Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Betty Allen

She performed in opera performances as a mezzo-soprano on stages around the world to standing ovations. She was part of the first generation of Black opera singers, along with Marian Anderson to achieve wide success, breaking down racial barriers with her voice. She collaborated with the foremost American composers of her generation: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, and Virgil Thomson, among others. And it all began in the Mahoning Valley on the streets of Campbell.

She was born on March 17, 1927 to James and Dora Catherine Mitchell Allen. Her father, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, had trained to be a math teacher but because of prejudice, could not find work. He came north and found work at Sheet & Tube. Her mother added to the family income by taking in laundry. She grew up in a Greek and Sicilian neighborhood and it was her she had her first exposure to opera. In 1999, she told The New York Times, “On Saturday, walking down the street, you could hear the Met broadcasts coming from the windows of everybody’s house. No one told them that opera and the arts were not for them, not for poor people, just for rich snobs.”

All seemed to be going well until her mother died of lung cancer when she was twelve. The loss resulted in her father sinking into depression, drinking heavily. Betty tried to keep up the house while becoming spelling bee champion at Gordon Ave. School for two years. One day, fed up with it all, she went to Judge Ford Agey and asked to have a real home like other children. The best that could be done at the time was a series of foster homes, some abusive.

At age 16, she moved into the YWCA, supporting herself by cleaning houses while finishing high school at The Rayen School in the top half of her class, excelling in Latin and German. A teacher, Dorothy Seeger, befriended her and helped her get a scholarship to attend Wilberforce College. One of her classmates was Leontyne Price. Her German teacher, Theodor Heimann, a former opera tenor, encouraged her to sing. She went from there on scholarship to Hartford School of Music in Connecticut.

In 1950, while studying at Tanglewood, she came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein who chose her to be the mezzo-soprano soloist in his Symphony No. 1, the “Jeremiah” Symphony. She debuted in her first opera the following year, Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. In 1952, she won the Marian Anderson Award, a singing competition in Philadelphia. A series of opera roles followed throughout the 1950’s: Tin Pan Alley, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, Queenie in Showboat with the New York City Opera among others. She made her recital hall debut in 1958 at Town Hall in New York City, performing a program that included Brahms and Faure.

She appeared with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. She performed on opera stages in New York, Boston, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Washington, Canada, Buenos Aires and Mexico City as well as concert performances in France, Italy, and North Africa. Two of her standout performances were as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Santa Fe Opera in 1964 and as Monisha in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha with the Houston Grand Opera in 1975.

By the 1980’s she stopped singing, except for a handful of concerts, because of lung problems, which she attributed to growing up near the mills in Campbell. She devoted herself to vocal instruction as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts, as well as serving on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and adjudicated many vocal competitions. She died on June 22, 2009 in Valhalla, New York of complications of kidney disease at age 82.

Learning about Betty Allen’s story, I’m struck by both her personal drive, reflected in going to a Youngstown judge seeking a better home, supporting herself from age 16, and the influences of others from those Campbell neighbors who thought opera was for everyone to a high school teacher at The Rayen School who became a friend and mentor to a college professor who persuaded Betty to sing. Obviously, she used all her opportunities to hone her talents while benefiting from a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform works of Leonard Bernstein. Hers is yet another amazing Mahoning Valley story.

To give you an idea of the beauty and richness of her voice, I found this recording of her singing several classic spirituals.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: A Little Devil in America

A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib. New York: Random House, 2021.

Summary: A celebration of Black performance and its significance for Blacks in America.

Just over a year ago, I read a couple of Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays in an anthology of Columbus writers. Little did I realize how much I would encounter this Columbus writer’s name in the next year, culminating in his recent award of a MacArthur Fellowship (a five year, $625,000 grant) and this week’s award of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction by the American Library Association for A Little Devil in America. He was born and grew up in the same city we moved to thirty-one years ago. If nothing else, it’s exciting to see an Ohio author from Columbus do so well!

This is an extraordinary book. It’s major subject is a survey of black performance in many genres from dance to magic to music. The title is drawn from a statement by Josephine Baker, who by 1963 had danced across the stages of the world. Speaking at the March on Washington, she proclaimed, “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too. The statement speaks of the passionate, celebratory, and resistant character of Black performance.

Abdurraqib takes us through this history with chapters reflected well-researched descriptions of performers from the dance marathons of the ’20’s and the 30’s through to Don Cornelius’s Soul Train and how in Black neighborhoods across the land, young men and women danced, desired and sometimes found and sometimes lost love. In later chapters, he projects that forward to the clubs and masses of bodies moving together to the music.

Then there is Aretha. He looks back from her funeral to the film Amazing Grace and the short distance “between soul music and music of the soul.” One of the most riveting stories is that of Merry Clayton, who recorded the background vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, even while very pregnant. The intensity in which she sings the words “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is something I never heard before reading Abdurraqib. I had to go back and listen to music I knew from my teens. I had never paid attention to what an extraordinary singer she was. Abdurraqib chronicles her efforts to move from the background to a solo career that never took off. But he also draws us into that moment, the third time she repeats the word “murder” in a “voice cracking howl”–no longer just fear, but anger, and even glee.

He takes us through the rivalry between Joe Tex and James Brown, the inability of Whitney Houston to dance and how Beyonce, a supporting act to Coldplay steals the show and owns the Super Bowl and makes a powerful Black power statement remembering the Black Panthers. Then there is the incomparable Michael Jackson, and Abdurraqib’s own miserable attempt to “moonwalk.”

He moves between the famous and the marginalized. We learn of Ellen Armstrong, a black female magician, and William Henry Lane, who out-danced the white performer John Diamond. Lane, under the stage name, Master Juba, wore blackface, perhaps a subtle or not so subtle criticism. He reflects on the actor Don Shirley, and the movie he wishes could be made where no Black suffers, where they simply live. He remembers fellow Columbus native Buster Douglas’s stunning defeat of Mike Tyson twenty-eight days after his mother’s death–and how he could see the change in the eyes of a man who no longer feared.

Abdurraqib dedicates the book to Josephine Baker and the book’s central chapter focuses on her extraordinary dancing career–the vaudeville performer who flees to France, first entertaining Black servicemen in World War I and then making it her performing home, and using her talent and celebrity to act as a spy in World War II. Abdurraqib reflects on his own departure and return to Columbus as he traces Baker’s return to the U. S. Each section begins with “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” most of which reflect Abdurraqib’s poetry slam experience, having the feel of spoken word performance.

He moves seamlessly between profiles of performers and his varied life experiences. He reveals the kind of Black performance that goes on every day, whether in a game of spades or “beef” and the thin line that often runs between love and hate, closeness and violence, and the possibility that it could all end, as it had with so many friends. The book captures the range of emotion from exuberant joy to rage, from soulful hope to the gritty resistance that runs through both Black performance and Black life in America. There is the apprehension of the sweetness of life and love, made all the more so because it can be snuffed out in a moment and that “no job can stop a bullet.”