Barbara Martin: #RecordDet Interview

Barbara Martin, librarian, singer, historian, and Board Member describes her relationship to and experience with Detroit music.


We are here tonight with Barbara Martin, a good friend of the Conservancy’s and a good friend of mine. My name is Carleton Gholz and I’m the executive director and founder of the Detroit Sound Conservancy. Across from me is LaVell Williams, Vice President of said Detroit Sound Conservancy, and within earshot is Dylan Box our logo designer and web designer, so happy we found him. We are at Urban Bean coffee shop, its October the 20th. It’s nice to have action on the street downstairs you can see cars going by, there are actually people here. You can still see construction on M1 rail in a rocks throwing distance.

C = Carleton: Lets talk to Barbara Martin here, if we can, Barbara?

B = Barbara: Yes

C: Briefly, if you can, describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music.

B: Briefly, you’re right, I don’t know if I can.

(Laugh) Well, I’m retired. I retired from the Library, Detroit Public Library, but I consider myself, a musician — a singer. I’ve had a life of music from a very young age. Basically, starting at church music — like a lot of us are. From there I went to classical music and fell in love with opera. After college I participated in some opera choruses, got some small minor roles. But I’ve been in music all my life in the city basically in education, in church, in school.

C: That’s beautiful. What was the first (Detroit) record you remember hearing –- what was it, how’d you hear it, and what did you think?

B: God, I can’t remember. Well, I know a record that in our family, we used to sing a lot — musical. We’d ride from the East Side of Detroit to my grandparents house in a Delray. My Dad was a quartet singer, a church quarter singer. So we would go from the East side of Detroit over to delray, ever Sunday and we used to sing all these quartet songs. We didn’t listen to a lot of music in the house. The music that we listened to — we danced to really. After going and doing church music at family gathering we would always have dancing.

I was probably in the heart of the Motown era, so all of the Motown stuff. I remember “Mr.Postman” that was a song we loved to dance to and of course, “Dancing with the Street.” Probably anything Motown is what I remember doing. I laughed and tease my sons and nephews and nieces about having to take dance lessons. That’s what we did for recreation, we danced, in the basements with the red light.

C: Name some dances that you danced

B: Oh, oh gosh. One of the first dances, and it was probably one of my parent’s dances, because we would laugh at it — we could do it, but we’d laugh and it was “The Chicken.” Our dances were “The Pony,” “The Mashed Potato,” “The Hully Gully.” There was a record you know, “Do the Hully Gully.” Let’s see what else, I mean the major dance was what they call ballroom now. That was our social dancing. The bop, the bop was probably a less frantic jitterbug. We didn’t do the jitterbug, we did the bop. Now that’s what my kids, my nephews and nieces go to take lessons to learn, and I think that’s pretty funny.


C: Oh that’s good. Motown, as you just mentioned, is known the world over. Describe one aspect of history that you wish got a little bit more attention. What do you wish got more attention, more than Motown?

B: Not Motown?

Well, I think there is a strong classical music and church music community in Detroit. There used to be a time and there was a venue for public awareness of those activities. Well, there is really more opportunities with all the technology, but I don’t know if its available to the people that the music is of interest to.

When I was coming up there were writers for the Michigan Chronicle that wrote weekly about musical activities. I remember getting written up in my first year of college in the concert I did. I had a solo part and someone wrote about it. Those kinds of things don’t happen anymore in music that is less commercial. I think there is still a strong interest, but its not mainstream. I hope that it’s not just us old folks. I hope there is a generation of young folks coming in who like that kind of stuff.

C: This is a good segue to the Hackley collection, discussing your participation with that. For people who may not know, can you just describe what is the Hackley, your relationship to it and why you think it is important?

B: The Hackley is an archive that is housed at the Detroit Public Library. It was started in 1943. I think it was actually was officially established but the practice of celebrating black music and black musicians had started well before 1943.

Fred Hart Williams who was a writer for the Detroit edition of the Pittsburgh Courier I believe it was. He would write about the Hackley. He was also a member of the Detroit Musicians Association which was founded in 1919. The Detroit chapter was founded soon after that, early 1920, it existed. In the 40s Fred Hart Williams was one of the officers of that organization. They had been having musical programs, they’d have lawn concerts at Fred Hart William’s house and they’d have concerts at the library. But in ’43 in December they decided to officially establish an archive and document the contribution of blacks to the performing arts. It started by these musicians — which were basically classic musicians or church musicians. They gave this material to the library to establish. It was the first archive of its kind. Not long after it was established it branched to all the genres of music.

I was fortunate enough to be the curator of the collection for ten years, well, not quite ten years, well about sevens years. It’s really interesting, and a lot of stuff has fallen out of the public consciousness. Some might say why not? But there are a lot of the ties that you don’t know exist that are found in the Hackley collection. So that’s why I think it’s still important and you can trace those things. They attempt to remain current and they collect continuously to this day. They collect commercial documentation on commercial music and performers, actors, dancers, poets, writers — anything relates to the performing arts.

