Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor

Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims

Performing in a country rife with racism and segregation, the tenor Roland Hayes was the first African-American man to reach international fame as a concert performer.

Excerpted from Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor by Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of University of Indiana Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
A New Jerusalem


Curryville in Gordon County, Georgia, in an area known as the Flatwoods, was mostly a backwater village when Roland Wiltsie Hayes was born there on June 3, 1887. The summit of Horn Mountain beheld an unobstructed panorama of hills, grasslands, creeks, woods, falling rocks, waterfalls, animal-worn dirt trails, and a smattering of houses and plots of farmland.

Roland’s worldview was shaped by the racially segregated environment of his parents, William Hayes and Fannie. Black landowners eventually became the new reality in post–Civil War Georgia, but only in the context of die-hard racial animus. African Americans were still required to show deference to their white counterparts lest they become subject to racial attack from organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, among others. The people who populated this part of the country and shared Roland’s ethnic heritage and lower social status found themselves as part of a permanent underclass; they had managed to survive because they knew “their place” when interacting with the white majority.

William Hayes had built a two-room log cabin at the foot of Horn Mountain using trees from nearby woods. By the time Roland was born, the cabin was equipped with a large wood-burning fireplace and chimney. There were a few other adornments in the house, and of course the cabinets and other furniture were expertly made by William. Off from the house was a kitchen that William had also built, where Fannie cooked for her growing family.

As the disciplinarian, William had a somewhat detached relationship with his children. The nurturing and housework were left to his wife. When a boy reached a certain age (around eight), he was expected to shoulder his responsibility for the household. Roland helped to stick the hogs for curing in the family’s smokehouse, to fetch wood and water for cooking, and, when he was a little older, to join in the hunt for wild game with his father and older brothers.

Roland’s somewhat idyllic – as he later described it – picture of his childhood depicts a boy roaming in the woods and hunting with his father. Hunting, however, was not Roland’s favorite activity. Because he was the youngest at the time, he was obliged to carry the dead catch. As he grew older, he became deft at snaring rabbits and other small game, following the example of William and his older brothers.

Roland had four older brothers and an older sister; later, “Baby” Jesse was born. Roland’s vivid recollections of his older brothers William Jr. (or “Willie”) and Nathaniel “Tench” centered on their sometimes troubled relationship with their father because of the latter’s strict ways. Before Roland was born, Willie had reached adolescence and run away from home. Although he was permanently disabled from a knee injury, Willie returned to Curryville with an education from Chattanooga. His schooling there had surpassed that of the local teachers in the Curryville school for the African American children, and Willie likely became his younger brother’s first formal grade school teacher.

Nathaniel “Tench” Hayes would have been eleven when Roland was born, and young Roland would have been no more than six or seven when Tench left home. Tench would return to the Hayes household over the next several years with various illnesses and eventually died sometime in the late 1890s. He was probably no more than twenty-one years old.

As his only sister, Mattie Hayes would have been in her fourteenth year when Roland was born. She, too, met with an untimely and unexplained death, but unlike her brothers she at least had the opportunity to wed, although it was a short and unhappy marital experience. Hayes recollected that the only time he remembered seeing his mother cry was when his sister died. Letting down her guard for the display of emotion was not a luxury she could often afford. Of Fannie Hayes’s seven children, three died within a short time frame, and only four survived to see the twentieth century.

Churchgoing was an integral part of life in Curryville, and Fannie insisted on a strict Baptist religious foundation for all of her children. She taught them to fear and respect the Lord and to believe in his power to change people’s hearts and minds. Roland received his earliest music lessons from his father, which included witnessing William’s uncanny sensitivity to sounds. He remembered his father’s “shimmering” and mellow tenor voice, which he used to summon his hogs. He also learned to sing his career-defining messa di voce from his father and not from formal voice lessons.

Roland once remembered asking his father about his ability to imitate natural sounds so expertly. William explained to his son that all humans had some manifestation of nature within themselves and that everyone possessed the ability to understand and imitate the sounds if they were willing to look deep inwardly and tap into it. Roland’s assertion years later that when he performed it was not him but the spirit expressing itself through him was a direct outgrowth of his father’s teachings on vocal production.

While William Hayes had many talents, farming was not among them. He was known to have employed a trick using a cowbell to rhythmically simulate the family’s cow plowing the fields while he sat and smoked under a tree. Joe Mann, the former enslaver of Fannie in Gordon County, mistakenly associated Roland with the cowbell incident when it had actually been his father. The story is still recounted among the Hayes family members more than one hundred years later.

In the small, rural, southern dwellings of northwest Georgia, there were relatively few social outlets. Thus, the religious life of the community took on enhanced significance. Mount Zion Baptist Church was made up of mostly preliterate African Americans and was an important foundation in Roland’s religious and musical formation. As the young boy grew more confident in his ability to speak before audiences, he was tasked with learning new songs to teach to the congregation. These songs also formed the basis of the “Aframerican” (as Hayes called them) folk songs that he would arrange and perform on the concert stage many years later.

