the record...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

TIM BROOKS: ...From him in Boston, take it around from door to door and play it for local Black families, middle-class Black families and say, here's one of our own on record. You'll never find this on the major labels.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

TIM BROOKS: And you've heard of Roland Hayes 'cause he's famous in the Black press and everything.

JAD ABUMRAD: This guy sounds amazing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He's like a one-man record label.

TIM BROOKS: Yeah, that's right. He lost a lot of money on it. But he didn't care 'cause he wanted to get his voice out there. And then he got some support, especially in Boston and the Northeast. He was able to travel to Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: You know, when he went overseas, they were, you know, hide your daughter. You know, this Black man is coming. Close down the windows 'cause he's dangerous. Somebody's going to be pregnant before he leaves - all that kind of nonsense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: Through some friends, Roland had hooked up a couple of recitals.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And one of those friends, a religious leader...

ROBERT SIMS: Invited Roland Hayes to sing at a church service...

JAD ABUMRAD: For Lent.

ROBERT SIMS: ...Where Roland Hayes sang...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WERE YOU THERE")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) Were you there...

ROBERT SIMS: ..."Were You There."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WERE YOU THERE?")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing) ...When they crucified my Lord?

ROBERT SIMS: It made such an impression at the church service.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: People were in tears.

ROBERT SIMS: Very unlike the British.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Unlike the British - yes.

ROBERT SIMS: The next day, Roland got the call that he would sing for the king and queen of England.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIMS: The story is he fainted from that news.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, wow.

TIM BROOKS: He performed for the queen - or the king, I guess. And his career took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NEWS, THE CHARIOT'S COMING")

ROBERT SIMS: (Singing) Good news - chariot's a' coming. Good news - chariot's coming. Good news - the chariot's...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: He is literally barnstorming through Europe.

SHIMA OLIAEE: France, England, Czechoslovakia.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Everywhere he goes, he is really tearing up, I mean, audiences. Women are fainting.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...He arrives in Germany.

JAD ABUMRAD: And that is a whole other situation entirely.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's after the break.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on Radiolab. I'm here with Shima Oliaee.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And that's Jad Abumrad.

JAD ABUMRAD: Today, a story about a contemporary of Harry Pace, Roland Hayes, who refused to be told that he could not sing opera, ends up singing for the king and queen of England, barnstorming his way across Europe. But then...

SHIMA OLIAEE: To get back to the story, he arrives in Germany.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: It's May 1924.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Christopher, would you mind reading that passage from your book? We'll probably get an actor later to read it, but for now could we get it in your voice?

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Where do you want me to start there?

SHIMA OLIAEE: If you can start at page 120...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: OK.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Two or three pages.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: (Reading) The Weimar Republic represented a complex...

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) The Weimar Republic presented a complex period in German history. Having suffered defeat at the hands of the allied forces, Germany had also been stripped of its colonial possessions in Africa. The final humiliation, as far as the Germans were concerned, was the presence of Francophone Africans throughout the Rhineland as a policing force, with the authority to arrest and detain. There was fear among the German population that the Africans and their Afro-German children would lead to the bastardization of the German race.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In the middle of all this, Roland Hayes shows up and starts running ads in the local German newspapers about his concert.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Which included a 6-inch headshot.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Of him.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: The ad stated he would sing the Lieder of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Wolf.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow, so he was going full German.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Well...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: ...Berlin now was different because Berlin is this bastion of high art. He is literally singing at the Beethovensaal (ph) or Beethoven Hall in Berlin.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Immediately open letters start appearing in newspapers saying this concert is a sacrilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

SHIMA OLIAEE: That the best they could hope for from a Black man is to hear...

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Quote-unquote, "jazz or the cotton songs of Georgia."

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: All very insulting.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: (Reading) The night of the concert was tense.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) The night of the concert was tense. The Berlin house was filled to its thousand-seat capacity.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD MURMURING)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) Backstage, Roland braced himself for what he suspected would be an intractable audience. Unlike in previous performances where the custom was to dim the lights as the performers walked onstage, Roland - Roland and Lawrence...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's his pianist.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...Walked into near total darkness and took their respective positions in a single spotlight aimed at where the tenor was to stand, as if he were somehow a target.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: And when he walks out...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: ...He is booed and hissed - booed and hissed by what would turn out to be the Nazis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) Over the course of a minute, they grew louder and louder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) The barrage of protest continued for close to 10 minutes while Roland stood perfectly still...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...(Reading) With his eyes closed.

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: And he just stands there very upright, with his eyes closed, with his accompanist there.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) He felt a calm come over him as the audience continued its demonstration. In his mind, he uttered his standard prayer while facing an audience before a performance - God, please blot out Roland Hayes...

ROBERT SIMS: Lord, blot out Roland Hayes so that they only see thee.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...(Reading) So that the people will see only thee.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yes.

