LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Well, Abbey, if we’re going to talk about your work as a composer, why don’t we talk a little bit about the Lincoln Center performances back in early March? You did three days of your own compositions.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah. Now I’m trying to remember exactly what I did, but I don’t. I think there was a spirit that just carried me through. I don’t think I sang forty songs—I know I didn’t—but I have written about forty songs since 1970. And I’m glad that, I think that I’m going to be known principally for my repertoire, for my songs.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Why don’t go back to the beginning and tell us a little bit about your childhood and what brought you into the music?
ABBEY LINCOLN: I’m one of 12 children, the 10th child. And my father built the house in which I was born.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: In Chicago?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes. Morgan Park. And he built the house in Calvin Center, Michigan, where I grew up. And my mother was brilliant and beautiful and a great woman, and taught us about our spiritual selves. And everybody in the family got over really. They produced a tool and dye maker, my oldest brother, that’s Alex. [she points to his portrait] And Alex, he really didn’t like it here. I understand it. Bob, the second eldest boy, became a judge and the youngest boy became a V.I.P at a great corporation. It was like that. My sisters brought many, many children. When Mama died, there were 84 children. She was 84 years old and there were 84 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that she had.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: That’s amazing.
ABBEY LINCOLN: There’s probably about 200 of us now. I believe it’s got everything to do with the mixing of the nations, even though it was a drag. But we’re hybrids and we’re healthy and strong people. African, Indian, and English and Irish.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Mixed together.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: How much do you know about your family heritage?
ABBEY LINCOLN: What my mother told us. She was the griot in the family. She was the storyteller and told us who we were, who our grandparents were, who our great-grandparents were. In the book, she left about 38 pages that are going to go before my own story. I asked her to write it. She said, the first part of the first page, she said, “They called me the preacher.”
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: They called her the preacher?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Why?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Because she was a woman who spoke her mind and told everybody the difference between right and wrong. As she understood it. And she didn’t tell us, she and my father, they didn’t have to tell you but one time!
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: [laughs] You listened.
ABBEY LINCOLN: All of us did. We grew up with discipline and principle. And if you don’t have that in this world, you’re lost. You can’t just do anything.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What does it take for a child to listen to a parent? What kind of qualities does that parent need to have?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Dignity.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Dignity.
ABBEY LINCOLN: That’s all. Yeah. Dignity and honesty, which goes with dignity. My mother didn’t lie about anything. I never heard her drag anybody. The only person she was mad at was my father! [laughs]
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: [laughs] Well, give me an example of you doing something wrong…
ABBEY LINCOLN: I didn’t do anything wrong.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: You never did anything wrong?
ABBEY LINCOLN: No. There was a piano in the house that my father brought for us.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: In Kalamazoo?
ABBEY LINCOLN: No, in Michigan, on the farm. When I was five years old, I went to the piano because I could, because Mama and Dad let me do it. If I had gotten on my mother’s nerves or my father’s nerves, my brothers and sisters would not have left me alone at the piano, but they all did. And I learned how to play a song I could sing. I remembered the intervals. I didn’t know they were called intervals then. The spaces between notes. And I taught myself how to play a song. And I went to school and I sang in school when I was like 6. [sings] “Away in a manger no crib for his bed.”
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What denomination were you growing up?
ABBEY LINCOLN: The church that Mama took us to was African Methodist Episcopal and they didn’t talk about Jesus. Mama never told us about Jesus. My father would have been drugged anyway, all he was going through. If she had this picture of him on a wall, this white man on the wall, and called him God, he would have nutted out. So we didn’t go through that. But we were taught principle. We didn’t, Mama and Dad didn’t talk about anybody who wasn’t a part of the family. We didn’t know that the Europeans were supposed to be our enemies then, even though we knew that we had been slaves. But they didn’t complain about the white folks. I found that after I left home. What can I say? I’m really fortunate.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: I think so.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah.