Despite the marginalization and exclusion she faced as a Black immigrant, Fields forged her own path of creative expression, material success, and local belonging.
A Singer Gets Her Start
In the summer of 1894, at the age of fifteen, Arabella Middleton sang in Berlin for the first time. A month before, she had left her hometown of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA) with an African American variety troupe. The group continued touring Europe, and Arabella married her fellow singer, James C. Fields, with whom she then toured as a duo.
The Transformation Artist
With her enormous vocal range and knowledge of five languages, Fields expanded her repertoire from US-American popular music to include arias, German Lieder, and Alpine folk songs complete with yodeling. She provided her own accompaniment, on banjo or guitar. Between numbers Fields switched costumes, ranging from evening gowns to traditional Trachten, making the quick changes part of the entertainment.
Perpetual Movement, Perpetual Reinvention
The ever more successful Fields hired Engelhardt Winter as her manager, and the two soon married, though Fields kept the name under which she had become famous. Now a German citizen, she remained in the country after the outbreak of the First World War. Still, in 1915 the couple decided to move to the neutral Netherlands, where they stayed until 1920. Not long after returning to economically devastated Germany, Fields began another international tour, which would keep her on the road for three years.
By 1925, Germany was able to attract international stars again, and Fields returned to Berlin to join one of the first new all-Black Revues under the leadership of jazz musician Sam Wooding. She stayed for Louis Douglas’ “Black People” (1926) and “Louisiana” (1929), revues that brought together three generations of Black talent in Europe. Fields was still on tour with the latter in 1931 when director Rex Ingram tracked her down for a role in his movie “Baroud.” Her debut as a film actress would be the last major performance of a career that spanned four decades. After filming in Morocco, Fields moved to Hamburg and stepped back from the public eye. We don’t know how she spent the rest of her life.