A book of “My Spirituals” by Eva Jessye
On its website, the auction house was advertising a massive sale of books, 3,000 of them. The idea of so many books was so overwhelming that I wondered if it would be worth the effort to even look at the photos. And the auction house had posted lots of them.
I decided to look at them anyway, and I’m glad I did. In one photo, a promising book was laid out on a table with several others, only part of its title showing but enough to spur me to want to see more. The auction house apparently knew that this group of books was not to be buried among the others, because they had more value and could bring in bigger bucks.
A few photos over and I could see more of the cover. It had a patterned design of faded flowers and birds in natural tones, a torn spine and a rough demeanor. It had not been treated kindly. Despite its appearance, the full title hooked me.
“My Spirituals” by Eva A. Jessye.
I didn’t recognize the name (until I began researching her and realized that I had mentioned her choir in a blog post about a revived “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway last year), but since it was a book about spirituals, I knew that I wanted it for my own.
I arrived at the auction house more than an hour before the 6 p.m. sale because I wanted to find the book, hold it in my hands and take my time looking through it. The auctioneer mentioned later that most of the books laid out in cardboard boxes on the tables, under the tables and in a small adjoining room had belonged to a well-to-do family who lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I’m not sure if Jessye’s book was among theirs.
I found the book, its cover looking much worse than the photos, opened it and was happy to see that the pages were in very good condition – still crisp and clean.
The book was copyrighted in 1927 and was beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by “Millar of the Roland Company.” I could find nothing on the web about the illustrator.
Jessye wrote in the preface that the book was “simply a recording of some of the songs I grew up with.”
“I was born and reared in a little country town in the Southern part of ‘Free Kansas,’ Coffeyville – which is also shared with the colorful state of Oklahoma.
Those who are unfamiliar with the Negro citizenry of Southern Kansas may question the authenticity of Spirituals gathered from so Northern a source. On second thought they will realize that Kansas, and especially the Southern section, was the nearest refuge of the runaway slave. It was the state that reached out protecting hands to the fugitives and escorted them via the ‘underground railroad’ to a land of freedom and brotherhood.”
The book contains 16 songs that Jessye edited and arranged, along with her poems and stories of the people she knew and loved. They reminded me of the stories that flowed from the pen of African American writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Eva A. Jessye was a singer, poet, actress, choral director and author. She was born Jan. 20, 1895, “on a Sunday morning, at the very hour the ‘Amen Corner’ in the Macedonia Baptist Church across the street was at the boiling point. ‘Hallelujahs,’ ‘Praises to God’ and the frenzied ‘stomp’ of sisters in the throes of religious ecstasy resounded through the air,” she wrote in the book.
She grew up in a community of religious and faithful people, whom she delightfully introduced in the book, and she as well embraced their Christianity.
She tells of the two lonely summers of living with her Aunt Harriet in desolate surroundings in Kansas (where the only signs of life were the chickens, geese and turkeys), buoyed only by the woman’s singing. After the chores were done, they’d sit under the stars and she’d listen to Aunt Harriet sing “Bles’ My Soul An’ Gone,” whose lyrics and music are in the book.
Jessye began writing poetry before she was 10 and formed a girls quartet as an adolescent. She attended college in Kansas and Oklahoma, and taught black children in segregated schools. She worked for the Baltimore Afro American newspaper in the 1920s and later lived in New York, where she formed the Dixie Jubilee Singers, whose name was later changed to the Eva Jessye Choir.
The group performed in theaters and on the radio (even doing a commercial for Van Heusen shirts), and toured in Europe. Columbia Records and other labels recorded their music.
Jessye was the choral director for both movies and theatrical productions: In 1929, for the MGM film “Hallelujah” by King Vidor, which featured an all-black cast; in 1934, for the opera “For Saints in Three Acts” by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson, and in 1935, for George Gershwin’s famed Broadway folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” She continued in that role in other productions of the play for three decades. Here are excerpts of the choir with Todd Duncan and Ann Brown in “Porgy.”
She marched during the civil rights movement of the 1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who made her group the official chorus of the 1963 March on Washington. She also appeared in the movies “Black Like Me” (1964) and “Slaves” (1969).
Later in life, Jessye lived in Ann Arbor, MI, and in 1974 she established the Eva Jessye African-American Music Collection. She later became an artist-in-residence at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, where she donated most of her personal papers. More of her collection is said to be at Clark Atlanta University. She died at age 97 in 1992.