“Deep River”: The Life of Roland Hayes

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“Deep River”: The Life of Roland Hayes

by Gavin James Campbell
Southern Cultures, Vol. 3, No. 4: Winter 1997

"Hayes was told that whites would never go to hear a black man sing classical music."

On 3 June 1887 a black boy was born in a small cabin near Little Row (now Curryville) in Gordon County, Georgia. His parents, both former slaves, could never have dreamed in even this moment of highest hopes that their new son would eventually conquer one of the most segregated places in America: the concert stage. In time, Roland Hayes would rise from sharecropping on his parents’ small Georgia farm to earning $100,000 a year as one of the most celebrated tenors of the age. This extraordinary transformation did not come easily. Awkwardly situated between black and white worlds at a time of rigid segregation, Hayes encountered bitterness, derision, and hostility at many turns. Yet through quiet perseverance, gentle dignity, artistic mastery, and a career spanning more than fifty years, he became a pioneer in combating racism, opening opportunities for subsequent African American performers, and forging a place of honor in the classical repertoire for the African American spiritual. By the time of his death on 31 December 1976, Hayes had successfully communicated across the color line and made a unique and lasting impression on the world of classical music.