Every Friday during Black History Month, author Christopher A. Brooks will share a post about legendary African American tenor Roland Hayes. This is the second installment of his four-part series.
There were many influences and people in the life of Roland Hayes who would help to mold him into the man and artist that the world came to know. Important among these influences was his mother Fannie Hayes. In fact, his 1942 biography was entitled Angel Mo’ (short for angel mother) and Her Son, Roland Hayes.
Fannie Mann, the oldest child of Peter and Mandy was born enslaved likely in 1847, but some sources indicate an earlier date. Her enslaved name was “Pony,” but she seems to have adopted “Fannie” as emancipation approached. In 1865, she met and married William Hayes who was close to thirty years her senior. Although Roland was given, in some of his publicity information, to say that both of his parents had been enslaved, there is no evidence to confirm that his father had been held in captivity.
Fannie and William Hayes subsequently gave birth to seven children, of which Roland was the sixth. In 1886, Fannie Hayes purchased ten acres of land for $1.00 per acre in Gordon County, Georgia, that had once belonged to Joe Mann, the family’s enslaver. Nearly one hundred and thirty years later, the original land remains in that family. In 1926, Roland bought land directly adjacent to that of his mother’s and named it Angel Mo’ Farm.
A God-fearing Baptist woman, Fannie Hayes wanted nothing more than to have one of her sons to enter the pulpit. Although she got her wish, it was not to be Roland, despite his oratorical gift as a child. Her religious instructions to her children (especially Roland), however, would be key to his deep understanding and mastery of African American spirituals. He regarded his work in that genre in very religious terms.
Mother Fannie, as she was often known, was never strongly supportive of Roland’s career in music. Her often quoted dictum to him was “They tell me Negroes can’t understand good music, and white people don’t want to hear it from us. So it seems to me you are making a mistake.” By that point, however, Roland would not be deterred. He was determined that he would become a world class artist, and would also take care of his elderly mother.
Roland moved to Boston in the early 1910s to continue his vocal studies. After a short time, he moved his mother from Chattanooga to join him there. Totally committed to carrying her own weight, Fannie took in washing and ironing to help support the household. Fannie often traveled with Roland when he toured the country. In one of his coast to coast tours in 1918, they had an extended stay in California. While there, Fannie helped her son to reach one of his greatest personal epiphanies—understanding the uniqueness of the Black singing voice.
In 1921, after living for a year in the United Kingdom, Roland had a command performance from Buckingham Palace to sing before King George VI and Queen Mary. The news was reported around the world. Fannie was back in Boston when she was interviewed by reporters about her son’s triumph. She appeared to be more interested in her laundry than in speaking to reporters. When Roland cabled her about the news, her response to him was for him to remember who he was and to “give credit where credit is due.”
To be sure, Fannie Hayes lived a life full of personal tragedy. By February 1923, she had buried five of her seven children, including her precious “Baby” Jessie, the youngest Hayes brother who was found dead in Atlantic City. She stoically traveled to New Jersey alone to inter his remains. Her end came in September of that year, but she lived long enough to see the beginnings of her son’s remarkable rise to fame.
Unable to be at her funeral in Boston because he was singing in Europe, Roland sent instructions that his recording of “Sit Down” be played at her funeral. Of the many spirituals which Hayes helped to spread around the world, this was among the ones which Fannie had taught him when they stilled lived in northeast Georgia.
The song told of an enslaved, pre-Civil War black woman, whom Roland seemed to have likened to Fannie. As it was important to her, it also held artistic and emotional significance for him. Fannie’s version told of an enslaved African woman in the pre-Civil War South who had reached the age of eighty and knew her end was near. Sitting in her rocking chair, angels asked about her restlessness. She responded, “I’m waiting for my mother, I want to tell her howdy.” The angels in turn responded, “Sit down and rest a little while,” which Roland understood as an invitation to the old woman’s death.
He interpreted the repeated phrase throughout the song, “Sit down, rest a little while,” as a metaphor for Mother Fannie’s life. With the final phrase in the song for her to “Sit down, sit down, yes, my Lord. Oh, Hallelujah, in my kingdom,” it was an equally powerful metaphor for Fannie Hayes’s death.
I’m going up to heaven and sit down.
Going up to heaven and sit down.
Oh! Sit down, sit down, sit down, child,
Sit down rest a little while.
I’ll see my Lord, he’ll say sit down.
See my Lord he’ll say sit down,
Oh! Sit down, sit down, sit down, child.
Sit down rest a little while.
Your back is bent from burdens borne,
There are furrows on’ a your brow.
Oh come, my child, you will come home,
Your troubles are over now.
Oh! Sit down, sit down, oh sit down sister,
Sit down, oh sit down, sit down child,
Sit down rest a little while.
Sit down, sit down, yes, my Lord.
Oh, Hallelujah, in my kingdom.
A few years later, Roland Hayes placed a tombstone on his mother’s burial site. The epitaph reads:
HERE LIES THE BODY OF
BORN IN GEORGIA A SLAVE, ABOUT
THE YEAR 1842 AND DIED IN BOSTON
SEPTEMBER 26, 1923
A PERMANENTLY SACRED AND
HELPFUL INFLUENCE REMAINS ALERT
AND BLOOMING IN OUR HUMAN GARDEN
WILLIAM HAYES (DEC.)
WILLIAM JR. (DEC.)
JOHN (DECEASED AND LYING HERE)
Christopher A. Brooks is Professor of Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is author (with Robert Sims) of Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor.