Pathfinder: African Americans in the Arts: Classical Composers, Musicians, and Singers

Feb 16, 2021 | Adults, News, Personal Enrichment, Personal Enrichment, Reading, Writing, and Storytelling, Reading, Writing, and Storytelling, Seniors

Pathfinders are guides to library resources for a variety of topics. The second topic we’re covering is African American classical composers, musicians, and singers. This list, gathered by Teresa, an adult services reference librarian, includes items available in our collection as well as websites that are free to access. Whether you’re doing research or just want to learn more, we’ve got the information you need!


African Americans in the Arts by Steven Otfinsoki – R 973.0496 OTF

A resource for finding information on African-Americans in the performing arts from the early 20th century through 2002. Includes actors, singers, musicians, composers, comedians, dancers, and choreographers. Each entry provides a brief biography with focus on the events in that person’s life related to their artistic accomplishments.

Roland Hayes: the Legacy of an American Tenor by Christopher A. Brooks – 782.42168 HAY

Despite constant racism and segregation in the United States, the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977) was the first African American man to reach international fame as a concert performer. His accomplishments paved the way for other African American vocalists such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. This biography covers the history of Hayes’s life and career as a musician and a champion for African American rights.

Marian Anderson: a Singer’s Journey by Allan Keiler – 782.1092 AND

Keiler documents the life and career of the talented contralto singer Marian Anderson. Born in 1897, Anderson developed a love of music at an early age. Despite facing racial discrimination throughout her career, she went on to become the first African American to perform at the White House and soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America by Raymond Arsenault – 782.1092 AND

This is an account of the events leading to the 1939 Easter Sunday concert performed by Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow a black woman to perform in Washington DC’s Constitution Hall, Anderson and her supporters relocated the free open-air concert to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson’s performance took place before an integrated audience of 75,000.

Paul Robeson: a Life of Activism and Art by Lindsey R. Swindall – 782.42164 ROB

This biography follows Robeson’s remarkable career as an athlete, actor and activist, attempting to rescue his contributions to the stage and the political scene after the U.S. government labelled him subversive due to his socialist tendencies. Robeson is most famous for his career as an actor and singer-he starred as the first African-American Othello on Broadway, and as Joe in Show Boat-but he also took a deep interest in politics and social justice.

William Grant Still: a Study in Contradictions by Catherine Parsons Smith – 780.92 STI

This book presents the life of composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) through a collection of essays including personal notes written by Still. Numerous excerpts of his music compositions are included. Still was the first African American to conduct an orchestra in the United States, the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.

Sing for Your Life: a Story of Race, Music, and Family by Daniel Bergner – 782.1092 BER

This is the story of Ryan Speedo Green. At the age of twelve, Ryan was sent to Virginia’s juvenile facility of last resort for his unruly and sometimes violent behavior. With the help of two teachers he was able to redirect his anger to a love a music. In 2011, at the age of twenty-four, Ryan won a nationwide competition hosted by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Today, he is a rising star performing major roles at the Met and Europe’s most prestigious opera houses.

Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: a Life of Scott Joplin by Susan Curtis – 781.64092 JOP

Scott Joplin (1868-1917) is best known as the creator of ragtime and the composer of “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”. In her biography of Joplin Curtis looks beyond his popular piano pieces and places him in a cultural context as a black man denied rights but renowned as a musician. She traces his career as a composer of serious music, including his opera Treemonisha, and as a teacher.


Great American Orchestral Music. Vol 2 by George Walker (composer) – CD CLASSICAL WALK GAM-2

Great American Orchestral Works. Vol. 4 by George Walker (composer) – CD CLASSICAL WALK GAW-4

George Walker (1922-2018) was a composer and musician. He was the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. These two recordings include a selection of his orchestral works as performed by Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra.

Spirituals by Marian Anderson (singer) – CD CHRISTIAN ANDE SPI

This 1999 reissue of Anderson’s 1956 album is a compilation of 30 spirituals. Accompanied by pianist Franz Rupp, the track list includes “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, “Where you There?”, and “Deep River”.

On My Journey: Paul Robeson’s Independent Recordings by Paul Robeson (singer) – CD VOCAL ROBE OMJ

This recording of spirituals and folk songs sung by Paul Robeson in the 1950s was released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as part of their African American Legacy Recording Series. This recording includes the songs Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Amazing Grace.

Baroque Music for Trumpets by Wynton Marsalis (musician) – CD CLASSICAL MARS BMT

Marsalis performs a selection of Baroque trumpet concertos by composers Vivaldi and Telemann.


Classic fM

Highlights the lives of nine Black composers who changed the course of classical music history from the 18th-21st centuries: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Florence Price, Scott Joplin, George Bridgetower, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, George Walker, Francis Johnson, and Wynton Marsalis.

Classical MPR

With text and video of live concerts, this site provides nine classical performances of works by African American composers including William Grant Still, Florence Price, and James Weldon Johnson.

Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music

This site focuses on the accomplishments of African America singers and classical composers of vocal music. It includes biographies, a chronology of achievements by African American vocalists, composers, and publishers, and a portrait gallery.



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