Without the influence of enslaved Africans and African Americans in the United States, American music would not have the same flourish and international impact. To deny the significant contributions of black people in music is to deny American music as a whole. One figure of note was the 19th century classical singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield who set the bar for her following artists in both North America and Europe (OnMusic Companion).
Life and Songs of the "Black Swan"
Greenfield spent her childhood years as a slave in Natchez, Mississippi, serving as a maid, companion, and entertainer for her mistress. After her death, she began to give public and private performances to support herself (Blackpast.org, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield). It was during this time she gained notoriety in both continents and was dubbed the “Black Swan” for her “full, round sound… and immense compass and depth” (Trotter). She traveled to Europe in 1853 and soon began performing for the English. She sang for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace before her return to the United States, becoming the first black artist to perform for European royalty. During her music career and performance travels in the midst of the Civil War, she spoke along black activists like Frederick Douglas and donated to “colored” orphanages. She died in 1876.
There are no recordings that exist of Greenfield’s work, however, her most famous pieces are her renditions of Handel, Bellini, Donizetti, “Home, Sweet Home” and “Old Folks at Home.”
Greenfield had a sound deemed worthy of English royalty. She was known throughout the United States and beyond, and she laid the foundation for classical singers to come. Because of her impact, she also made it easier for other sopranos of her time to get work. The legacy of the “Black Swan” lives on in our music!