ROBERT SIMS: It just - it makes me want to shout because (laughter) he's - Lord, let your spirit come out, and let it move the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: Gradually, the booing and hissing stops. Everything goes silent. And he doesn't even turn his head to signal, he just gives a slight nod of his head to begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) Roland stood with his eyes closed and his head upright.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "Your calm, a mild peace."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "You are longing and what stills it."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "I consecrate to you..."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "...Full of pleasure and pain..."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "...As a dwelling here my eyes..."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "...And heart."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) Only in the final climactic section of the song did Roland give more value...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...(Reading) To his otherwise pianissimo singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "The tabernacle of your eyes by your radiance alone is allumined."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: "Oh, fill it complete."

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

CHRISTOPHER BROOKS: (Speaking German).

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND HAYES PERFORMANCE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S "DU BIST DIE RUH")

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing in German).

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) At the close of the performance, there was total silence throughout the house. Only then did he slowly open his eyes. The spirit had done its work. Still stunned by what it had just experienced, the audience was jolted back into reality by the sound of a lone sustained clap...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...(Reading) Followed by a few sparsely isolated claps...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: ...(Reading) Which quickly turned into cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

PEOPLE: (Chanting) Roland, Roland, Roland, Roland.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (Reading) Roland gave a faint smile of acknowledgment as if to say to his doubting Berliners, now what do you think of that?

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: But I guess after you go through a machine a few times, you know?

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Yeah.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: Took a lot of courage to be able to do that.

JAD ABUMRAD: Terrance, do you have any way of explaining it? I mean, just to stand up there by yourself with all of those people booing and hissing you and to still be - to still have that stillness, where does that come from?

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: I would imagine 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...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow, that's...

JAD ABUMRAD: Whoa.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: ...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.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing, unintelligible).

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: And he came out victorious, not only for himself, but for so many people that looked like him. He was a shining example for the possibilities of America.

TIM BROOKS: It's interesting. When he came back to the U.S., having all this acclaim in Europe, then they would hire him. You know, that qualified him finally. And he was the first Black artist to be recorded by labels. He was very picky, though. He didn't want to record unless they paid him a lot of money (laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Well, damn right, after the - what he's gone through.

TIM BROOKS: But he could be a tough customer.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Tim says, even when the white-owned labels wanted to record him...

TIM BROOKS: He listened to the playbacks of these recordings. He wasn't satisfied with them. And he said, I don't want them issued. And they said, well, we won't pay you. And he said, I don't care.

ROBERT SIMS: Well, there was a recording contract that he had with a British recording company where he had recorded gorgeously. But because the deal wasn't a good deal financially, he cut the masters.

JAD ABUMRAD: Like, the original recording.

TIM BROOKS: Took a large pair of shears and cut them in two.

ROBERT SIMS: He broke the masters.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter). Wow.

TIM BROOKS: He was such a purist that he wasn't going to do anything that didn't meet his standards and anything for which he wasn't properly paid, which is one of the reasons we don't have much...

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

TIM BROOKS: ...Film of him - because others - Paul Robeson and people like that - made a lot of films later on, especially when sound came in. And Hayes said, only if you pay me a huge amount of money.

(LAUGHTER)

SHIMA OLIAEE: I really like him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: I find it interesting that he was so self-possessed that he, in a way, possessed himself out of memory. It's like he vanished himself sort of like Harry, but for a different reason.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: And also, I think...

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: ...Jad, that Black people had worked for so little for free for so long that they were so determined not to allow somebody to make money off of their backs anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROLAND HAYES: (Singing, unintelligible).

TIM BROOKS: By my estimation - and I've done, really, the only study of this part of his career - he was able to press, maybe, 500 copies of each of these.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Tim is referring to a set of recordings which were some of the only ones that still exist from his prime.

TIM BROOKS: Because there were so few copies made of them, finding these records, they're very rare. When they come up for auction, they're very expensive. But over the years, I've been able to assemble most of them - probably have the largest collection of them. There's only nine total. One nobody's ever found. The other eight I've got, either in the original or a tape somebody sent me.

JAD ABUMRAD: As we were talking with Tim about how hard he has had to work to find Roland's records, I kept thinking about that idea of Roland Hayes intentionally cutting the masters, not allowing recordings of himself to get out into the future to people like Tim, people like us unless he got paid. And all of that took on a whole new meaning when we ended up speaking to one of Tim's colleagues, a guy that you also heard in Episode 1.

BILL DOGGETT: I'm Bill Doggett. I am an African American performing arts historian, early sound archivist.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Bill Doggett, like Tim, is a historian, an educator and a record collector. He has a pretty large collection of Black Swan Records, actually the sixth largest in the world according to his estimation.

BILL DOGGETT: This is Revella Hughes at the dawn of her career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT DAWNING")

REVELLA HUGHES: (Singing) At dawning.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And he shares them online...

