The late, great contralto Marian Anderson became as much a symbol of the civil rights movement as anyone of her generation–Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Big Bill Broonzy—but she was also one of the great contraltos of all time. The pity of Anderson’s career was that she was denied the chance to hone her interpretive skills on the opera stage, so she stuck to art songs, folk songs, Christmas carols and spirituals, the latter of which she sang without much feeling because she had sung mostly in Catholic churches as a youth and, by her own admission, felt very little connection to them. By the time she finally made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the great voice had worn down. It had a “hole” in the middle and wobbled under pressure. Yet she continued to sing recitals and make records into the early stereo era, retiring in 1965.
One of her most charming and rarest records was made for Moses Asch of Folkways in 1963. As someone who loved both cats and children, she jumped at the chance to tell some stories about her black cat Snoopy, and pianist-songwriter Frida Sarsen-Bucky wrote some songs for her to sing in between her stories. Keeping the voice at a relatively low volume, Anderson could thus still control her instrument beautifully, although in one or two songs her deep, dark chocolate voice sounds so much like a baritone that I’m sure a few kids were startled to hear it. But Anderson’s personal warmth and communication skills were never better served; in fact, I would say that, although it is obviously a record for children, she doesn’t talk down to them or make her stories too much of the Teletubby style. She holds your interest as she charms you.
The best part about this recording, as of all of Moe Asch’s records, is that it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution shortly before Asch’s death with the stipulation that all of his recordings be kept in print regardless of low sales volume. Not everything he issued was of great interest, but we do get some incredibly rare Art Tatum in his series of discs as well as some tantalizing Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) performances. But of course the crown jewel of the Asch series was Woody Guthrie. The legendary folk singer recorded virtually his entire repertoire for Asch and then some, and as per his stipulation all of it is available, for free, in perpetuity.
Which brings us back to this particular Anderson disc. The LP copy that was transferred to digital waves had a number of ticks and, once on each side, a passage where loud pops intrude on her narration. This is easily remedied with a free audio editor like Audacity, and you can stream or download the entire album—divided into only two tracks (side 1 and side 2)—for free on Spotify.
It’s not often that I recommend a recording like this one, but the charm and humor of Anderson’s narration, combined with her singing, produce an unforgettble effect. Do yourself a favor, click on the link above and take a listen. It can’t hurt you any, and you just might enjoy it as much as I did!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley