It is with great honor we welcome a true Renaissance woman, one of the most important people in literature, a poet, educator, historian, best-selling writer, actress, playwright, Civil Rights activist, producer, director and musician—the one and only Dr. Maya Angelou. On behalf of our reading audience thank you so very much Dr. Angelou for joining us. Everyone has a mentor so I was hoping you could tell us about Mrs. Bertha Flowers.
DR. MAYA ANGELOU:
Mrs. Flowers. I met her, I guess when I was very, very young, but I got to know her when I was about almost eight. I lived in a very small town and I had had an abuse and as a result I had stopped speaking. I thought my voice had been instrumental in killing a man and so I thought it was wiser not to speak. That was my seven year old logic. So Mrs. Flowers heard about me. She was a black lady in our town and she came to the store. My grandmother owned a small store. And she came and got me and took me up to the school and took me into the school library. Black school, there may have been 200 books. I don’t know, but I know I have more books in my small library today than in that little school. But, it seemed like millions of books and she said “I want you to read every one of them. Read through and then make notes and when I come back I’ll talk to you about it.” And then she took me to her house about twice a year. She’d make tea cookies and wonderfully sweet lemonade and then she’d read to me. She
introduced me to literature and really began my lifelong love of reading, of writing too and of being read to. I think every human being wants to be read to. I still like it and I’m 80 years old. I still like a person to read to me and that all began with Mrs. Flowers.
Very inspiring. In regards to you becoming an artist, there is a quote from you I appreciate. You said, “You can be truly accomplished at something you love.” Some of our readers may now know that you started in music and arts with dance. What attracted you to that?
Oh, I didn’t have to talk and I was very tall. My brother, who was older than I, was very short and he told me that I was a lady and I was supposed to speak softly and that he was to hold the door for me. I don’t know where he read that, but he read that he was supposed to push the chair when I sat down and because I was so tall I shouldn’t bend over. I shouldn’t slouch. I should stand straight up and he encouraged me to study dance. So when we returned to California, I was thirteen and about 5’10”. My brother suggested I study it. There was a Booker T. Washington community center in San Francisco, so I started studying there and went on to a California school and studied with adults and really fell in love with dance. I’m still in love with dance. See, Mr. Leslie, I think those loves we have…those first loves, never really leave you. We still fantasize. I believe I could become 800 years old and weigh 300 pounds. I would still be a dancer. It’s the only thing I ever loved, save, writing. I still love it. My bones will not let me forget, but I still love dance.
Very interesting. That brings us to calypso music. You became a great calypso singer. I was hoping you could tell us what it is you liked about calypso music.
I don’t know about great, I became known as a calypso singer and I have had no modesty—none at all. I pray I have humility. There is a difference. Modesty comes from the outside. Humility comes from inside and it says that there was someone before me who laid the path. My responsibility is to try to build a road. So, I was well known as a calypso singer and because I could dance, I would often dance in the middle of a song and I think that made me very unusual. I love calypso the way I love blues and country-western music because with calypso the lyrics tell stories. They are not just about “I love you baby” and “let’s make love”…something rawer than that. So the calypsos, each one, tell a story, and such a human story. So that’s what drew me to it.
It is a fascinating genre of music.
It is indeed.
In your book Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas you write about singing in church services. What kind of music did you like growing up?
I loved all sorts, and still do. I love, when I can hear it, European classical music, and with American classical music, which must include jazz, the spirituals and folk songs, and country music. I loved it all. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Marianne Anderson on the radio. I couldn’t believe a human voice could be so beautiful. And my grandmother, loved to hear a song, a western country song called “You are my Sunshine.” It was the only non-religious song we ever sang and I can remember that husky voice of hers singing it around the house along with “Children of Sorrow” another spiritual song. As soon as I heard blues, I was about thirteen because I moved back to be with my mother and she loved the blues. As soon as I heard the blues, I loved them. Even today, I still want to have that song that tells a story, that has lyrics, whether traditional—our folk music, that is, or written by Irving Burgie, and I loved Lord Flea, and Lord Kitchener. Kitchener was so fascinating to me, but all of them. I just enjoyed them.
Dr. Angelou, some people may not know that the name of Maya Angelou was adopted around the time you started your singing career. Tell us how you got started in calypso on a professional level.
Well, I was a dancer and I met some very sophisticated people—artists and dancers and such and they would laugh at folk music. And I said, “Well, I think all music is folk music,” and I tried to defend it. Then they said that folk music was boring and I said “listen to this” and I sang “Run Joe”—[singing] Run Joe, fast as you can, run Joe, the police holdin’ me han’…Moe and Joe ran a candy store. Moe did something and the police came and they were brothers and so the one said “run Joe,” trying to hold the police and protect his brother and I just loved it. So when I sang it to them, they said they hadn’t ever heard calypso. So I sang another and I sang around So I had to quickly go and learn some more. I think I had maybe three, that’s not a very large repertoire. I went about learning some more and I opened at the Purple Onion in San Francisco as Maya Angelou, Calypso singer.
Well speaking of the Purple Onion where you performed during the time of the calypso explosion, I think calypso is a very overlooked genre of music today, I think it’s still very relevant. It’s a great blend of different styles of music. We had the opportunity to welcome Mr. Irving Burgie, you just mentioned and he told us a lot about the calypso explosion. You reviewed his autobiography. Why do you think America embraced calypso so much?
Well it was exotic, it had humor and also it was sung by one of the most handsome human beings we have ever produced and that was Harry Belafonte. Mr. Belafonte was not just handsome. He had an air, he had a presence and he was irresistible and with that voice and his rhythm. And then there was the genius of Irving Burgie. Lord Burgess as he was known. He really wrote some irresistible songs. It was time for it. It was just the time. The landscape needed
Those songs still stand up today. You later joined the “Porgie and Bess” tour and got to do a lot of traveling. You have said you regarded that tour as pivotal in your life. I was hoping you could tell us about that.