C: Can you say something about black classical music? You say black classical music, what do you mean and what does the tradition entail? What would be some names in terms of a longer history of black classical music? And how might that might be different then just European classical music? How are they different, similar, if I’m talking to someone that doesn’t know what that tradition is?

B: I think its just black classical music is just music written in the classical idiom, by a black person. It’s really based in Western European music. A lot the musicians, Madame Hackley included, they touted the accomplishments of African Americans who were doing classical music. Madam Hackley ran around the country having concerts and getting funds from those concerts to support the careers and education of blacks studying European music.

Some composers in America, some are noted and some less so, I think of Harry Burleigh — who was a composer as well as a performer — who was very much an influence on Anton Dvorak. He came to this country and the new world symphony has a lot of spirituals, sampled, what we would call it today, in the symphony. Let’s see, who else, Howard Swanson, a wonderful composer — composing art songs as well as other things. I’m drawing a blank for a name that I know so well — the Dean of classical music as far as blacks are concerned. He wrote the negro symphony. Gosh, I can’t think of his name. Avery is his daughters name. Anyway, maybe it will come to me. People like that and Margaret Bonds — wrote art songs in the classical idiom. A lot of them what you might call classical is the sacred music area of the spiritual. Because many of the performers in the early 20th century were singers, they started incorporated with Harold Burleigh and Hayes they incorporated spiritual in classical programs. They would end their programs with classically arranged spirituals. This was another thing that Madame Hackley promoted. She died in 1922, that wasn’t so far removed from slavery, not that far removed. A lot of people who lived during that time didn’t want to embrace things that reminded them of that. Her concerts, she went around singing and performing and combining choirs in every city that she was in because she said this is our music, and this is the importance of it. Especially with the Jubilee singers going to London, making the world aware of the spiritual. Singing was the main art form for the use of the black classical composer, or singer, or performer for that matter. A lot of them they learned the craft of the European art form and they wrote from their experience.

C: Why sing Barbara Martin? What is important to you about the human voice in song together and alone, what is compelling?

B: I think singing is the highest form of communication. I think the interpretation of words on pitch can resonate in various emotions –- anger and passion. I think you convey that. The voice is instrument that does that most readily, because it is — it is the breath. You are singing and using the breath and that’s what makes the communication removes any barriers between people. If you’re doing it right. If you’re interpreting the words and putting the emotion for the things you’re saying, I don’t think anything can beat it.

When you listen to instrumentalists, especially like jazz or anyone that plays the cadenza, I think they are trying to imitate the voice. A lot of times so you see singers, I just saw a singer this weekend and she sang…. She’d sing and she’d have her hand is going up and down a vertical instrument a piano keyboard. A lot of times instrumentalists try to imitate that. You can try to as best you can. It’s a combination of the breath and trying to make those nuances that aren’t necessarily written on the page that the voice can do.

C: I remember one of the members of the Preservation hall telling a student at Cass Tech if they can sing it they can play it and to try to do both. There is something connecting those two.

You just told that story about being from the East side and going to the West side. That’s something out of Detroit that doesn’t make any kind of sense necessarily. What is it about being from the East Side?

B: I don’t think so. It hasn’t been my experience. For one thing, it depends on the genre of music you are in. I was in classical music in high school, of course gospel music in church. That took me across barriers, across Woodward, literally back and forth. I don’t think there was any kind of barriers or divide or different music because of East Side and West Side. I think there a lot of continuities.

C: I like that answer. What do we lose if we do not preserve musical history? What do we lose if we don’t do that? Or if we don’t do things like DSC?

B: I think for one thing we lose a rich heritage. If you don’t know who you’re connected to, without even realizing it, that you don’t know the depth of your heritage. I think that’s a big loss. You don’t know what you don’t know, you know? (laughs)

That is one of the reasons that Motown has become the world music. It has lasted. If you didn’t reinforce not only the named people, the famous people, but for every famous person there’s probably 102 that are still in this town or related to people in this town that made this music happened — the doo-wop people on the corners.

It enriches us and if you don’t know that, you are less rich. As my grandma said whenever we did something of accomplishment, whenever she was very proud of us she would say, “I feel right rich.” I think as a young person I liked it when my grandma said that about me. If we don’t maintain this heritage all the connections of our musical ancestry then we won’t have the opportunity, we won’t have that feeling. As one who has had it, I don’t want generations to come, not to.

C: Last question. Advise us since we are a fairly young organization, we only have been around for two years, what should the DSC be concentrating on most in the coming years? What kinds of things based on your experiences should we be attending to?

B: I think what you’re doing in the way of documenting, really keeping a record. It’s good to keep a record, but it needs to be known, it needs to have awareness. As many places you can make the Sound Conservancy a household name, and know that this is the go-to place. This is the place if you wanna know about the of any kind of music in Detroit that this is the place. Easily accessible. Continue documentation and triple awareness.

C: Thank you very much Barbara. Can we get a hand for Barbara Martin?


We are going to play some more music.

Thank you so much to Barbara Martin.

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