Fannie wanted Roland to become a preacher, as he began to display signs of an oratorical gift from a young age. Although Roland did not formally enter the pulpit, he routinely spoke about his singing and his art as a “message,” which he felt compelled to deliver. He regarded his “work” in religious terms. In his later years, he routinely spoke about his religious beliefs but seemed not to have had a formal denominational affiliation. There is no question, however, that he considered himself a spiritual person and that his religious conditioning was based on his early days at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Other social forces had a major impact on his worldview. Roland spoke of Peter Vaughn, who taught him how to read music from hymnals when Vaughn came to the Flatwoods to conduct his seasonal singing school. Other influences included two of Fannie’s younger brothers, Wiltsie and Simon, who were seasoned banjoists. These uncles of Roland were regular churchgoers but “scandalously” played (from their big sister’s perspective) at social events at which peopled danced.

Roland’s musical training under Peter Vaughn was quite extensive, but he also identified Jim Kirby (whom he called “Uncle Nat”) as yet another teacher. It was from Uncle Nat that young Roland learned a number of African songs as a child. He apparently forgot many of them until meeting several continental Africans in England and France in the early 1920s. When these songs combined with the stories of his fabled African great-grandfather Abá ‘Ougi, Roland developed a fascination, commitment, and affinity for the African continent that manifested itself in various ways throughout his career and the remainder of his life.

Roland’s formal classroom education was different from what he experienced in the informal settings of his religious upbringing. This education was typical for a young black boy in the rural South in the late nineteenth century. That is, there was very little of it. The meager education that was available to him was seasonal at best. He described how it was the practice for the African American children to attend school in the winter months, only after the responsibilities of the fall harvest were completed. The teachers themselves had minimal skills, and the lessons did not go beyond the basics of reading, reciting, and perhaps some rudimentary mathematics. The highest level available to African American children in the Flatwoods during Roland’s youth was the seventh grade. The lack of educational opportunities available would ultimately be a factor in Fannie’s decision to move her younger children to Chattanooga, Tennessee, after the turn of the century.

Roland himself was unequivocal in his assessment of his early school years in the Flatwoods – he hated it. Young Roland was especially terrified by the weekly recitations in which the students had to present memorized speeches. Even when he desperately wanted to stand up to recite so as not to disappoint his teacher, whom he loved, fear and shyness overcame him.

Fortunately in 1896, a young graduate from Atlanta Baptist College named Wilkin Green boarded with the Hayes family for a time and helped young Roland conquer his timidity. Green also began telling the young boy of great African and African diasporan leaders, such as the legendary Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, who inspired the young Roland and captured his interest into adulthood. As a result of Wilkin Green’s confidence-building exercises, young Roland gave speeches in other African American schools and churches throughout the county, developing and displaying his oratorical talents.

Although records do not make clear when or how it occurred, William Hayes suffered a severe spinal injury from a logging accident sometime in the latter half of the 1890s. The accident was serious enough to keep him bedridden and in constant agony. His eventual death in 1898, while traumatic for his family, was not altogether unexpected. The funeral song of triumph, “Roun’ about de Mountain,” was sung at William Hayes’s home-going procession. Roland’s own performance of this song, with its prophetic refrain “the Lord loves a sinner, and he’ll rise in his arm,” became celebrated for many years and was included in his collection My Songs, Aframerican Religious Folk Songs.

Facing economic hardship with three young sons at home (Robert Brante, fifteen; Roland, eleven; and Jesse, less than ten), the pragmatic Fannie had to quickly assess the family’s financial circumstances. It would take about two years of working the fields for her family to rise out of debt, at which point Fannie could take her sons to Chattanooga for a proper education. Roland and Robert Brante dropped out of school temporarily to run the Hayes family farm and the additional acres that Fannie leased. Because of the family’s extreme need, the brothers also hired themselves out to work on other area farms.

By 1900, the family had retired its farm debt, and Fannie carried on with her plans to get her sons educated in Chattanooga. Robert Brante and Roland (seventeen and thirteen), along with the family cow, traveled to the city by foot with another Curryville family. Fannie and “Baby” Jesse took the train. The Hayes matriarch left the management of her ten acres to her cousin Obie Mann. Although she leased the land for others to work, she continued to pay property taxes, and it remained in her family. The adolescent Roland was bound for a new city where a world he could barely imagine awaited him.

Like the Flatwoods area of northwest Georgia, the comparatively urbanized Chattanooga, Tennessee, had been once occupied by the Cherokee Nation prior to the infamous Trail of Tears. The city saw many dramatic battles during the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant had attempted to pound the region into submission. Chattanooga held a good mixture of black and white citizens, but as was the case throughout the South, social and racial lines were pronounced.

Fannie’s arrival in Chattanooga by rail with her youngest son was a homecoming of sorts. Her mother, Mandy, had moved to the city after the Civil War to raise her family, and Fannie had begun her married life with William Hayes in Chattanooga before settling in the Flatwoods of Georgia. Fannie’s younger sister Harriet, who lived in the Fort Wood area of the city, met Fannie when she arrived, and Roland and Robert eventually made it after their fifty-five-mile trek, having walked barefoot with their supplies and furniture, reluctantly pulled by the family cow. Harriet provided temporary housing for her older sister and her three sons until they could get themselves established.

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