I learned among other things, that human beings are more alike than we are unalike. Very important knowledge by traveling. Travel broadens one. It literally does, especially if you keep your eyes open and your ears and your heart. Oh I see! In Yugoslavia, the people there think pretty much, we act the same way they act in Greece, and in Morocco. Okay, I didn’t know that. The people in Turkey act the same way as people in Mozambique and in Little Rock, Arkansas. My goodness. So, it was pivotal in that it opened my thinking to the extent that I cannot find myself a stranger if I’m among human beings, anywhere in the world.
What you just said reminded me of something I heard Barack Obama say. “We have that much more in common, than that what separates us.”
It’s true. Everybody in the world, Mr. Leslie, who wants a job wants a good job, wants to be paid a little more than he’s worth. Not enough to be embarrassed, just enough to say “Boy, am I really making it over now.” Everybody in the world wants to be needed, wants to be respected in the work he or she does and to be told, “This is really a good job you’re doing.” Everybody in the world wants to have safe streets, even the people who make the streets unsafe. Everybody in the world wants to fall in love and to have the unmitigated gall to accept love in return. Everybody! In Bosnia, in Berklee, in Boston. Everybody in the world wants to have someplace to appreciate God on a Sunday, Sunday morning, Saturday, whenever people meet—if they’re religious at all. Everybody wants to have children, if they want children that is, they want to have healthy children. Now, that’s true in Paris, Texas or Paris, France. You see?
And someplace to party on Saturday night. Everybody.
Jumping back to the music, when you returned from the tour you began performing calypso in California and you recorded a record called “Miss Calypso,” and you were featured in the musical film “Calypso Heatwave.” Could you tell us about the making of the album?
God, you’ve really done your homework. I was asked to make the album, I was invited, and then I was told I had to write some of the songs, and if I didn’t I couldn’t make the album. So I wrote, I think six of them. I myself haven’t heard that music in 20 years or more. I wrote the songs and sang them and did the whole album in a week. Probably a week, Liberty Records. I haven’t even thought about the album in those many years!
It’s still around.
Yes, I hear. I know you’re going to play some.
Going forward, you have written with the legendary Ms. Roberta Flack and you’ve worked on a number of music projects after your calypso album. You did an album with the great duo Ashford & Simpson, and recently a great writer Mr. Ben Harper, he changed a few of the words around, but he did a song called “I Still Rise,” I was hoping you could tell us about working with Ashford & Simpson on that album.
Oh, they’re brilliant. I love them so. I feel of them as if they are my children. They were visiting. They were down here in North Carolina. I think Nick went down on the ground floor and was playing around in the music room, and I went down and Val went down and we were just talking—talking through music. And then, Val sat down at the piano and Nick and I talked through the music and we sort of hmmm, had a song. And we just continued, really not thinking about doing an album or anything, CD, but continued. And then they came down to visit me in Georgia, in Atlanta and we continued, and before you know it we had music. It’s a good CD, it really is. I’m very proud of it. It’s unfortunate it never really caught on, because it didn’t get the exposure. We did “Oprah,” but the record company didn’t have the records out in the stores. They said they would, but they didn’t. So the people who rushed out to get the CD, they weren’t there and weren’t there for another two weeks. By that time, the fever had gone. There’s a rhythm in the affairs of men, and women and if that rhythm loses a beat, then alas the mind goes on to other things. But, it was grand doing it with Ashford and Simpson.
A great duo.
A great duo—great writers.
I’m always amazed at the power of words, whether in poem or song, and Dr. Angelou you are certainly a person who has harnessed the power of words. Can you point to any one poem in your life that you read, and related to greatly and you found to have that power?
Oh, there’s so many. Paul Laurence Dunbar, who still impresses me, who wrote the majority of his work in the late 1800s and a few things in the 1900s before he died at an early, early age. Mr. Dunbar, writing in Standard English, wrote about the human beings suffering, the laughter, the emotions, just everything. So he impressed me and impresses me still. In fact, his poem called “Sympathy,” from that poem I took the title, he wrote in 1893 or 1894. There’s just three verses. (Reciting):
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!
And from that poem I took the title of my first autobiography, and the title of my sixth and the last on in the series—A Sung Flung Up to Heaven.
Thank you so much for reciting that poem, that was lovely.
Thank you so much for allowing me to say the whole thing.
What is it you like about poetry, whether it’s written, spoken or set to a melody in song?
It tells the human story. It tells about our weeping and our laughing and our cowardice and our courage. That’s what I like about it.
You’ve had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. Who among them sticks out in your mind?
I would risk forgetting somebody or overlooking so is important. No, no. I’ve learned something from a number of people, some who meant me well and some who didn’t. I’m grateful to be alive and grateful to have friends, grateful to have students and a large family of every kind of person. When we have a family reunion, we have black and white and Asians. Our family reunions include Muslims, and Jews and Baptists. Pretty people and plain people. It is my blessing to have met and loved a lot, and still daring to love a lot. I dare not speak of any one person.
What would you, Dr. Maya Angelou like to say to the world?
I wish you peace. I believe in the heart of every human being, no matter how cantankerous he or she is, or how bellicose, and warlike, I believe in the secret heart, there’s a desire for peace. I believe we can be peacemakers. I believe we can even be peace bringers. We don’t have to wait until we arrive at the destination to make peace. I think we can bring it in our hearts and in our hands with us. I wish you peace and laughter and love.