Black History Month – The Cullen Maiden collection
By Frankie Perry, UOSH Cataloguer and Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music
When I acquired the collection of African American singer and poet Cullen Maiden in 2015 I wrote a blog about him which you can read here. Since then, the British Library sound archive has digitised a large number of its collections under the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Maiden collection was one I was keen to have digitised, so as to make it available to researchers in the Reading Rooms of the British Library.
A further bonus of the UOSH work is having every recording fully catalogued and thus visible through our online Sound and Moving Image catalogue SAMI. For a collection as large and complicated as this it took up to five cataloguers working full time, while the audio presented problems of differing speeds and track figuration within many of the tapes.
Now that it is completed, Cullen Maiden’s life and career is traceable through his performances around the world.
Frankie Perry, one of the cataloguers of the collection, has selected some extracts of the recordings and through her efforts has followed the thread of Cullen Maiden’s life and work.
Cullen Maiden’s collection of 590 open-reel tapes has now been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. By way of introduction to an extensive and diverse collection spanning around fifty years, here we share four short recordings that represent various strands of Maiden’s singing career (he was also a poet, composer, and actor). As very little information about Maiden is available online, this post weaves in biographical context gleaned from interviews, programmes, and other material held in the Music Manuscripts collection also deposited at the Library in 2015 (MS Mus. 1894). Many thanks also to Maiden’s widow and donor of the collection Christine Hall-Maiden for sharing some of her memories during a recent visit to the Library.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Maiden was named after the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, and attended the same high school as Langston Hughes (Central Senior High). His lifelong immersion in and advocacy for Black American culture is palpable throughout the collection, evident in the themes of his youthful poetry sketches right through to the repertoire selected for song recitals given in the 1970s-90s. Maiden was introduced to classical music by his school teachers, who encouraged him to nurture his talent for singing alongside his development as a promising welterweight boxer; his points of entry were recordings of Paul Robeson and Feodor Chaliapin, and he later described this pair as ‘idols of my life’.
Early recordings in the collection include national broadcasts of the 17-year-old Maiden singing ‘Waterboy’ and demonstrating his fantastically low bass range against a piano on the ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour’ talent show.
Following his bachelor’s degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, his vocal studies at the Juilliard School in New York were interrupted by a call-up for national service: he was sent as a Private First Class to Pusan Area in South Korea, where he worked primarily as an entertainment director. As a performer, he appeared in four Seoul Symphony concerts, and appeared on both AFKN radio and television and Korean radio networks. He also put on numerous concerts for troops and wider audiences in 1957 and 1958, in division and area command service clubs.
One example is a concert given with soprano Hai-Kyong Chang of the Seoul Opera Company and pianist PFC Richard Jennings, where we see the emergence of a signature Cullen Maiden programming strategy of pairing classical staples with spirituals and work songs; his Korean concerts also included Korean folk songs. Maiden had acquired a volume of traditional Korean songs in delicate arrangements by Sung-Tai Kim for voice and piano, and annotations in his heavily-used copy suggest he sang several. The one we have on record (in a couple of different renditions) is Kim’s arrangement of the popular song ‘Arirang’.
Maiden also appeared as a soloist with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the influential Korean-American conductor John S. Kim, performing Mozart arias and show tunes (he was known throughout his career for his renditions of ‘Ol’ Man River’). Here’s ‘La vendetta’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro:
Mozart La vendetta 1957 South Korea
On returning from military service, Maiden returned to his Juilliard studies, and became a vocal soloist for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (he had sung for Dunham during one of the dancer’s goodwill visits to Korea) and toured Europe with the company in 1959; he also toured the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers. In 1962, Maiden spent six months in Stockholm performing in Lia Schubert’s Jazz-Balett 62, paired in a duo with the young guitarist Lars [Lasse] Åberg, who would go on to become a celebrated actor.
Periods of study in Rome with Luigi Ricci followed, as well as a year in London during which he had poems published in Tribune and gave poetry recitals. In the knowledge that many Black classical musicians found more employment opportunities in Europe than in the US, Maiden moved to Munich, together with Christine, and began auditioning widely. But the barriers were present there too: Maiden auditioned at companies across East and West Germany, but ‘for many of them, the idea of fitting a Black man into a German ensemble seemed to be a great hurdle. That caused a lot of problems. My Blackness prevented me from getting a job’.
Maiden persevered and successfully auditioned for Walter Felsenstein’s Komische Oper, which was in East Berlin: his early roles in the company included the Town Mayor in Henze’s Der junge Lord (1968), and Farfarello in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (1969), both of which he performed in white make-up. His defining part came as the title character, opposite Carolyn Smith-Meyer, in the company’s 1970 production of Porgy and Bess, which was directed by Felsenstein’s second-in-command Götz Friedrich and widely praised for being a thoughtful production that highlighted social issues, and avoided the racist stereotyping upon which many productions of the opera (both before and since) relied. For Maiden, the role was ‘defining’ for the best and worst reasons. On the one hand, his performance received rave reviews that reached across the operatic world – photos of Maiden and Smith-Meyer appeared on the covers of major magazines – and led to a steady stream of further engagements to perform the role in English and German-language productions. On the other hand, Maiden’s success in the role also resulted in a long-term struggle to escape from his close association with Porgy and to be cast in other roles. Maiden’s testimony in a 1974 interview makes plain the reasons why:
‘No one accepts me as Cullen Maiden. They accept me as Every Black Man. […] When Robert Merrill is offstage, no one greets him as Rigoletto. But when I am offstage, people call me Porgy’.
