Lawrence Benjamin Brown (1893–1972)
by Randye Jones
Composer, pianist and tenor Lawrence Brown was one of the pioneers who introduced the Negro Spiritual to the concert stage through his research of the folk music, composition of songs using Spirituals as the source, as well as performing as pianist and recording artist with vocalists such as tenor Roland Hayes and bass-baritone Paul Robeson.
Lawrence Benjamin Brown was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on 19 August 1893, the son of a former slave, Clark Benjamin Brown. Young Lawrence’s stepmother, Cenia, encouraged him to study music, so he began taking piano lessons with a local instructor, William Riddick. Brown graduated from the Stanton High School, a college preparatory school for African Americans, and left Jacksonville in 1910 to continue his musical studies. After a sojourn in North Carolina, he settled in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1917.
He supported himself as an elevator operator while developing his reputation as an accompanist, performing in recital with tenor Sydney Woodward. Brown began touring across the United States and Europe with Roland Hayes in 1918, and the pair were so successful, they gave a command performance before British royalty in April 1921. Hayes described Brown’s relationship with Hayes’ mother, Fannie “Angel Mo'” Hayes, in those early days:
She liked him because he was a good church boy, and she often did his washing for nothing. He was a fine figure of a young man, rather bigger than I, and with brown curly hair and nice features.1
In 1920, Brown continued his musical studies at Trinity College in London, studying composition with Alex Rowley and Amanda Aldridge. He became an active participant in the musical life in London, working with fellow musicians such as composer Roger Quilter and baritone John C. Payne. Brown composed works for cello with piano and violin with piano, completing his first Spirituals for concert voice, which were published by Schott and Company in 1923.
Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten explained that, inspired by a 1919 concert performance of Ernest Bloch’s settings of two Psalms, Brown had committed himself to studying, composing, and performing the music of his heritage. Van Vechten stated that Brown:
… had jotted down notes of the Spirituals as he heard them sung in the churches or on the plantation, or the work songs of the Afro-Americans, as he listened to them in the factories or in the fields. These he now undertook to harmonize for voice and piano.2
Between 1923 and 1925, he accompanied both Hayes and Payne on recordings of Spirituals he had set as well as those by Payne and H. T. Burleigh.
Of the numerous American expatriates Brown met while he lived in London, none had more of an impact on his professional life as did bass-baritone Paul Robeson. Robeson had come to London as an theatrical actor, but Brown heard him singing at a party hosted by Payne in 1922 and suggested that Robeson should contemplate performing as a vocalist. By 1925, Brown returned to the United States and, no longer performing with Hayes, had settled in New York. When the two men happened to again meet, this time in Harlem, they ended up at dinner together discussing a set of Spirituals Brown had previously sent to Robeson. They sang one of the Spirituals, “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” together, and the impromptu performance convinced them that they should organize a public concert.
The program was scheduled for four weeks later, during which Brown coached Robeson on the music they planned to perform. On 19 April, the men presented the concert of songs by Burleigh, Avery Robinson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Will Marion Cook, and Brown himself–a program considered to be the first consisting entirely of Spirituals–at the Greenwich Village Theatre. Author Jean Snyder noted that:
The tickets were sold out the day before the recital, “and at 8:15, when the theatre doors opened, the lobby, sidewalk and vicinity were packed” with an elite audience of both races, and “hundreds were turned away.” Despite the performers’ nervousness, they were greeted with thunderous applause when they appeared and after every song, and they “got curtain call after call.”3
Van Vechten, who played a significant role in organizing and advertising the concert, described how the duo presented the songs:
What causes had contributed to this success? They had consistently followed their original idea. The program was composed entirely of Negro music, including three groups of Spirituals and one of secular songs. The auditors, who reasonably may have expected that the result would be monotony, must have been amazed at the variety in the entertainment, for the program embraced such expressions of wistful resignation as “By an’ By” and “Steal Away, ” such tragic utterances as “Go Down, Moses” ; such joyously abandoned melodies as “I’ll Be a Witness for My Lord” and “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho,” and such examples of sardonic, secular humor as “Scandalize My Name.”4
Robeson and Brown gave an encore performance of the concert the following month, again receiving a very enthusiastic reception from the audience. Then, in July, the pair collaborated on an eight-song collection, mostly of Spirituals, recorded on the Victor label. The music recorded on the four 78s sold over 50,000 copies, providing an early commercial success for the duo and material that became a standard part of their repertoire throughout their musical careers.
