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“Oh, Glory! Black History Matters”


James Dargan (by Barbara Allen Hill)

There will doubtless be other concerts on MLK’s birthday weekend, but none will be delivered with more beauty and thoughtfulness than “Oh, Glory! Black History Matters” given Friday evening at Theodore Parker UU Church in West Roxbury by baritone James Dargan and pianist Mark Whitlock.

“Oh, Glory!” showcased the songs and arias associated with five legendary black singers: Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Robert McFerrin, Sr. I first heard James Dargan in a vocal quintet, Tramontana, several summers ago, and was awestruck by the plangent beauty of his voice. But Dargan is no mere singer. An athlete, polyglot, writer, and violinist, he was schooled in both New and Old England in a variety of disciplines. The son of a preacher, Dargan decided to pursue singing as his vehicle, but he has a preacher’s charisma and persuasiveness, evident in his talking between songs and his excellent notes. He explained that he put his eclectic-seeming program of “strange bedfellows” together with disparate styles and languages, encompassing Italian, Russian, and German songs, and spirituals to counter the trend of putting people and ideas in boxes, and shutting them tight.

These five artists, importantly, “show us a different look at a life cut short in some way, if not by early death, then by a stifling of their talents.”

The first two songs, “Give Me Jesus,” arranged by Charles Ives and “Persian Love Song” by Anton Rubinstein (sung in Russian) were associated with Paul Robeson (1898-1976), “the uppitiest Negro on this program.” Robeson’s mother had wanted him to be a preacher, but this “true renaissance man with an indomitable will for social justice,” was a “galvanizing orator, a formidable stage presence” whose career was crushed after his career was cut short around 1963. Persistent efforts by McCarthy and his cronies, Dargan writes, “through congressional hearings, surveillance, and the repeated threat (eventually carried out) of revocation of his passport, clipped his wings and silenced his voice.”

Roland Hayes (1887-1977) was born to parents who were tenants on the plantation where his mother had been a slave. After hearing Caruso, the 12-year-old Hayes decided to be a classical singer. Following his time at Fisk University, he studied in Boston with Authur Hubbard, who insisted Hayes enter through the back door so his white, students didn’t see him. Hayes self-funded his Jordan Hall and Symphony Hall debuts, had success concertizing in Europe, and upon his return to the U.S. in 1923, was the first black person to solo with the BSO. Although his performances of art songs won wide renown, the music industry kept pigeon-holing him as a “colored, spirituals only” artist. Hayes’s calling card was Schubert Lieder and French songs, and to honor him, Dargan sang Schubert’s “Du Bist Die Ruh” and “Nacht und Träume,” after which one could hear much of the capacity audience sighing. Dargon’s enunciation was strikingly clear, his voice, especially when he went into his high register, a thing of beauty.

After an unaccompanied spiritual, “Steal Away,” (“I ain’t got long to stay here”) which “Roland and Paul would have sung,” Dargan sang four of his own arrangements, beginning with “Tomorrow is My Turn,” associated with Nina Simone and “Summertime,” sung by Simone and Billie Holiday (“I decided to borrow their audacity and arrange it myself.”). Simone, to Dargan a “shero,” started as a “rip-roaring pianist,” although she was convinced she didn’t get into Curtis, after a very successful audition, “because she was black.” Dargon writes, “A profound lyricist, she recorded over 40 albums, won numerous awards, but her greatest strength, in my opinion, “was her refusal to diminish herself in order to fit social norms. Despite being beaten by one of her husbands, censured by the American government, and dealing with bipolar disorder and breast cancer, Simone was always outspoken about civil rights, and even moved away from the US from the 1970s on out of her distaste for segregation and prejudice.”

Billie Holiday’s (1915-1959) rather chilling life, summed up by Dargan as “a tangled mess of dark and darker,” featured being swindled out her earnings, being heckled as she was almost always the only black person on stage, drug addiction, abusive relationships, trouble with the law, and famously dying, handcuffed, with seventy cents in the bank. Dargan sang Holiday’s go-to-song, “Strange Fruit,” her attempt to honor her grandfather who was lynched, and “Gentle Lady” with its James Joyce text. It was a deeply stirring experience, on this MLK weekend, and in these terrifying times.

Di Provenza, il mar, il suol” from La Traviata was, oddly, the song on Dargan’s recital that most moved me. He sang it tenderly and beautifully, to honor Robert McFerrin, Sr. (1921-2006). Although McFerrin won the 1953 Met Opera auditions, he was made to wait two years to make his Met Debut. Dargon feels he was “one of the great operatic voices ever,” yet he had much less success than he deserved, only three years at the Met, and only a handful of years on the operatic stage.”

“Oh, Glory!” arranged by Hall Johnson and the sublime “Deep River” arranged by Harry T. Burleigh ended the program, deeply felt homages to McFerrin. Dargon sang, unaccompanied, the spiritual “Oh, Freedom,” a perfect encore. “No more weeping. There will be singing to go home to my Lord and be free.”

Dargan left us with these thoughts:

Art isn’t segregated, and so I have hoped to use the connections between the spirituals/popular pieces to show how silly boxes are, when talking about art or people. Realizing the ‘classical’ construction and nobility of expression in a spiritual does not diminish the soul and passion of an art song or an aria; the connections between all sides of these artists’ talents elevates our understanding of their story as artists and humans. We see the totality of these black artists, then it becomes clear: Black History Matters, because Black Lives Matter. Because Lives Matter.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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