BILL DOGGETT: This is from...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...YouTube videos.

BILL DOGGETT: ...The Black Swan label. This is the very first recording by an African American soprano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REVELLA HUGHES: (Singing, unintelligible).

BILL DOGGETT: Let's take a listen.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In talking with Bill...

BILL DOGGETT: I'm grateful I have the collection I've amassed. But there are no African Americans in the field.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...The question naturally came up, why, as we were looking for record collectors, did the field seem to be overwhelmingly white? Like, Bill was the first Black collector we found.

BILL DOGGETT: As an African American specialist in this world, what I have seen is the legacy of ownership, of the idea of ownership and of cultural appropriation by white male collectors who have come to fetishize Black men who - not Black women - the blue - not the Black women who sing blues, but the Black men who recorded, you know, at the dawn of the race records.

JAD ABUMRAD: He told us about this one example.

BILL DOGGETT: The most famous white collector in Black blues music famously - I think this must have been in 2014, '15 - paid $16,000 for this one 78 rpm record.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Actually, when we checked eBay the final price was 37,000 for one record.

BILL DOGGETT: This is a record of a Black man...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALCOHOL AND JAKE BLUES")

TOMMY JOHNSON: (Singing) Alcohol, alcohol.

BILL DOGGETT: ...Singing in the 1920s who, not only himself, his family, but his entire ancestors had never seen $16,000 ever.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

BILL DOGGETT: But yet a white man who has an infinitesimal amount of money, he himself and others have created this frenzy, this tornado of high-pricing that is reminiscent for me of a slave auction, where - how much can I get for this Black man?

JAD ABUMRAD: That is - wow.

BILL DOGGETT: This - well, I'll bid 14,000. No, I will bid 15. But this is a Black man's music, a Black man's record. He got $25 or $30 for the session. But now, you know, this white guy owns you. (Laughter). It's conflicted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: That thought from Bill Doggett definitely cast things in a different light. There are recordings of Roland Hayes that exist of him later in his career. And we played you some. But everything we played you was something that he defined on his own terms. And everything that wasn't, he snapped in half with metal shears.

JAD ABUMRAD: After that concert in Germany, Roland went back to Georgia to that Georgia plantation where his mother had once been a slave. And he bought the whole property right out from under the man who had once owned his mother and grandfather. That guy was still living there on the land that was now Roland's. And out of mercy, Roland let him stay there until he died.

SHIMA OLIAEE: One last thing - Robert Sims, who with Christopher Brooks wrote the biography of Roland Hayes, he got in touch with Roland's daughter, Afrika Hayes. And she searched through some boxes in her house and found a recording of her father speaking. This is the only audio that we know of where Roland is simply speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROLAND HAYES: I wonder if people generally are aware of their serious and intensely spiritual nature - my people comforting the oppressed and envisioning hope through the future, both in this world and the next. Through them, the spirit of God and the vision of a better world became a unifying and living force. The hope of freedom was a source of deep-seated spiritual strength for my people. And their hearts murmured when it was not expedient for their lips to speak it. One cannot imprison the soul. Nor can adversity crush the spirit in man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: So there you go - the story of Roland Hayes.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Next week, we have our final episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NEWS, THE CHARIOT'S COMING")

ROBERT SIMS: (Singing) Good news - chariot's a' coming. Good news - chariot's coming. Good news - the chariot's a' coming. And I don't want it to leave a' me behind. Good news...

JAD ABUMRAD: Until then, The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee and is presented as a collaboration between Awesome Audio, RADIOLAB and Radio Diaries. The series is based on the book "Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise And Brutal Fall Of America's First Black-Owned Record Label" by Paul Slade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD, I WANT TWO WINGS")

ROBERT SIMS: (Singing) Lord, I want two wings to veil my face. Lord, I want two wings...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Our editorial advisers are Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Cord Jefferson and Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer. Our fact-checker is Natalie Meade. Series artwork was created by Katia Herrera. A big thank-you to actor William Jackson Harper for lending his voice to Christopher and Robert's biography, "Roland Hayes: The Legacy Of An American Tenor."

JAD ABUMRAD: And thanks also to the clappers and the boo-ers who helped us bring that Berlin scene to life - Lillian Xu, Eli Cohen, Theodora Kuslan, Sarah Sandbach, Andrew Golis and MaryAnne Nesdill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WERE YOU THERE")

ROBERT SIMS: (Singing) Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

SHIMA OLIAEE: In this episode, we also featured music from "Robert Sims Sings The Spirituals Of Roland Hayes," also Tim Brooks' CD, "Black Swans" - with an S - and Bill Doggett's collection from his YouTube channel. You can find a link to all of those, as well as the other Roland Hayes songs we used, at radiolab.org/harrypace.

JAD ABUMRAD: And I guess that's it. Thanks for listening - one more episode coming at you in about a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 

 

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