The Gospel Truth

The men and women who stepped in chains from the slave ships were musical people who were used to expressing intense emotions, beliefs, and ideas into song. Sold into hard work, poverty and oppression in America, they turned to songs for solace, singing of hardship and with passion, a tradition that had been long familiar to their race.

Their songs summarized their beliefs of salvation, expressing in broken words the genuine spiritual realities of a world unseen, the world of Christian virtues: forgiveness, hope, faith, love, endurance, eternal life, holiness. Although, how deeply the religious spirit permeated these songs is not always forthcoming. The same is to be said about a feeling of triumph heard through the songs.

The lyrics from the song “I couldn’t hear nobody pray” are a good example of the text turning from mourning trials to an ultimate triumph.

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Figure 1.


Hear “I couldn’t hear nobody pray”:

In spite of trials, the underlying moral and strength can be seen. King speaks of the emotion that the text in spirituals conveys saying that “however mournful and depressing the opening lines are, there is almost always a note of triumph before the song is done.”

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Figure 2.

Spirituals became a solvent for a race’s healing from bitterness and pain, but also fed them with joy and determination.



Figure 1, 2: King, W. J. (1931, 05). The negro spirituals and the hebrew psalms. The Methodist Review (1885-1931), 47, 318. Retrieved from


Analysis and Anthology of Black Folk Music in the 1800s

During the 1800s when it was booming in popularity within white America, black folk music was transcribed by white people interested in monetizing the replication of the music. Many anthologies chronicling black folk music were produced, transcribed by white people of educated, important stature in society, along with critiques and analyses on the subject. One of these anthologies is Reverend William Eleazar Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns: A collection of hitherto unpublished melodies of the slave and freedman, with historical and descriptive notes.

Within its cover, Barton gives an account of his “quest for quaint hymns” and the conversations he has with people along the way fo fulfill this quest.


Figure 1

His anthology contains descriptions and observations of the performance practice of black folk music characteristic to the overt white mentality of superiority of the time.


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4






The issue with white Americans transcribing black folk music is that they would often transcribe one verse of a song in standard notation and then include the next verses below. This would allow for those wanting to sing the music to do so, but often fill in all of the rhythms incorrectly or without the same feeling from verse to verse.



Figure 5

Another person who was very invested in the reproduction and performance of black folk music was Reverend George H. Griffin. In his article, The Slave Music of the South, Griffin pursues his passion for black folk music in a different way, ignoring extensive analysis of the music before arguing that it is a “very rich mine to explore.”





Fig. 1, 2, 3. BARTON, William Eleazar. “Hymns of the slave and the freedman.” New England Magazine 19, (January 1899): 609-624. Readers’ Guide Retrospective: 1890-1982 (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 19, 2015).

Fig. 4, 5. Griffin, George H. 1885. THE SLAVE MUSIC OF THE SOUTH. The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897). 02, (accessed February 20, 2015).

Aretha Franklin is Sexy

Aretha Franklin is iconic.  Known for her unbelievable talent as an American soul singer and songwriter from a young age, she is one of the few artists known by most generations of today’s Americans.  Whether you grew up listening to Aretha as she poured out her soulful records, or just now get to appreciate her recent performances or recordings with Tony Bennett, you’ve most likely heard about or listened to this amazing performer.  Her prowess as a performer catapulted her center stage, making her a symbol for the women’s and African-American movement through songs such as “Respect” among others.

However, she was not always respected as her famous song demanded, and this clipping from the New York Times in 1968 shows a more accurate real-time reaction to this rising star.


aretha franklin article


Albert Goldman, authoring this article, was no stranger to music critique and analysis. Writing epic-length books and articles about legends like Elvis and John Lennon, he commonly inspired outrage from his subject’s fans for his vulgar portrayal which saw no bounds.  It seems that this article somewhat slipped under the radar, though, because the underlying themes he discussed were and are nothing new to American society.  Trying to pinpoint what exactly provided the “it” factor for Aretha, what set her apart from the rest of the performers, we can already see his conclusion by looking at the title of the article.  He credits her success to “the gift of being a ‘natural woman.'” He explains this as an embodiment of the full range of female emotion.  Praising her ebullience and lack of self-consciousness as she sings each phrase effortlessly, he touches on the authenticity of her performance.  Using her performance of Mick Jagger’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” as an example of what he thinks is her greatest recording to date, he dives in on the sexualization of Aretha Franklin.

He calls the song “A jubilee: a finger-popping, hip-swinging Mardi Gras strut that is the greatest proclamation of sexual fulfillment since Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy.  You can watch her performance and decide for yourself whether this is an accurate description.

Goldman compares her performance to that of the original Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, calling their take a “wry, deadpan camp, a whispered confession that impressed many listeners as a titillating put-on.” The sexuality is taken down a few notches here, and I’m uncertain his review is accurate.  After all, I wouldn’t describe their 1969 performance as a “deadpan camp.”

So why is this all important?  The answer lies in the fact that this was not a one-time occurrence.  It’s nothing new, it has happened before, and still happens today in our pop culture.  The black female body has been extremely sexualized, tracing back to Europeans’ first contact with African music dance.  Dr. Thompson of St. Louis University wrote an article and dissertation on this topic, documenting the sexualization through music from the 1600’s to present day pop culture.  She claimed that the European “writers transformed African dance performances into pornographic scenes for consumption and sexual enticement for a mainly white male audience.”  This created a precedent for society’s view on African and African-American musical performers, stretching from traditional African dance to the new single by Beyoncé.  The concept is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it right.


Transitioning from Lining Out to Shape-Note

I found an interesting short article on the history of Psalmody in New England.  As with anything “new,” the transition was not smooth or broadly accepted.  Interestingly, there was no mention of race in this article, but more focused what the Scriptures say, gender, and points of view from ministers.

The Puritans had reservations with singing the Psalms of David with a “lively voice.”  They were more interested in continuing the tradition of monotone.  Other questions that the Puritans discussed were whether women should be allowed to sing with men, whether the unconverted (pagans) should be allowed to sing with church members, whether we should sing music in meter created by man, and whether it is proper to sing new music.

When Andrew Law first “introduced part song”, congregations took issue with women singing the melody, mostly in a soprano part.  Some men would insist on singing the soprano part and making the women sing the tenor part.  The author’s authority then references Scripture, saying that it is considered a sin to allow females to lead the singing. Puritan ministers compiled a “Bay Psalm Book” in 1640, which consisted of metered psalms but no music.

Music had gone by the wayside in the 18th century.  Reverend Mr. Walter, of Roxbury, Massachusetts said that congregations would know maybe four of five tunes which “had become so mutilated, tortured and twisted that Psalm singing had become a mere disorderly noise, left to the mercy of every unskillful throat to chop, alter, twist and change according to their odd fancy, sounding like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time…” This became the new norm for many churches.  Rev. Walter later said “melody sung in time and tune was [considered] offensive.”  The church preferred the old “melodious” way, as oppose to the new way, thought of as an unknown tongue.

The church much preferred the old way of lining out.  Congregations felt as if they were restricted if they were given notes and a melody to sing.  An anonymous writer in 1723 wrote: “Truly, I have great jealously that if we once begin to sing by note, the next thing will be to pray by rule and preach by rule, and then comes Popery!”



“EARLY CHURCH MUSIC IN NEW ENGLAND.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897) 14, no. 11 (11, 1885): 286.

“Room Enough” [unless you’re black]: The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Hypocrisy

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.34.59 PMOh, brothers, don’t stay away, . . .
For my Lord says there’s room enough,
Room enough in the Heav’ns for you,
My Lord says there’s room enough,
Don’t stay away.”

Oh, the irony. As the widely acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers preached this message of welcome to thousands of concertgoers, yes, they themselves were met with respect and praise by audiences, but all too often they were also greeted with closed doors.

In 1872, only a year after the ensemble began touring the United States and only a few days after receiving “continuous ovation” as guests of the governor of Connecticut, they were turned out of a tavernkeeper’s hostelry. When the Jubilee Singers booked the rooms, he assumed they were a company of blackface minstrels. Upon discovering they were the real deal, not a group of white people engaged in cruel mimicry, he could no longer stomach hosting them. A scathing account of this incident appearing in the March 14, 1872, edition of New York’s The Independent mocks the “publican” tavernkeeper for showing more respect to the “burnt cork of the harlequin,” the blackface of minstrelsy, than the “pigment . . . of [the Creator’s] own hands”:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 5.24.05 AMA similar incident, layered in even greater irony, occurred in Jersey City later that same year. Mr. Warner, the proprietor of the American House, a place most would assume to be welcoming to Americans of all colors, had a misspelled cable sent to the Jubilee Singers’ sponsor, the Amercian [sic] Missionary Association, saying:

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After insulting the intellect of Mr. Warner and his clerk, The Independent writer rightly wrote, ” Somebody ought to teach this patriot to spell “American” a little less violently.”

In 1880, they were refused at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, IL. The Springfield audience greeted this news with hisses and cries of “shame!”

Perhaps the greatest example of a mixed welcome occurred two years later during their visit to Washington, D.C. After they were turned out of numerous hotels in the nation’s capital, they wandered the city until midnight, when they managed to find lodging in private homes. A few days later, they were at the White House at the invitation of President Chester A. Arthur. The Singers brought the president to tears with a performance of “Steal Away to Jesus” and the Lord’s Prayer. “I have never in my life been so much moved,” said the president.

Honestly, I am disgusted with such behavior. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, I would hope that African Americans would be treated with more respect and dignity. Instead I see a distinct laziness shown by the public. Before the war, slaves would entertain Southerners at the plantation house, performing for no money and being told where they could and couldn’t stay. After the war, freedmen would entertain Northerners at concert halls, performing for money and being told where they could and couldn’t stay.

As a culture, we seem to deal best with small changes: from plantation houses to concert halls, from no money to admission prices. We say all we want, using overblown platitudes to demonstrate our support for a cause, but we do as little as we can, avoiding actions that put any kind of strain on our time, budgets, or attitudes, even if a small change on our part could change someone else’s life. Look to the examples of the people of Springfield, President Arthur, and the writers, and go even farther: back up your words with actions. Otherwise, you’re only a hypocrite.


“THE JUBILEE SINGERS.” The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921) 24, no. 1215 (Mar 14, 1872): 4.

“THE JUBILEE SINGERS AND THE WASHINGTON LANDLORDS.” New York Evangelist (1830-1902) 53, no. 12 (Mar 23, 1882): 2.

“THE JUBILEE SINGERS AT THE HOME AND TOMB OF LINCOLN.” Christian Union (1870-1893) 22, no. 8 (Aug 25, 1880): 156.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876. Accessed February 23, 2015.

“President Arthur and the Jubilee Singers.” Church’s Musical Visitor (1871-1883) 11, no. 6 (03, 1882): 162.

“Juba This, Juba That:” the history and appropriation of patting juba

I took an interest in “patting juba,” a form of music-making created by African Americans in the 19th century, because of the patterns, the musicality, and the songs that accompanied it. There is little information on the specific type of dance, however, and the first primary source I encountered was a racist “example” of a juba text penned by a Boston-based writer. Juba has finally gained the appreciation of historians and musicians as viable folk music, but the dance form’s history serves as a reminder of that music as a way to stereotype African American traditions.

Juba came from dances in Africa (where it was called Giouba) and Haiti (known as Djouba). Another name for the dance is Hambone. This name, which also has origins in slavery, supposedly originated from “hand-bone,” the hard part of the hand that makes the most sound.

Juba is characterized by complicated patterns (they generally involve 3-over-4 rhythms), now-obscure steps like the ‘turkey trot’ and ‘pigeon step,’ and corresponding rhymes. Arguably, the most well-known rhyme, used by juba and hambone performers alike, is called “Juba Juba:”

Juba dis and Juba dat,
and Juba killed da yellow cat,
You sift the meal and ya gimme the husk,
you bake the bread and ya gimme the crust,
you eat the meat and ya gimme the skin,
and that’s the way,
my mama’s troubles begin.

 There are numerous variations to the lyrics, but the first two lines nearly always remain the same. Danny “Slapjazz” Barber explains the meaning as part of an apprenticeship project in Figure 1. He begins talking about the song at 2:02, continuing on to describe its history.

Figure 1

As was the case with slave songs, many spectators didn’t accurately record juba steps, often deeming the dances wild and immoral, or forgoing descriptions by stating that the movements were beyond words. It wasn’t until minstrel shows in the mid-1800s that juba became known to a larger white audience. Minstrelsy’s appropriated juba has a complicated relationship with the dance and its origins. Scholar Andrew Womack notes that minstrel shows hugely influenced American culture, and that the characters presented were dimensional, albeit offensive and highly stereotyped. One such character was Master Juba, played by free-born African American William Henry Lane. Lane’s character is easily one of the most recognizable personas in minstrel history, and the surname quickly evolved into a stock title for black characters. Traveling with an otherwise all-white cast, Lane performed his dance, described as a combination of juba and a jig, in America as well as Europe. He was seen as a novelty, but observers were nevertheless impressed by his skill. As The Manchester Examiner wrote:

“Surely he cannot be flesh and blood, but some special substance, or how could he turn and twine, and twist, and twirl, and hop, and jump, and kick and throw his feet with such velocity that one think they are playing hide-and seek with a flash of lightning!”

Master Juba

Figure 2: William Henry Lane

On the other hand, white writers commonly used juba as another opportunity for stereotyping African American dialect. In Figure 3, Frances E. Wadleigh uses slurs, an overexaggerated dialect, and offensive caricatures to showcase the “current literature” of black music.

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.40.07 AM

Figure 3

In spite (or, in some cases, because) of the appropriations, juba has remained in mainstream culture. Variations of the beats and rhythms have made their way into modern music, most notably in Bo Diddley’s song, “Bo Diddley’s Beat.” Hambone has been preserved and taught as a black folk melody, particularly in the south, and the dance steps are widely seen as a precursor to the jitterbug. Though juba was used as a vehicle for stereotypes, the dance and music have become an important part of American culture, and another example of how influential the songs–both original and appropriated–have become.


Crawford, Richard. “”Make a Noise!”: Slave Songs and Other Black Music to the 1880s.” In America’s Musical Life: A History, 409-410. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Wadleigh, Frances E. “Pattom’s Juba.” Current Literature V, no. 1 (1890): 70. Accessed February 21, 2015.

Welch, David Cranstoun. “Shave and a Haircut: Two Bits.” Perfect Sound Forever. August 1, 2008. Accessed February 19, 2015.

Womack, Andrew. “Ridicule and Wonder: The Beginnings of Minstrelsy in New York.” In Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, 94-95. 2nd ed. Vol. 36. Buffalo: Afro-Americans in New York Life & History.

Are There “Unreal” Slave Songs?

According to the music review in The Scranton tribune, 1899, with the growing of market of black slave songs and spiritual songs, some composers (non-black) started to produce these kinds of black music. However, the critique pointed out that many of these “new productions” were obvious “fake”, by failing to use “correct” words for pop black culture. Among these new productions, the song “Old Black Joe” was one of the few successful examples that true to African American’s life.


“Old Black Joe” is a song composed by by Stephen Forster (1826–1864) and it was published by Firth, Pond & Co. of New York in 1860. Foster wrote it as a synthesis of his ideals for stage and parlour ballads. The lyrics for the song was from first person recount, describing sadness of losing friends “in the cotton fields”, without any use of Black slangs or tones. The oldest version of notated music of “Old Black Joe” that held in Library of Congress showed a solo male voice line (marked as Joe) with chorus of SATB. Audiences can hear “call and response” in the music in a specific Jubilee Singer’s performing style.




However, the “real negro music”, described by the writer of Modern Negro Songs, should be in chorus setting rather than solo and should be sung by men rather than women. As the writer said, “It seems absurd for a female to sing the song of a Negro man, for it is well known that in every age of the Negro song the Negro has prided himself on his bass.” However, evidence from members of The Jubilee Singers and recordings of early work songs can prove he wrong.


Women sang a work Song:


Evening times-Republican. (Marshalltown, Iowa), 08 Feb. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

The Scranton tribune. (Scranton, Pa.), 16 Jan. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

Deane L. Root. “Foster, Stephen C..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.<>.

Evolution of a Battle Cry

In modern society, copyrights prove claims to authorship in music.  In the past, too, great songwriters are immortalized as the formants of a genre–Cole Porter and George Gershwin are among the composers who churned out music to popular consumption.  However, folk songs are traditionally passed along orally, and often authors are lost amidst the many additions and changes.  Does embellishing and editing a previous author’s work remove the credibility and culture of the original message of a piece?

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is typically a piece played in a militaristic style–a strong brass section, lots of snare drums, and in this YouTube clip, an obnoxious animated American flag.  Its patriotism is not a new appropriation, but rather began during the Civil War when marching soldiers of both sides sang what was then “John Brown’s Body.”  Although the John Brown the lyrics were written for was a soldier of the Massachusetts regiment and therefore a Civil War figure (PBS), he was not the one immortalized in the song.  Rather, the abolitionist John Brown became the martyr the lyrics remember.

Both sides of the war sang this song, changing the words to fit their message (Library of Congress).  But perhaps it is most appropriate that the northerners, with their message of freedom for the slaves, won the war and the song, as it had descended from fragments sung at ring shouts by the very slaves themselves.

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HELEN KENDRICK JOHNSON. The North American Review, 1884.

According the Helen Kendrick Johnson and The North American Review, the earlier version of this tune was found in a “colored Presbyterian church in Charleston.”


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Say, Brothers

Say, brothers, will you meet us (3x)

On Canaan’s happy shore.


Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)

For ever, evermore!

The score for this hymn is not the complete beginning of “Glory Hallelujah,” but rather only the version sung by congregations at revivalist meetings and in stricter church settings.  Some scholars attribute the musical phrases and lyrics to ring shouts (Soskis 24-5).  It is easy to imagine the call-and-response singing of the Biblical lyrics, along with interjections of “Glory, hallelujah!”  In addition, the same message of escape, travel, and lands of ‘happy shores’ is evident in this piece as in many other slave songs.

Like many folk songs, spirituals, and hymns of early America, authorship is highly disputed.  Claims of ownership come from many different sources, and usually the privileged, educated members of society have the most lasting paper trails.  But the strong presence of a black musical tradition is evident in the very roots of music in America.  White Northerners may have appropriated the traditional tunes and modified the lyrics, but it is a grand image to imagine soldiers singing a song reminiscent of the cause of freedom to its very core.



“History of ‘John Brown’s Body,'” PBS. 2010. Web.

Johnson, Helen Kendrick.  The North American Review.  May 1884.  Accessed from Proquest.

Library of Congress.

Linder, Douglas O.  “Famous Trials,” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.  2015.  Web.

Soskis, Benjamin and John Stauffer.  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On.”  Oxford University Press, 9 May 2013.


From Negro Spiritual to Folk Revival: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”


Negro Spirituals began as religious songs written by enslaved African people that were usually unaccompanied monophonic songs. One of the most famous of these Negro Spirituals is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was written by Wallace Willis, a Choctaw freedman in Hugo, Oklahoma in 1840.


He was inspired by the Red River, located in Mississippi, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah’s being taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). The song also uses lyrics that refer to the Underground Railroad, the network that helped Blacks escape from Southern slavery to freedom in the North.

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University consisted of nine students under George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music director. The group began a U.S. on October 6, 1871 to raise money for the school. On this tour, The Jubilee Singers popularized many Negro Spirituals, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

A few months into their tour, a review by the Oneida Circular, a newspaper that was “a weekly journal of home, science, and general intelligence” in Western New York praised the singers for their performance.


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The song regained popularity in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights and Folk Revival movements. The same lyrics that made reference to the Underground Railroad were now being used to fight for equal rights and an end to segregation and Jim Crow laws. At the same time, the Folk Revival movement began as a way of bringing back earlier genres of music like Gospel and the Blues. Bridging the two movements together was Joan Baez, a White American folk songwriter, whose personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these particular concerns. She gave perhaps one of the most memorable performances of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the famous Woodstock Festival in 1969.

