Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

119: American visitors and Coleridge-Taylor

Johnsons

In 1897 the poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was in England where, by chance, he met Henry Francis Downing who had settled in London. Downing had been born in New York in 1846, served in the US Navy 1872-1875 and had been US Consul in Luanda (Angola) in the late 1880s before returning to New York where he established the United States African News Company, which represented leading African Americans including Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Journalist and playwright, Downing lived with his wife Margarita at 24 Oxford Road, in Gunnersbury, West London. Downing was to recall (in 1926) that he and Dunbar were in the garden when the landlady brought Samuel Coleridge-Taylor out to meet them. The composer – in his final weeks at the Royal College of Music – was seeking a collaboration with Dunbar whose Lyrics of Lowly Life was published in London in May 1897.

On 5 June 1897 a joint Dunbar/Coleridge-Taylor recital was put on at the Salle Erard in central London, arranged by Downing and attended by other African Americans including tenor Sidney Woodward and the veteran (and Cambridge University graduate) Revd Alexander Crummell. The Times thought that the recital should have been more widely known, but it was a marker in the composer’s career being the first known collaboration with another person of African descent. He and Dunbar cooperated on an operatic romance Dream Lovers, apparently first performed in Croydon on 16 December 1898. However Dunbar sailed back to the USA at the end of July 1897 after five months in England. His journalistic report ‘England as Seen by a Black Man’ of September 1897 does not mention the composer.

Coleridge-Taylor decided to work as a professional composer (giving occasional violin lessons and conducting musical groups, far-from-rare activities within the profession) and had a good reputation within musical London with a steady number of items published by late 1898. It was about this time that he became a friend of yet another American from Ohio, singer and choir-leader Frederick Loudin. Loudin had toured the world, returning to Britain in the second part of 1897. [see page 172.] It is possible that his contact with Coleridge-Taylor was due to Woodward. Born in Georgia, Woodward worked with John Isham’s Oriental America show – a ‘Great Company of Coloured Comedians, Singers, & Dancers’ singing Verdi and Puccini on a year-long British tour (19 April 1897-16 April 1898). Loudin would have known of the show, sought fresh members for his own Jubilee Singers, and updated his knowledge of America after a six-year absence. Woodward would have alerted Loudin to the up-and-coming composer. A musical network developed around Coleridge-Taylor, which included African Americans.

Those whose creations were so enjoyable made – and still make – authors, composers, actors and others liable to be sought out by complete strangers who are respectful of their art but not of their privacy. Many music lovers would have looked up Coleridge-Taylor. For people of African birth or descent he had a role as a leader: a person whose achievements were to international standards, and whose successes countered concepts of racial inferiority. Some Americans heard of Coleridge-Taylor because of his 1904 visit to the U.S.A., a guest of black Americans in Washington DC – led by Mrs Mamie Hilyer who had been taken by Loudin, in London, to meet the composer. His music was published in America, with his Twenty-four Negro Melodies for the piano containing many spirituals. Its publication by a leading American publisher, with a forward by Booker T. Washington, was in 1905.

One of the visitors, John Rosamond Johnson, recalled in 1947 ‘I spent many hours with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the eminent Negro composer, he lived in Croydon, we discussed quite often about the beauty of Negro Spirituals, his love for them, prompted him to arrange a volume of twenty-four of them, published in America’ (typescript courtesy his grand-daughter Melanie Edwards). The last part flies in the face of the evidence for Ditson agreed the project in 1903, the preface was dated October 1904, and the book was in London in May 1905 when Johnson was yet to reach England. Johnson was in his eighties in 1947 but we might trust his comment about discussions on Negro Spirituals – we know that music deeply interested both men.

Johnson was a pianist and singer, and his brother James Weldon Johnson wrote song lyrics. On stage Rosamond was joined by Robert ‘Bob’ Cole. The three found a large audience among white Americans, and in the summer of 1905 the trio had a six week booking at the Palace Theatre in central London. They went to France, Belgium and Holland first. In his memoirs Along This Way of 1933 Weldon Johnson recalled sitting with Jessie and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at the opening night, and how the other two were a success on a very mixed bill. There are photographs of the Johnson brothers with the composer in Croydon, in the Johnson Papers at Yale. One is at the top: James Weldon Johnson is on the right with jacket over his arm; C-T is centre.

