Jessye Norman is one of the world’s most admired and beloved singers—and her life story is as moving and dramatic as the great operatic roles she has performed on stage.
Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, she studied the piano and sang the songs of her childhood, never dreaming that this passion for music might lead to her life’s profession. Here she presents “a rich portrait of a childhood firmly grounded by family, church and community,” and recalls in rich detail the strong women who were her role models, from her ancestors to family friends, relatives, and teachers (The Wall Street Journal). She also discusses her relationship with the pioneering African American singer Marian Anderson—revealing the lifelong support she provided through her example of dignity and grace at all times.
Norman also describes coming face-to-face with racism, both as a child living in the segregated South and as an adult out and about in the world. Filled with inspiration and wisdom, Stand Up Straight and Sing! is not just for lovers of music, but for everyone.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In the Beginning
I am the joy and the pride of my maternal grandmother, looking out over a front yard overflowing with grandchildren. I am the steady and stern glance of my paternal grandfather, and the upbeat whistle pushing past my father's lips as he enjoys a ride in his very first car, that green, two-door Chevrolet. I am the warmth of my mother as she speaks the letters of the word Mississippi in rhythm, her special way of making spelling lessons more fun. They are all in my DNA: their beautiful blood, rich with the determination, the songs, the hope, the heartbreak, and the strength of my people, stretching back past the cocoon of my childhood home in Augusta, Georgia, beyond the most storied of concert halls, beyond the earth's surface, beyond, even, the nurturing glow of the African sun. Because they were, I am.
My ancestors' gift of song rustled the leaves of gnarled southern oaks and pines, whispered between the rows of the fields they tilled, danced in the winds just beyond the ocean's ripple, above the waters that brought my people and my blood to these shores. I am all who have made me: Mother Africa, the hills of Georgia, and these United States. My gift is uniquely my own, and yet it is also all of this. I pay homage to those who nurtured and nourished me. I stretch out and wrap my arms around them all.
There was always music, always. When we were small children, we would visit my mother's parents on their farm, where Grandma Mamie's voice would fill the quiet spaces. I loved to hear her sing. She had songs for every time of the day. Of course, when we kids were there, the quiet spaces were few, especially if we found our way to the organ. My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one — a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium — right there in their house. It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults. My brothers Silas Jr. and Howard and I were too small to play the keyboard and work the pedals all at the same time; there just wasn't enough body on any one of the three of us to do so. But that did not stop us from trying. The knobs that indicated various stops were new to us, and that was part of the fun. By pulling one of them out, we changed the sound coming from the keys. It was too good to be true. We had all begun our piano lessons, so the keyboards of the instrument were familiar. There was something for each of us to do with that majestic box of wood and veneer, and the two rows of ivory and ebony that produced such magic. So we would split the duties: the boys would be responsible for the keys and I took the pedals, with the grand promise of reciprocation once it was my turn to finger a tune (or more likely simply press the keys down in no particular pattern, just for the thrill of it). I worked hard. I made sure the boys were having a great time on the keys while I stooped at the bottom of the bench and used my hands to make the pedals work and work. Of course, when it came time for me to play the keys, my brothers always found a reason to be somewhere else. No surprises there. Grandma Mamie, five feet ten in her stocking feet, with a mass of glorious white hair and Native American beauty dancing across her strong cheekbones and chestnut-colored skin, would just laugh; she never chastised the boys for leaving me on my own. And I did not really mind, either, as I could then have "the magic box" all to myself!
One could tell Grandma Mamie's mood by the songs she sang or hummed. It was very easy to do, even as a child. I always say that young children are as sensitive to mood swings as family puppies. Whatever you are feeling, they can sense it. I could tell just from her choice of song whether she was having a happy morning or whether her thoughts were uneasy. Happy moods brought offerings that were more spry, such as "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning, Hallelu, Hallelu." If you woke up from a peaceful slumber and heard her humming a tune like that, you knew instantly that this particular morning was good. Things were going well. By contrast, a slower, deeper, more mournful song, such as the hymn "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," indicated that Grandma Mamie was thinking about something, and that something was not bringing her joy at that particular moment. Whether happy or melancholy, whether we rejoiced with her or worried for her, Grandma's singing was always beautiful, deeply soulful, and right.
