Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was first in a lineage of African American women vocalists to earn national and international acclaim. Born into slavery in Mississippi, she grew up in Philadelphia and launched her first North American concert tour from upstate New York in 1851. Hailed as the “Black Swan” by newspapermen involved in her debut, the soubriquet prefigured a complicated reception of her musical performances. As an African American musician with slavery in her past, she sang what many Americans understood to be “white” music (opera arias, sentimental parlor song, ballads of British Isles, and hymns) from the stages graced by touring European prima donnas on other nights, with ability to sing in a low vocal range that some heard as more typical of men than women. As reviewers and audiences combined fragments of her biography with first-hand experiences of her concerts, they struggled to make the “Black Swan” sobriquet meaningful and the transgressions she represented understandable. Greenfield's musical performances, along with audience expectations and the processes of patronage, management, and newspaper discourse complicated perceived cultural boundaries of race, gender, and class. The implications of E. T. Greenfield's story for antebellum cultural politics and for later generations of singers are profound.
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