Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

25 October 2016

Black History Month – Cullen Maiden

Gray Chapel

Cullen Maiden in performance at Gray Chapel, Ohio Wesleyan University

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

In March 2015 I acquired for the British Library the archive of singer Cullen Maiden from his widow Christine Hall-Maiden.  In 1964 she was working in Italy as secretary to screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of TV series Z-Cars and scriptwriter of The Italian Job (1969), when she met Cullen who at the time was studying with Luigi Ricci of the Rome Opera House.

Born in 1932, Cullen Maiden was an African-American who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but at the time of his graduation he was already following many pursuits – singing in various choirs, forming his own R ‘n’ B group The Caspians, and, as well as acting on the stage, he was also trained as a boxer by Tiger Fann.  Maiden studied singing at Ohio Wesleyan University from where he received his Bachelor of Music degree and continued his studies at Juilliard School of Music in New York.  The Rockefeller Foundation Opera Voice Scholarship afforded him the opportunity to study in Munich.

In the early 1950s, while still studying at the Ohio Wesleyan University, Maiden won the vocal section of the Cleveland Music and Dance Festival.  He was invited to appear on local radio where he performed his winning selection Il Lacerato Spirito from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Simon Boccanegra

Like many artistically talented African-Americans, Maiden found he could get far more work in Europe than the United States so, in the late 1960s, he joined the Komische Oper Berlin where he gained a favourable reputation for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also worked in Scandinavia and finally settled in London.


Cullen Maiden as Porgy in Porgy and Bess

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

During his military service he made goodwill concert tours for the American Embassy and the Army in Korea during 1957 and 1958 and sang opera concerts with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra.

Highlights of his career include a tour with the Katherine Dunnan Dance Company as a singer soloist and a tour of the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers.  Cullen appeared with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur and in many of the opera houses of Germany.

Here is an extract from a 1973 concert performance of I got plenty of nothing from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

I got plenty of nothing

Cullen Maiden was also a composer, writer and poet.  He provided the score for the 1970 German documentary Strange Fruit.  In New York at the Seven Arts Art Gallery he performed with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and in April 1966 appeared on a BBC radio poetry programme with Seamus Heaney.  In 2008 Maiden published Soul on Fire,  a collection of his poems and writings.

24 October 2016

Recording of the Week: Temporary Home

This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

This recording of Tristan de Cunha islander Mary Swain was made by Peter Kennedy and Maud Karpeles in Calshot, Hampshire, in August 1962. Tristan de Cunha islanders were evacuated from their homes after the 1961 eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak took place and temporarily housed in an old Royal Air Force camp outside of Hampshire, in the United Kingdom. Most families returned to Tristan de Cunha in 1963.

One of the singers of great repute was Frances Repetto; and her daughter, Mrs. (Mary) Fred Swain, still remembers several of her mother's songs. She was our chief informant. Mary (age 67) is a delightful person: warm-hearted, gay, overflowing with vitality and a wonderful talker. She sang several songs, which together with others were recorded later by Peter Kennedy. He also recorded much of her conversation, telling about life on the island where they are 'just one big family' - actually about 260 souls.

This quote describing Mary Swain, who we can hear in the recording, was taken from a report published in the English Folk Dance and Song Society's Journal by Maud Karpeles. In the report, she explains her and Kennedy's experience making the recordings and why they felt it was important to document the folk songs and dances of the islanders whilst they were temporarily housed in the United Kingdom.

            Mary Swain, Calshot, Hampshire 1962 (Tristan de Cunha islanders). Tape 1


Treasures of the Black Country

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

We were delighted recently to welcome acclaimed novelist, scriptwriter and actor, Meera Syal, to the Library to explore the accents and dialects of the Black Country for a forthcoming episode of Treasures of the British Library (Sky Arts, 21.00 Tuesdays). Born in Wolverhampton, Meera grew up in Essington, a small mining village in Staffordshire and went to school in nearby Walsall, my mom’s home town (hence she’s my mom, not my mum, mam or ma). So it was a particular pleasure to introduce Meera to the Library’s unique sound recordings that capture the distinctive voices of the area.

Meera Syal

Like me, Meera has moved away from the West Midlands, but we’ve all probably experienced the way in which language or a familiar accent immediately re-connects us with a favourite place or childhood home. The Library holds several collections that capture regional speech across the UK and across time as demonstrated by a remarkable recording of a World War One soldier born in Wolverhampton and recorded in a German Prisoner of War camp in 1916, an interview with a farm worker recorded as part of the acclaimed Survey of English Dialects in Lapley in 1955 and a conversation with Black Country poets and dialect enthusiasts recorded in Dudley in 2005.

Perhaps best known for her comedy, Meera rose to fame as co‐writer and star of Goodness Gracious Me, a series credited with popularising the British Asian word chuddies [= ‘underpants’] as confirmed by the dictionary entry below:


Dalzell & T. Victor (eds.) 2015. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

so she was, I hope, reassured to discover the Library’s sound archives document the emergence of new voices and fresh influences on British English as demonstrated by this explanation that locals have adopted a Punjabi word, thandā [= ‘cold’], albeit wonderfully anglicised to a Black Country pronunciation, and by a conversation recorded by BBC Asian Network in Birmingham in 2005. Alongside this story of evolution and change, the Library has numerous recordings that capture the endurance of established dialects as confirmed by a recording of Mr Tickle (© Roger Hargreaves) submitted by a visitor to the Library's Evolving English exhibition in 2010, in which you can clearly hear a real sense of pride in the local accent.

Evolving English VoiceBank [C1442X1477] Mr Tickle in a Dudley accent