The month of March has several titles, including National Ethics Awareness Month, National Disability Month, Irish American Month, Greek American Month, and Women’s History Month. I chose Women’s History Month as the focus for this column.

Opera divas Jessye Norman (left) and Kathleen Battle sing spirituals on a PBS Great Performances broadcast from a 1990 Carnegie Hall concert. Credit: PBS Great Performances

Women’s History Month is meant to show respect and appreciate women of all types and the contributions women have made and continue to make.

PBS’ Great Performances aired The Magic Of Spirituals, starring African American opera soprano divas Jessye Norman (1945-2019) and Kathleen Battle (1948-), during the last week of Black History Month.

Norman’s career began in Europe in 1968. Her first American performance was in 1982 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Battle made her operatic debut in 1975 at the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit.

The choir in this production consisted of members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (founded in 1866) and the Harlem Gospel Choir (founded in 1986). The expressions of appreciation and pleasure on the faces of choir members (in the pictures above and below) in response to Norman and Battle’s singing made me smile.

Several people on the PBS program commented on the history and purpose of spirituals. Spirituals were “associated with Black Americans, which merged sub-Saharan cultural heritage with experiences of being held in bondage in slavery.” (Wikipedia)

Jessye Norman (left) and Kathleen Battle perform with members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and The Harlem Gospel Choir at a 1990 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Credit: PBS Great Performances

Spirituals expressed sorrow, freedom, warnings, work, guidance, hope, glory and faith. Examples of some of the songs were/are: Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen; Wade In The Water; Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’; and Deep River.

Attending the televised concert, which actually took place in 1990 in Carnegie Hall, was Ms. Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Ms. Anderson, a contralto, was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She performed in Orchestra Hall in Chicago in 1929. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had her perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington.

I remember hearing recordings of Ms. Anderson singing He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands and Deep River when I was a child. I was glad that The Magic Of Spirituals included excerpts from Ms. Anderson’s performances.

These three women are great role models for pursuing one’s career. Thank goodness they did not give up. The majesty of their voices will continue to give listeners much pleasure.

Celebratory days in March:

March 8 – International Women’s Day.

March 10 – Harriet Tubman Day.

March 12 – start of Daylight Saving Time.

March 16 – Freedom of Information Day.

March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

March 20 – First day of Spring.

March 21 – International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

March 22 – First day of Ramadan.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...

Leave a comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *