What’s in a Name? The Evolution of Joan Peebles

This week’s blog comes to us from Kendra Lennie. Kendra is a Vancouverite and cannot remember a time when she was not fascinated with the past, from obsessing about medieval Britain to prehistoric fossils and dinosaurs. Kendra was exposed to Scottish culture at a young age through her grandparents who emigrated from Scotland to Vancouver in the 50s. She is currently finishing a bachelors of science (in evolutionary biology and ecology) with a minor in history at Simon Fraser University.
This blog was the result of research undertaken for History 448 ‘Scots in North America’.

Angusta Peebles Jr. was a woman of many names. Born to Scottish immigrants, Angusta and Peter Peebles on January 8, 1899 in New Westminster, she was known to her close friends as ‘Brownie’. She graduated from the provincial normal school in Vancouver BC, and at the age of 15 was offered her first scholarship when her vocal ability was recognized at a church carol service. Recognition of her talent did not end there. In 1923 she won the Hudson’s Bay Company’s gold medal at the first British Columbia Music Festival, and from there her career took off.  Throughout her life Brownie made many decisions that not only appeared for the benefit of her career but also expose her as a modern woman. She never appeared to let fame go to her head, and always maintained a connection with her local community and Scottish heritage.

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“Brownie Peebles as a young woman,” item IHP14335-013.

Once it became apparent that Brownie was destined for success she decided to take a stage name. The story goes that her stage name Joan was inspired by the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, a highly intelligent and independent woman. Brownie spent time studying in Chicago as recipient of the Florence Hinkle Voice Scholarship. During her schooling in Chicago she maintained a constant correspondence with her father, receiving letters from him almost daily throughout the summer of 1923.  After Chicago she was awarded another Scholarship, this time from the Eastman school of Music in New York.  While at Eastman she met a young vocalist from Pennsylvania named Norman Oberg. The two married, but this in no way impeded Brownie’s career. She graduated from the Eastman School of music in 1927, a mezzo-contralto capable of operatic performances as well as singing independently in concert.

 

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Carmen costume with New York Metropolitan Opera “Double Portrait of Brownie Peebles,” item IHP14335-022.

Between 1927 and 1929 Brownie performed throughout Canada and the United States, both operatically and in smaller concerts. On July 16, 1929 the first concert was held in Norton Hall in Chautauqua, New York, and Brownie was there. She continued to sing at Norton Hall for 15 seasons. Throughout her career she worked with symphony orchestras and opera companies in New Westminster, Boston, New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Brownie maintained the connection to her Scottish heritage in her song choices for her independent concerts, many of which included Scottish and Hebridean folk music. She also participated for three seasons in the Banff and Lake Louise Scottish Music festivals. She was renowned for her portrayal of the lead role in Carmen, and Brownie was reputedly the first woman to play her as a clever intellectual woman rather than a feeble-minded gypsy girl. Before retiring Brownie made recordings for the Radio Corporation of America of the music in Carmen, but in no way did this signify the end of her involvement in the musical community.

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“Brownie Peebles carrying a basket,” item IHP14335-009

At the outbreak of the second world war Norman Oberg was called back to work in a factory in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 Brownie retired from opera and joined him. Norman rose to be a manager for the steel corporation he worked for, and he and Brownie remained in Pennsylvania until his death. Not content to be idle in her retirement, Brownie taught piano and vocal lessons in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. As well as teaching young people with talent, Brownie recognized the benefits of speech therapy and helped children and youth with speech impediments such as muscular dystrophy. While in Pennsylvania she maintained correspondence with her sister Jane Murie, who, upon her death, left the vast majority of her wealth and estate to Brownie. Many of the letters mention how dear a sister Brownie was and how entertaining Jane Murie found her letters. Brownie appeared to be a kind and witty individual who helped people find their voices both figuratively and literally.

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“Brownie Peebles dressed as a fairy,” item IHP14335-036.

During her life Brownie came into contact with some of the most distinguished individuals of the time both in music and in general. One newspaper article recounts a story of Miss Peebles singing for her friend Mrs Thomas Edison at her bird, tree, and garden club. Brownie’s humor comes through as she adds details about another visit to the Edison household involving her sitting on the arm of the chair while singing directly into the ears of “the great Edison” himself due to his deafness.

Not only was Brownie a local opera star, she gained fame and reputation throughout Canada and the United States for her singing and acting abilities. She was a woman who knew that women as a group were not feeble, and many who were viewed as feeble simply needed to learn to use their voice. In 1974 Joan (Angusta) “Brownie” Peebles moved back to her hometown of New Westminster. She Died at Royal Columbian Hospital in 1991 at the age of 92.

Kendra Lennie

Sources:

New Westminster Archives, Peebles family Fonds, IH 2007.151 C.2, “personal papers.”

All images New Westminster Archives, Peebles Family Fonds.

 

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