In the fall of 1925, Brown travelled across the southern United States, researching the music of his youth and transcribing the folk songs he heard. He used several Spirituals in new compositions that he and Robeson presented in concert back in New York. A New York Times review of one of those concerts:
In the fourth group Mr. Robeson returned to negro spirituals, arranged by Mr. Brown, which included “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho.” Mr. Brown’s collaboration at the piano exactly fitted the needs of the singer. When Mr. Brown joined in the singing, it was to add a note of cheerful and sometimes amusing jubilation. He made a foil to Mr. Robeson’s graver and more emotional moods.5
He contributed five songs to “The Book of American Negro Spirituals,” by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, published in 1925. Schott published another set of Brown’s Spirituals in 1930, and the Six Negro Folk Songs was published by Associated Music in 1943. The composer is credited with over 400 Spirituals and work song settings, with approximately 30 published.
Brown’s Spiritual settings were not only performed by Robeson, but by contralto Marian Anderson and baritone Todd Duncan, as well as other vocal artists. Brown also made appearances in two 1937 movies, Dark Sands and Big Fella, that starred Robeson.
Brown and Robeson toured and recorded extensively over the decades that followed, including a European tour in 1929. Although the duo had been forced to leave Europe at the beginning of World War II, they returned in 1945 on a month-long tour with the U.S.O. They recorded the critically well-received album, Songs of Free Men, in 1942. After the war, their performances were peppered by Robeson’s political activities, especially his protests against racial discrimination.
One concert stood out during this period. Robeson and Brown had been engaged to give a concert at Peekskill, New York, when word came of potential protests against the singer. A riot forced the concert date to be moved back a month to September 4, 1949. Lloyd Brown, a colleague of Robeson’s, described what happened:
The concert went peacefully, but what happened next was horrible. We had to leave by a country road. Bricks and stones had been piled up, and the cars and buses ran a gantlet. Cars were stoned and automobiles were overturned. County officers were just standing and looking, and the mobsters felt at ease to do it.” No one was killed but many people were injured by flying glass, he said.6
The political climate in the United States during the 1950’s eventually led to Robeson being stripped of his passport until 1958, when the duo was finally able to return to concertizing outside the country.
Brown accompanied Robeson until 1961 when illness forced Robeson to retire from the concert stage. Brown, hampered by his own debilitating illnesses, retired to his Harlem residence on West 135th Street until his death at Harlem Hospital on 25 December 1972. The composer and pianist had never married and had no surviving family.
The Committee to Preserve the Lawrence Brown Collection presented a benefit concert at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on 11 February 1973 to support organization of the many papers, musical scores, photographs and other materials Brown had collected over his long career. The Lawrence Brown Collection is housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
1MacKinley Helm. Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 114.
2Kellner, Bruce, ed. “Keep A-Inchin’ Along:” Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, No. 45 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979), 155.
3Jean E. Snyder. Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 175.
5“Paul Robeson Pleases: Recalled after Each Group of Negro Songs–Lawrence Brown Assists.” New York Times, 29 November 1926, 17. https://search.proquest.com/docview/103720248?accountid=7379
6Roberta Hershenson, “Remembering a Period, When Paul Robeson Went Unwanted,” New York Times, 19 April 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/19/nyregion/remembering-a-period-of-unrest-when-paul-robeson-went-unwanted.html
The author thanks Glendower Jones of Classical Vocal Reprints for granting permission to use the image of Brown music score cover above.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this composer currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: July 26, 2018. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/lawrence-brown-biography.