When Michael Toby performed “Hear Freedom’s Ring” at a school earlier this month, he was approached by an eighth grade student confused about some of the details of American slavery.
“The student asked me, ‘Why did the blacks come over? Didn’t they know they might be mistreated?’” remembers Toby. “The poor principal almost died.
“One of the reasons I go in schools is that a lot of kids aren’t aware,” he continues. “I pointed out to him, ‘Well, they were kidnapped – they didn’t come over by choice.’ And he was in Grade 8.”
Toby will bring his showcase of songs from the Underground Railroad to Floradale Mennonite Church next weekend in a belated Black History Month performance. But he stresses that the Underground Railway – a network of abolitionists and humanists who helped transport black southern slaves to freedom in Canada – is about more than those who travelled the road to freedom.
“It’s not just black history – it’s Canadian history,” he notes. “It’s something that as Canadians we can be glad about. Yes, there’s still racism here, there’s prejudice, but we were doing something good while our neighbours to the south were putting in these oppressive, terrible laws.
“What frustrates me is: if our neighbours to the south had done it, you’d bet everyone would know about it. But we don’t really talk about it, and a lot of people don’t know. … It was probably North America’s first civil rights movement.”
Toby’s career took an unusual path. Born in Toronto and raised in Trinidad, he enrolled at McGill to study to become a doctor, even though his heart was in music. A chance meeting with Barry Manilow made him switch gears. “He said if I’d really rather be in music I should do it, because he was in advertising for a while and he waited, and he always regretted it. So I started taking voice lessons.”
A few years later, he joined the music department at McGill, becoming an opera tenor and graduating with a master’s degree. After that, he switched gears again and went to Bible College, and now alternates performing with preaching at a church in rural Ontario.
He began performing the music of the Underground Railroad in 2010, after singing at a church with connections to the historic movement. “It had been established by people who had come up through the Underground Railroad. I was thinking, ‘I wonder how many people actually know this?’”
Researching songs like ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Go Down Moses,’ he came across the writing of Frederick Douglass, the black statesman and ex-slave who wrote extensively about the slaves’ music. “He talked about how they would be singing one thing and communicating another,” said Toby.
“Slaves couldn’t read or write, and it was just as well, in a sense, because none of this [music] would have been written down to be seen by the wrong people. It stayed within the community.”
Toby performs the show across southwestern Ontario, alternating music with history and documentary video. “When I did a concert last year in Kitchener, I did it at a senior’s home, and there was a gentleman saying, ‘Why don’t I know this? Why don’t I know who Harriet Tubman is?’ I said, ‘I don’t know – this should be better known.’”
He also regularly visits schools, with a specially arranged version for children.
“I’ve done a version of this for Grade 2,” he says, “and there was this one little student who came up to me, and I could tell he wanted to say something but he couldn’t. So he just hugged my knees and went away.
“He did manage to express himself,” Toby adds. “I got the message.”
Michael Toby will perform “Hear Freedom’s Ring” on March 2, 4 p.m. at Floradale Mennonite Church (22 Florapine Rd.). Tickets are $20.