As an eight-year-old and one of a very few African Americans at a rural school outside of Pittsburgh, baritone Anthony Brown got his first gig singing when the school superintendent discovered his talent and invited him to perform for his fellow students — who were very impressed. “It upped my status in school as relates to peers and teachers,” says Brown. “The superintendent was the teachers’ boss, and he was aligning himself with me.”
Brown has collaborated with playwright Andrew Flack to create “Paul Robeson: I Go On Singing.” The world premiere, which includes transcriptions of original Robeson arrangements by composer Paul Fowler, takes place on Saturday, April 9, at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. The show’s narrator will be Jim Floyd Sr., former mayor of Princeton Township. The event in celebration of Robeson’s 113th birthday takes place just a few doors down from where he was born.
Although Brown never stopped studying music, he decided to major in psychology at Goshen College in Indiana in the late 1960s (he began his college career at Heston College in Kansas and transferred after two years) and eventually pursued a career in social work after earning a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent 17 years at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught social work and counseled students, while also maintaining a private practice.
Brown was content with his work and loved Seattle, but suddenly found himself with a job offer from Heston College. The draw was that he would be able to integrate music into his professional life. Having impressed the college’s administration with his performance of spirituals for its alumni in 2000, Brown was invited to join the college as a teacher and counselor.
When the dean also asked Brown to serve as the college’s representative and public face at high schools, colleges, and alumni events, Brown agreed to a try-out year to make sure the college’s promises were real, a year that turned out to be incredible. Not only was he free to work on his own music, he never had to take a vacation day to do a concert. “To the chagrin of many of my friends who thought I had lost my mind,” he says, “after that year, I moved to Kansas.” He stayed about 10 years, and although still connected to Heston, he moved in August to Albuquerque, where his wife is studying at the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics.
While at Heston, Brown was part of a United States State Department trip to Bosnia, where he performed for a mixed audience of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Jews. “I had them all in one concert hall singing with me and me singing to them, and at the end of that event they jumped out of their seats in applause,” says Brown. “I realized then that music was powerful and could transform lives and create the atmosphere for peace.” This inspired Brown to tour other war-torn and stricken parts of the world including Northern Ireland, Ethopia, and Uganda. He then founded the Peacing It Together Foundation; its mission is to use music to bridge divides between people and support people who have suffered natural disasters.
On his musical journeys Brown began to think about Paul Robeson, whose music he had listened to as a youngster with his family. He started to see intersections between his own life and that of Robeson, who also had performed benefit concerts throughout the world for causes of social justice. “I felt a kind of kindredness with him in terms of his commitment to doing justice, to promoting peace, and to raising the status of African Americans in this country,” says Brown.
Although Brown lived in Pittsburgh until he was eight, his parents decided to purchase a small plot of land in a rural area outside the city so that their children could attend better schools. His father was a pressman for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and his mother stayed at home with their six children. “She was a strong person who knew who she was, and she felt good about that and had tremendous compassion and a very strong faith,” says Brown. “I think that is what has gotten us through as a people over all these years.”
Initially living in a place with so few African Americans was a challenge for Brown, but his parents helped him, he says. He recalls in particular a neighbor who would raise her window and yell at him every morning as he walked down his driveway to catch the school bus. His parents advised him, “Don’t say anything back. This woman is a misguided person. She is a good person, but has not had the proper experiences in life to understand that we are really one people.” They told Brown to keep his chest up, back straight, and recite the 23rd Psalm as he walked. But their advice also held another important lesson, he says. “They made it clear that it wasn’t about me.”
His mother was undaunted by the neighbor. When his mother would collect money for the March of Dimes or muscular dystrophy, she would stop by the woman’s house and talk to her about the charity — never mentioning the yelling. “It was just human interaction with the person — developing a bond with the person and finding a common issue — which is a wonderful peace building strategy,” says Brown. Eventually the lady quit yelling but, he adds, “it took us seven years before some of that family sat around the table in our house.”
At 16 Brown went to a Mennonite boarding school in Ohio, where he sang in competitions and often got superior ratings. Then on to Heston, where he continued to sing and study voice.
At Goshen College in the ’60s he imbibed the spirit of the time, becoming both a pacifist and a conscientious objector. Moved by the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and by the Vietnam War, he developed a strong sense of social justice. “I became an advocate for racial equality, for justice, and for peace in world,” he says. “That was when, theoretically or intellectually, I started developing this sense of trying to do good in the world.”
After graduating Brown remained at Goshen for five years, developing tutorial programs for academically challenged students and then spent two years recruiting for the Mennonite Central Committee, an organization in Akron, Pennsylvania, that sends people around the world for service projects.
After receiving his master’s degree, when he moved to Seattle, he started to sing both oratorio music and spirituals at concert halls, at churches, and in festivals as well as at venues across the country. Brown shares this Paul Robeson quote to express the bond he feels with Robeson: “When I sang my American folk melodies in Budapest, Prague, Tiflis, Moscow, Oslo, or the Hebrides or on the Spanish front, the people understood and wept or rejoiced with the spirit of the songs. I found that where forces have been the same, whether people weave, build, pick cotton, or dig in the mine, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering, and protest.”
Suffering is universal, says Brown, and therein lies the power behind the spirituals he performs. “They connect with people all over the world because they connect with suffering, and through the songs, people can transcend suffering and live in hope.”
Paul Robeson: I Go On Singing, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. World premiere of a show by Anthony Brown and Andrew Flack blends spoken word performance with original arrangements of Robeson’s best-loved songs. Brown is the founder of the Peacing it Together Foundation, an organization that presents music events to promote peace and social justice throughout the world. Many of the words are based on Robeson’s autobiography, “Here I Stand.” Jim Floyd Sr., former mayor of Princeton Township, narrates. $15. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.