Listening to History in Shirley Graham’s 1932 Opera Tom-Tom
by Lucy Caplan
Ten thousand spectators came on the first night; fifteen thousand more on the second. They filled the stadium on the lakefront, marveling at the multi-tiered stage, the elephant that lumbered across it, and the thirty-foot waterfall towering above. As the sun set, a light rain began to fall. Its rhythmic patter merged imperceptibly with the sounds emanating from a battalion of percussion instruments. Four soloists and a chorus of hundreds appeared. Their voices guided the audience out of the drizzly present – Cleveland, summer, 1932 – and into the sweeping epic of Tom-Tom, the world-premiere opera unfolding onstage.
Composed by 35-year-old Shirley Graham, Tom-Tom was the first opera by a Black woman to be produced by a major company in the United States. Over three acts, it hurtled through time and space, offering a diasporic narrative of African American history that compressed centuries and continents into a work of vast aesthetic proportions. One critic called it a “revolutionary project.” Another deemed it an “opera which marks an epoch in the history of creative music in this country.” A third proclaimed that it was “new opera. Something different from what has preceded it in history.” Yet despite the immense success of its first production, Tom-Tom disappeared from the stage. The opera has not been staged since its 1932 premiere.
The circumstances of Tom-Tom’s creation were exceptional. Graham was invited to write the opera by the Cleveland Stadium Opera Company – an extraordinary occurrence in an era when white musical institutions virtually always ignored Black composers, especially Black women. She had never before written an opera, but she drew from a wealth of relevant experience. From childhood, Graham was unconventional and peripatetic; her biographer, the historian Gerald Horne, describes her as living not one life but multiple “lives.” Her father was an itinerant minister, so the family moved often throughout the United States. In 1921, Graham married a man named Shadrach McCanns, with whom she had two sons. After a contentious divorce, the boys spent much of their childhood in the care of their maternal grandparents. A similar unrootedness pervaded Graham’s professional work. She traveled to Paris multiple times between 1926 and 1931, where she studied music and became enmeshed in a diasporic network of Black artists and intellectuals, including the illustrious Paul Robeson. Between trips to Paris, Graham studied at Howard University and the Institute of Musical Arts, worked as a music librarian, sang with jubilee quartets, gave lectures on Black music history, and eventually enrolled at Oberlin. Later, she taught at a historically Black college in Tennessee, worked for the Federal Theater Project in Chicago, and attended the Yale School of Drama. Beginning in the 1940s, her career centered upon leftist politics and radical activism. She became affiliated with the Communist Party and spent decades living in Ghana, Egypt, and China, advising political leaders and working in support of anti-imperialist and anticolonial movements. In 1951, Graham married W. E. B. Du Bois — a development that, while obviously crucial to her political and personal trajectories, also has tended to overshadow her own myriad accomplishments.
Tom-Tom began its life as a one-act play that Graham wrote in 1929, subtitled the “Spirit of Negro Music” and described as “a drama of the development of Negro music from the first faint beatings of the African tom tom to the most finished products of our trained musicians today.” She enrolled at Oberlin two years later, intending to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in musicology. After the opportunity to write Tom-Tom arose, she took a semester’s leave from Oberlin, rented a room with an upright piano, and worked ceaselessly for three months until Tom-Tom was ready for the stage.
Tom-Tom is subtitled “The Epic of Music and the Negro,” and it is indeed epic in temporal, geographic, dramatic, and musical scope. Each act of the opera depicts a moment of social transformation in African American life, articulated via interpersonal drama among four archetypal characters: the Boy, the Girl, the Mother, and Voodoo Man, who move from premodern West Africa to a cotton plantation in the U.S. South in 1865 to the “Harlem of today” circa 1930. Its musical range is equally expansive. The first act is scored largely for percussion, and it also includes various transcriptions (or approximations) of West African melodies. The second act is suffused with choral arrangements of spirituals, alongside music that references the wide variety of operatic repertoire that Graham knew well. Act three evokes the sounds of Harlem in the 1920s, from taxi horns to cabaret song.
If Tom-Tom’s subject matter and musical style are atypical, so were Graham’s ideas about what it meant to compose an opera. In program notes, Graham wrote: “I have been asked how I happened to write Tom-Tom. That is a difficult question. I cannot think of ‘Tom-Tom’ as either a score of music or as a piece of literature. I cannot think in terms of having written it.…I have been told that the polyphonic effects…are of unusual worth. I believe they would have been easy for any Negro who determined to write down exactly what he ‘heard.’” This reluctance to take authorial credit might be read as gendered modesty, or ambivalence about her newfound celebrity. But it also conveys Graham’s ideas about the very nature of composition. Rejecting the model of individual authorship, she reframed Tom-Tom as fundamentally collective, and reframed composition itself as a practice of description rather than invention. Disavowing that she had “written” either a “piece of literature” or “score of music,” Graham positioned herself as a listener who, like “any Negro,” transcribed “exactly what he ‘heard.’”
Tom-Tom was collective in practice, too. It offered multiple opportunities for what we might now call “community engagement.” The chorus was made up of local amateur singers. The Cleveland Museum of Art mounted a concurrent exhibition of African American art, including artwork by local children. A contest offered “$90 in cash prizes…for the best full set design submitted by a Negro for use in the opera,” including “masks, costumes, tattoo designs, spear heads, [and] shields.” Like other elements of Tom-Tom, these efforts ensured that the opera would not express Graham’s ideas alone, and they spoke to her conviction that opera – especially opera about Black diasporic history – was an essentially collaborative endeavor.
The dazzling success of Tom-Tom’s premiere suggested that the opera would have a long life ahead. Plans were made for future performances: an autumn showing at Madison Square Garden, a tour of Europe the next year. Yet these never came to be. Despite Graham’s repeated attempts to secure the time and funding necessary to revise her work, various other personal and professional demands interfered. As the years went on, the possibility of Tom-Tom returning to the stage grew ever slimmer; the Great Depression only exacerbated these conditions, of course. Moreover, as Graham’s politics moved further leftward and her career moved away from the arts, the likelihood of an opera company taking on this work plummeted: what opera company would stage a work by a Black woman affiliated by the Communist party in the Cold War-era United States?
Tom-Tom’s marginalization has created a sort of ripple effect: other operas not written, other sounds not heard, other ideas not considered. What does it mean, then, to bring Tom-Tom back to the stage and the public imagination, nearly a century after its premiere? How do we acknowledge its long absence without allowing that absence to overshadow the richness of the original work? Paradoxically, the work’s longstanding absence invites a different relationship between Tom-Tom and contemporary audiences. The opera remains new to our ears so many years after its premiere: still unfamiliar and, perhaps, still revolutionary.
All images courtesy of the Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.