At the time of this interview, Maiden thought he had given over 250 performances of the work, and was trialling a policy of only accepting Porgy engagements if the company in question hired him for another opera too. Maiden also spoke of his desire to develop his US opera career, and of his fears that this would be impossible: he acknowledged that ‘Europe is relaxed and wonderful [...] it is not bi-racial, so you do not feel this pressure’, but that ‘most Americans I meet traveling miss America. You love your country, and you feel frustrated in Europe. I miss my family and my friends and just being here’.
Maiden’s differing experiences of structural and everyday racism in America and Europe resonate in many ways with the stories and histories illuminated in Kira Thurman’s recent book Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The deep tensions of Maiden’s experiences as a Black American abroad, and the different struggles of Black German communities in his adopted home, are implied in a quote from a later interview: ‘It is time for African Germans to wake up and to stop agonising about whether they are black or white. They are Black. This society does not accept them as full Germans’. This archive contains a wealth of material relating to Black cultural life in West Germany (and East Berlin) between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, and great potential for future research in this area.
Maiden did find operatic success in America, especially through a series of engagements with the pioneering Black-led company Opera/South. The collection holds rehearsal recordings of his animated Osmin in a punchy English-language version of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and recordings of him workshopping the role of Father Lestant ahead of the PBS television production of William Grant Still’s A Bayou Legend (this was the first opera by an African American composer to be televised in the United States). There’s also plenty of photos, reviews, and other material relating to this production.
Below is a concert recording from 1992 of a song from a different opera by Still, ‘Our fathers taught us to be pure in heart’ from Costaso.
Still Our fathers taught us 1992 West Berlin
A hallmark of Maiden’s later solo recitals is his inclusion of music by Black composers: the collection includes live recordings spanning from 1977 to 1992 of songs by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Still, Charles Naginski, and Howard Swanson, which was unusual in Europe at the time. Many of these songs set poetry by Langston Hughes, and Maiden emphasised the importance to him of performing music that sets Black poetry that in turn draws upon Black experience. Advocacy was at the heart of Maiden’s recitals, as is clear from their titles which include ‘My Soul is a Witness: Black History in Song, Poetry and Prose’, “The Souls of Black Folk’ – The Black Experience in a White World’, and ‘Aspects of Black History and the Black Experience in Songs, Poetry, Prose, Black Drama and Black Humor’’. From the early 1980s he performed under the auspices of Black Arts Theater Productions – details of this venture are unclear, but correspondence in the papers shows his ambitious visions and plans for a Black arts company in Berlin. Several programmes were given during February, the American Black History Month, including the concert advertised here:
These concerts usually combined songs with poetry and prose readings, and Maiden typically gave lengthy semi-scripted introductions to individual items – the recordings are moving and humorous in equal measure, and Maiden often had to wait for the audience’s laughter and applause to die down before continuing. The spirituals, work songs, and prison songs in the recitals were sometimes performed unaccompanied, and sometimes sung in voice-piano arrangements from the ‘concert spiritual’ tradition – including versions by Black composers and versions made famous by singers such as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. Maiden also wrote his own arrangements of several songs, variously with piano or guitar accompaniment.
Maiden said in an interview that:
Black music is not like pop or classical music. One has to know the agony, the doubts and trials that Black people are subjected to daily. Only then can they fully understand the rich heritage in Black life’.
The recording below, of ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, uses an arrangement adapted from that of Harry T. Burleigh, and is introduced through a brief story of Maiden’s own family history.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Hanover c1977
In addition to his singing, Maiden’s seemingly limitless artistic talents included poetry and prose writing, musical composition (in several styles), film and theatre acting, and drawing – his sketch of world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 Joe Louis, signed by ‘Curly Maiden’, is below. A poetry collection, Soul on Fire, was published in 2008, and the Music Manuscripts collection includes annotated copies of the poems and lengthy feedback notes from Audre Lorde, who lived for a while in Berlin. Beneath one of Maiden’s poems, ‘A Black Mother Asks of the Lord’, Lorde simply wrote: ‘This reminds me of Langston’.
Alongside 120 tapes containing Maiden’s original recordings, another substantial portion of the donation includes his extensive collection of off-air recordings, copied from German (pre- and post-unification), Italian, and British radio broadcasts over several decades. Maiden clearly made a concerted effort to record broadcasts of Black musicians, both classical and in various popular styles. Highlights range from live broadcasts from European festivals by figures like Leontyne Price and Simon Estes, to rare live recordings of twentieth-century repertoire sung by William Pearson, to Annabelle Bernard singing orchestrated Schubert lieder with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This strand of the collection is testament to Maiden’s lifelong advocacy for Black music and art: his capturing of these broadcasts will mean that many recordings which were previously inaccessible or buried in European radio archives can now be heard again.
Maiden died in 2011, having moved to London in the late 1990s where he continued to sing, teach, and compose and write. Cataloguing of the Sound Archive’s collection is now complete, meaning the recordings are searchable online and will soon be listenable on-site at the British Library.
 ‘Interview with African-American Opera star, the bass-baritone Cullen Maiden’ [author unknown], Isivivane: Journal of Letters and Arts in Africa and the Diaspora, 3, January 1991, 20-25: 24.
 Name of the talent show inferred from a newspaper cutting: ‘Cullen Maiden develops qualities of leadership at Central Sr. High’, Call & Post, [author and date unknown]. Held in MS Mus. 1894.
 Isivivane, 21.
 Wilma Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’, The Plain Dealer, 1 September 1974. Newspaper cutting held in MS Mus. 1894.
 Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’.
 Cornell University Press, 2021.
 Isivivane, 25.
 See Ben E. Bailey, ‘Opera/South: A Brief History’, The Black Perspective in Music, 13/1, 1985, 48-78.
 Isivivane, 25.
 Cullen Maiden, Soul on Fire: Poems and Writings (AuthorHouse, 2008).