I was much too young to understand fully the depth of influence her singing had on me. All I knew was that I loved to look at her and to hear her voice. Years later, my heart and, perhaps, a bit of cellular memory made clear that the songs and phrases that lived in Grandma Mamie's breath, and the passion and emotion that flowed from her very core, had found their way into my young spirit. This became wonderfully apparent during a performance in 2000 of my production of the sacred music of Duke Ellington that I call Sacred Ellington. This took place in the beautiful Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia. I was accompanied on the piano by Mark Markham, a fine jazz band, and the dancer Margie Gillis, and was having quite a marvelous time with the audience when I decided I would add a couple of Spirituals as encores. That afternoon, I offered one of my favorites: "There's a Man Going 'Round Taking Names," a song popularized in the early twentieth century by the folk singer Lead Belly.
There's a man going 'round taking names.
To this day, I have no idea what came over me when, without thinking, I walked down from the stage and began moving through the aisles, taking in the faces of all who were there and really connecting with each individual as I sang and glided through this deeply sacred space.
I had never done that before in my life.
It was not until after the concert, as my family and friends gathered to celebrate the birthday of my older brother, Silas Jr., that it was revealed why, exactly, I had broken with normal protocol and left the stage and gone into the aisles. It was Silas who made me understand. "There's no way that you could possibly remember this," he said simply as we sat together at dinner. "You were too young."
"Remember what?" I asked.
"That Grandma Mamie would get up from her pew at the church on Sunday mornings and sing Spirituals as she walked around the entire church," Silas said, referring to Hilliard Station Baptist Church in Washington, Georgia. "She used these moments to greet her neighbors and just enjoy offering her singing so freely to everyone."
For a moment, we were silent. You can imagine that this revelation sent chills through me. I truly had no recollection of this magnificent woman walking around the church while she sang. I could not have been more than about four years old at the time, but Silas would have been about eight — old enough to have that lovely memory. To me, he was divinely ordered to be at that performance in Philadelphia, and to connect me with our beloved grandmother. She was speaking through me then. She speaks through me now.
My mother, Janie King Norman, had that singing spirit in her as well. She sang all kinds of songs, most of them Spirituals and offerings from the church. She taught me to sing one or the other of them, for programs at the church, or at Girl Scouts, or wherever I would sing in the community. She had such a beautiful voice. As a young woman, she performed frequently for church and community functions with three of her seven sisters. As a group, they were well known around Washington, Georgia.
Songs were my mother's friends — her confidants. They accompanied her while she did whatever she was doing during the course of the day, from tending to the many details of running a busy household, to keeping the financial books of the church, to, it seemed, serving as the secretary for every organization of which she was a member. It was from her that I learned a true appreciation of music and of the beauty of filling the whole house with it. It was with her and through her that I felt free to sing with as much joy and power as was within me. I was never told that I should "be quiet."
If you ask me outright, I always say singing and speaking became a part of me at the same time. My brothers had a lot of fun teasing me about this. "Soon," they laughed, "you'll be telling everyone you were singing in the womb." All joking aside, I cannot recall a period in my life when I was not singing — when music was not at the very center of all that I enjoyed. But it was the radio that informed this little girl in Augusta, Georgia, of a much wider world — made me know, for sure, that music was bigger than the voices I heard in my house, on my grandparents' farm, or in my town. I was all of ten or eleven years old when this revelation flowed through that brown and beige radio, my very own radio in my very own bedroom. There were the voices of Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington, the music of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong, the Tommy Dorsey band, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson. They all spoke to me — captivated my ears and my senses. I can still remember a day when I heard Nat "King" Cole sing the beautiful song "Stardust." I asked my parents to purchase the sheet music for me, and they obliged happily. The cover of the sheet music was cloud-blue with an image of the great singer. I was quite proud to have my very own copy. I wanted to sing "Stardust," too!
Surely, those early years marked the beginning of my abiding love of music — all kinds of music. And this was most revelatory on Saturday afternoons, when it was time for my weekly chores. There was cleaning to be done in the kitchen and in my own room, tasks that, when performed with proficiency, would have taken no more than a couple of hours for the average child who wanted to get out of the house and bask in the light of the sun or conquer the tallest limb of the biggest tree or go off exploring on a bike. But because I really felt that I was being put upon when asked to contribute in this small measure to our housecleaning, I made my duties stretch the entire length of the opera broadcast that I discovered on that magic box, my radio. My program of choice: the Saturday-afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. Lucky for me, my mother entertained this preference of mine, in part because she simply wanted the work done, and perhaps also because, deep down, she adored having a daughter who was developing a love for beautiful music. Neither she nor I paid much attention to all the fun my brothers had at my expense. They thought my listening to opera was too grand for words. I mean, they thought it was simply comical that I pretended to understand opera — to really like the voices, the orchestra, and the drama, along with all the various languages that were sung. But I wasn't pretending at all. You see, anyone who is anywhere near my age and had the great fortune to listen to those broadcasts on Saturday afternoons knows that Milton Cross, long the voice of the Metropolitan Opera, told you everything you needed to know about that day's performance. So it did not matter whether or not you had ever heard or seen the opera being performed. Milton Cross made sure that his listeners knew what the singers looked like, what they were wearing, what the set looked like, the entire story of the opera as it proceeded — everything you needed and wanted to know. You saw all of this in your mind's eye, and your imagination took care of the rest.
