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Stage for spiritualists
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On Sept. 17, 1995, a musical event of gigantic proportions began in Calhoun. It was the Roland Hayes Festival at the First Baptist Church sponsored by the Calhoun Gordon Arts Council's Roland Hayes Music Guild.

Everything was there - shape note singers, spirituals, classical, and a wide variety of styles - to celebrate the life and work of Roland Hayes, the first black operatic and concert singer to have a classical career in the United States and Europe.

Attending the festival was Dr. Robert C. Hayden, educator and historian, who wrote "Singing for All People," a biography of Roland Hayes. Roland Hayes was born in Curryville, a small farming community in Gordon County, in l887. His parents, William and Fannie Hayes, had been slaves. His father died when he was l2, and Roland took a job in a machine shop to help support his mother and two brothers. A year later, the family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he found a job as a laborer.

His early interest in music was with choirs in black churches. He formed a friendship with a young black student from Oberlin College. The student, Arthur Calhoun, was impressed with Hayes' voice and suggested he seek a career in music and played recordings of great singers for Hayes.

Hayes was spellbound; he made his decision.

Setting his sights on Oberlin was a turning-point in the life of Roland Hayes. Somewhere out there, he'd find his place that would end his yearning.

Though his mother said he'd not be welcomed in a "white man's world as a singer," he left home with $50 in his pocket and never made it to Oberlin, but settled in Nashville, where he entered Fisk University. Working as a house cleaner to pay his way, he remained at Fisk for four years, but did not graduate.

Later, he settled in Louisville, Ky., and took a job as a waiter. He was surprised by an invitation to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group, all former slaves except one, had their roots in the plantation spirituals of the South.

In "And So I Sing," Rosalyn Story states the spirituals sung by slaves were centered in the hope of a future in heaven where there would be no oppression, just joy, peace and love; a reversal of conditions. These spirituals became an authentic American folk art form, " the cornerstone of American music" that eventually reached the concert halls of America in the 1920s.

The Fisk singers were the first to perform in public "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away," authentic slave songs.

Fifty years later, when Hayes accepted the call to be a touring member of the newly named Fisk Jubilee Singers, spirituals moved from the college campuses and churches to the concert stage.

His career with the Jubilee Singers was short. While in Boston for a concert, Hayes felt at home and he decided to stay.

It was a good move.

Following his dream of a promising career as a singer, he supported himself as a hotel bellboy and messenger while taking private voice lessons with Arthur Hubbard.

In 1917 he used his own money to rent Boston's Symphony Hall for a recital, a bold move.

It was "now or never," he thought. His gamble paid off.

Hayes was invited to make appearances in Europe. So well received was he, that even the king and queen of England demanded a personal concert. He was no doubt the first black American to do a concert in Buckingham Palace.

Hayes was one of the most eagerly sought after performers at that time in London.

Hayes returned to the United States with new credentials, and the sudden and astonishing popularity of the spiritual exploded with the return of Roland Hayes to America in l922.

Hayes was invited to sing in Philadelphia at the Union Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in America. Hayes was the leading singer in the renaissance of spirituals before crowds of nearly 3,000 at each performance. The church was a concert hall for music, worship, and associations that became legendary, a training ground for opera singers.

According to Story in Philadelphia Hayes became a mentor to Marian Anderson, a young choir girl and soloist and urged Marian to get an education and voice training. His career was an inspiration to her.

In 1923 Hayes was established in Boston under personal management, was a member of the music faculty at Boston University and continued to be popular in concerts through the l960s, giving 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall.

Adversity was no stranger to Hayes. When he was scheduled for a concert in Berlin in 1924, many Germans were insulted by the presence of an African-American on the stage in Berlin.

But the concert hall was packed that night. Hayes lived the theme of his spirituals and was a gentle, loving and compassionate promoter of the best among all people.

William L. Stidger, in "The Human Side of Greatness," quotes Hayes:

"At 8 o'clock, I walked onto the stage with my accompanist. As I moved across that stage for my first appearance a barrage of hisses, full of hatred, greeted me....I felt those hisses as if they were arrows aimed at my breast."

Standing on the curve of the grand piano, he closed his eyes and prayed.

"As I stood there, I had no doubts; I stood with my head up and my eyes closed, letting spirit do its work, and waiting for that hissing to cease. Ten minutes passed and the hissing and stamping of feet died down abruptly. I spoke to my accompanist without turning my head from the audience and asked him to take from his music case Schubert's 'Thou Art My Peace.' It began softly in almost a whisper. As the clear notes of that song floated out over that crowd, a silence fell on them."

At the end, an ear rending applause that could not be stopped filled the hall.

Roland told Norman Vincent Peale, "The trouble with lots of prayers is they ain't go no suction." Peale used the idea, "Pray deep, big prayers that have plenty of suction, and you will come up with powerful and vital faith."

Hayes was honored for his accomplishments in 1924 with the award of the Spingram Medal for Achievement by the NAACP. He received honorary degrees from five universities, including Fisk University.

He died in 1977 and was elected posthumously into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1991.