Violinist Clarence Cameron White spent two lengthy spells in Edwardian London. White had been asked to perform at an evening concert at the composer’s home in the summer of 1906. He became a friend of a Russian-descent violinist Michael Zacharewitsch who was regarded by Coleridge-Taylor as ‘one of my best friends’. White’s Papers (New York) have an invitation to Zacharewitsch’s wedding on 30 March 1909.

In late 1908 pioneer black Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke reported to his mother from Oxford that he with law students from West Africa and Swaziland ‘went to a wonderful performance of Coleridge-Taylors Hiawatha – I had never heard it before – it stunned me’ (Locke Papers, Howard University). He later suggested he would look him up. More vacationing Americans did just that: John Patterson Green (1845-1940), a survivor of the late nineteenth century period when blacks held high political posts, was a lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio and a correspondent of Loudin. He met the composer in England in 1909. Another light-complexioned black American, author Charles W. Chestnutt met the composer in the U.S.A. in 1904 and in 1906; his wife and daughters met Jessie in Croydon in 1906, Chestnutt had met her earlier. They were back in Europe in 1912 (photographs of Chestnutt in Holland and Venice survive) and daughter Helen and her father visited Croydon in August 1912. It was on reaching New York that they heard he had died. Chesnutt had been working with Du Bois at the N.A.A.C.P. Du Bois first met Weldon Johnson in Atlanta in 1904.

In the summer of 1914 Claudia and Kemper Harreld came to Europe from Atlanta, where he taught music and she German at the city’s leading black colleges. They bumped into Locke when Americans fled the war to neutral Holland. The Harrelds went to Croydon, and photographs of the composer’s widow and her two children decorated the office of their daughter in Detroit in the 1980s.

The apparently most significant American visitors to Coleridge-Taylor in England were Ellen and Carl Stoeckel, whites who lived in Connecticut and there supported the Litchfield music festivals. They encouraged performances of Coleridge-Taylor’s music, commissioned a new work – Bamboula – which its creator conducted in May 1910, had others present their friend’s music, and visited Croydon. The Violin Concerto was commissioned and the Stoeckels paid their friend $1,000.

What was said and what were the influences seem to have been forever lost. The Downings were friends for at least fifteen years (providing a home for Jessie when her family objected to her plan to marry the composer, in 1899), Loudin until illness took him to a sanatorium in Scotland and then, an invalid, back to Ohio where he died in 1904. Du Bois was a regular visitor. Jessie Coleridge-Taylor’s 1943 memoirs tells of a ‘Mrs. Thrift, at one time a member of the world-famous “Fisk Jubilee Singers” from Ohio’ who was at their house when the composer returned from his first (1904) trip to America; and ‘A man of colour – a doctor from America’ in London around that time who borrowed money and did not repay it. Mrs Thrift had married an Englishman in Croydon in 1890, had two daughters, and died there in 1907 (see page 143).

There were also African contacts – recalled by the composer’s half-sister Marjorie Evans, born 1896, who also recalled Du Bois (pronouncing the name in its American manner, not the French so often used by Britons). Miss Evans, a vibrant octogenarian when interviewed in 1984 – she lived to be 100 – advised that her half-brother had admired the musical comedians Bert Williams and George Walker. They had been very popular in In Dahomey in central London in May-December 1903, when she was seven years old. Separate testimonial suggests there were contacts with the fifty African American singers and dancers in that production, for Daisy and Green Henry Tapley who were in that show recalled meeting Coleridge-Taylor (Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds, University of Illinois Press, 2005 p 255).

One Nigerian woman, a doctor’s wife, gave the Yoruba theme that Coleridge-Taylor used in one of those 24 melodies and he set Kathleen Easmon’s youthful poetry to music – she and her family, Sierra Leoneans very much at home in Edwardian London, were some of the others who made up a considerable international group who cared for the music and the life of Coleridge-Taylor.

Thanks to Melanie Edwards.

For Dunbar in 1897 not the erroneous 1896, see page 050 of this site