Recordings

From the Diary of Sally Hemings

From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Available at White Pine Music

Alyson Cambridge, soprano & Lydia Brown, piano


There is, of course, no such thing as a real Sally Hemings diary, at least none that anyone has found; were there a real diary, Hemings would have had ample reason to destroy it herself to protect her children’s lives. The present “unofficial” diary—to use Sandra Seaton’s term—exists because I asked her to write one.

When Florence Quivar asked me for a cycle on Sally Hemings I was on the point of refusing; it is such a “now” sort of topic, I feared, and I had not seen any attempts to portray her that I’d liked—it is too attractive a subject for the wrong reasons. Then I thought of Sandra, who’d become a friend because of our common interest in the black Broadway musical of 1921, Shuffle Along, by Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Aubrey Lyles, and Flournoy Miller; she is a descendant of Miller and sought me out. The dedication of the cycle, in memory of Flournoy Miller, is in gratitude for his posthumously bringing Sandra’s work to my attention.

Seaton’s own plays deal penetratingly with the world of the African American middle class in a refreshingly nonstereotypical way, and I felt she would understand Sally better than anyone else I knew. When she sent me the first draft I saw she had found a Sally Hemings I could believe emotionally.

Sally’s world was by necessity an indoor, protected, rather quiet one, and the spareness of Sandra’s language for Sally, just what I’d hoped for, is answered by a stylistic sobriety in my own music. I opted for a harmonically plain language with a somewhat French atmosphere (evoking Hemings’s Paris sojourn), with African American melodic references well to the background. I did not want to fall into the expected cliché in so much work I’d seen on Sally; she was not a cardboard icon, standing for a group. In every way she was unique, an individual; otherwise how could she have fascinated someone like Jefferson for thirty-eight years. - William Bolcom


Reviews

  • “...a thoughtful conceived, engaging characterization.”

    - Opera News

 

Track Listing

01.
They say I was born old
 
02.
Martha and Maria
 
03.
White waves
 
04.
Paris, c'est la ville vivante
 
05.
The master brings music to his sitting room
 
06.
I was carrying a tray when he called me
 
07.
They say I was born old...The rage, the anger
 
08.
Come back to America
 
09.
Back home at Monticello
 
10.
Purple Hyacinth begins to bloom
 
11.
My sister ghost
 
12.
Peonies, a perfume box
 
13.
Mister, our child is frail
 
14.
A dark winter blue-black evening
 
15.
Old shoe!
 
16.
A wild man home from the woods
 
17.
Papers! I've never seen so many
 
18.
Night watch till early morn