One of the first operas I recall hearing was Lucia di Lammermoor, in the late 1950s. This would have been with Roberta Peters in the lead, and other times with Mattiwilda Dobbs. Later, in the early '60s, the role of Lucia was taken over by a soprano new to me: the great Joan Sutherland. The well-known ensemble from this luscious opera stayed in my mind, and I remember humming the melody to myself rather often. At some point, I even enjoyed a cartoon showing animals on a tree limb "singing" this very melody. It is amazing how such beautiful music can enter the spirit and simply live there.
This is to say that I simply loved the whole idea of an opera performance. And as the dreams of children know no bounds, I thought about singing this music — certainly not as a profession, but simply singing it because it was beautiful to me and I loved it as much as I loved listening to the music of everybody else on my radio. I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after. For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already. The way that I felt about the opera as a child was no different from how I feel about opera now. Duke Ellington once said these words, which I find just as profound today as when I first heard them: "There are two kinds of music: good music and the other kind." Some of that good music was written by Mozart and Beethoven and Bach. Thank goodness, too, that some of that good music was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and George Gershwin and Ellington himself. The good music that I sang as a child included children's songs, hymns learned at the church, and, of course, Spirituals. My enthusiasm for good music only increased in the choir stands of Mount Calvary Baptist Church and in the school choruses at C. T. Walker Elementary, A. R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney High. I sang in the assembly halls of local community groups and all types of organizations, even in the living rooms and yards of our neighbors. I was part of a small group of kids who were interested in the arts and were invited to give performances. Some of us sang, some played piano, some gave recitations and acted in plays and such. It was just something that we all did and loved.
When I say now that we were completely interchangeable as performers, I mean we were completely interchangeable. This is absolutely true. Aside from the fact that I knew I could sing with more power than some of my peers, there was no acknowledgment whatsoever that my voice was any more special than that of any of my friends who sang. I realized early in my professional life — and I still celebrate it now — that I was very lucky to have that part of my life unfold in such a way. None of us children were given reason to consider ourselves more special than the other. Yet collectively, we were special in the eyes of the community that nurtured and supported us. We were lucky to have had the support of our parents, teachers, and other influential adults in our lives. They understood the importance of these meaningful interactions, both to our early socialization and to the development of our communication skills, the ability to express ourselves in front of others comfortably and confidently — skills that would turn out to be extremely valuable later.
My parents were constant observers of how my siblings and I deported ourselves, what our school responsibilities were, what we were meant to be doing on any given day. I can still see myself standing in the hallway, with my mother getting herself ready for the day and my father preparing to take us to school, reciting a poem that my school's class was charged with presenting on Monday mornings. My father would say, "Now, you've got your poem ready?" And I would say, "Yes, of course, Daddy." And I would recite it, stumbling all the way, and my mother would say what she always said: "Stand up straight, honey." I can still hear her voice. Stand up straight. And even on this day, I am sure she is looking down on me, saying the same thing, particularly when I fall into resting in my right hip, a lifelong tendency. When I realize I am doing it, I do my best to correct my posture. Stand up straight.
The act of standing in front of crowds, large and small, and offering a performance of some kind, was as natural as passing around the Ritz crackers with pimiento cheese at the end of a program. I do not remember my first solo performance (though there are a number of stories circulating, purporting to know what my first song was), but I do know that my big numbers around age five were "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stand Up Straight and Sing!"
Copyright © 2014 Jessye Norman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of ContentsPrelude xi
1. In the Beginning—“Great day!” 1
2. A Mother’s Joy—“I want two wings” 15
3. A Father’s Pride—“Ev’ry time I feel the Spirit” 35
4. Church, Spirituals, and Spirit— “There is a balm in Gilead” 57
5. Racism as It Lives and Breathes—
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” 95
Interlude: Marian Anderson— “My Lord, what a morning” 135
6. Growing Up in Germany—“On my journey, now” 147
7. The Singing Craft as Art Form—“Oh, Glory!” 180
8. The Song, the Craft, the Spirit, and the Joy!—
“The Lord’s Prayer” 197
9. Woman, Life, Singer—“Ride on, King Jesus” 221
10. And the Journey Continues—
“He’s got the whole world in His hand” 258