It’s evident that this song has continually been reused and repurposed for the people that connect with it. In the 1870’s, it promoted the idea of freedom from slavery. In the 1960’s, it promoted civil rights for all. What will it be used for next?

Allen, William Francis, Ware, Charles Pickard, and Garrison, Lucy McKim, eds. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Slave Songs of the United States. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Accessed February 23, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

H, W. B. “THE JUBILEE SINGERS.” Oneida Circular (1871-1876) 9, no. 16 (Apr 15, 1872): 126.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Vol. 1 (1909-1911). Recorded January 1, 1997. Document Records, 1997, Streaming Audio. Accessed March 18, 2015. 

Oneida Community and the Fisk Jubilee Singers




From 1848 to 1881, the Oneida Community resided just outside Oneida, NY. Founded by extremely religious preacher John Humphrey Noyes, the community strived to lead its life parallel to the ideals of Perfectionism, in which its member “persevered in a course of self-improvement, overcoming many obstacles.”1 Among some of Noyes’s greater ideals, he lived to help the anti-slavery cause. In The Hand-book of Oneida Community, Noyes states, “My heart was greatly engaged in [anti-slavery] work. At Andover I had become interested in the Anti-Slavery cause, and soon after I went to New Haven I took part, with a few pioneer abolitionists, in the formation of one of the earliest Anti-Slavery Societies in the country.”2 Certainly J. H. Noyes invigorated the members of his community to think in the same way.

Yet, in the copy of the Oneida Circular Newspaper printed on April 15, 1872, author H W B wrote a review when a group of nine African-American singer from Fisk University, called Fisk Jubilee Singers, came to perform at Oneida. H W B and quoted author Theo F. Seward, in this article, use words, such as pathetic, unfortunates, wholly untutored minds, and phrases like “As to the words which accompany their songs, they are even more broken and irregular than is the music,” and “The reason for [their success] cannot apparently be traced to the superior talent of the singer themselves” as the author only believes that three of four of them have nice voices, to describe the Fisk Jubilee Singers.3

How, then, can one say that the Oneida community was really built of J. H. Noyes’s fascination of the anti-slavery movement? It seems that the community members have a problem with allowing the African-American singers to be on a level ground with whites. As mentioned before, the author stated that the students had “wholly untutored minds,” although they all studying at Fisk University. I believe that shows that the Oneida Community had fallen away from its markers original ideals.

1 Oneida Community, Hand-book of the Oneida Community: With a Sketch of Its Founder, and an Outline of Its Constitution and Doctrines. (Wallingford, Conn. : Office of the Circular, Wallingford Community, 1867) 8 .

2 Ibid., 7.

3 H, W. B. “The Jubilee Singers.” Oneida Circular (1871-1876) 9, no. 16 (Apr 15, 1872): 126.

Biological Difference or Power Dynamic?: Conceptions of African American Musicians

Claims to justify the inferiority of the black race often sought evidence from science, as seen in the article below from The Musical Visitor in 1895. According to the short announcement, biological differences in black people prohibit their ability to sing European art music and sound like white people as well as their ability to play an instrument.

negro music

Article from The Musical Visitor [3]

In contrast, we know of a few African American concert singers during the 19th century who toured and had classical musical training.[1] 120 years later, here is Leontyne Price, just to help clear up that misconception as well. What scholars have suggested then, is that African American concert singers chose not to sing like a white person because they couldn’t make any money singing that way in the racist show business world, and furthermore people wanted to hear the African voice.

Perhaps the most appalling part of the article however explains that black people cannot help imitating the white man’s music and “the race instinct in the negro does not incline toward persistency of purpose” that it takes to play a musical instrument. 35 years prior to this, a young man named Thomas Bethune provides period proof against these scientific misconceptions. Blind Tom was born a blind slave, but by the age of four, showed great interest in the piano and great talent in imitating the sounds he heard, spending many hours a day learning the piano by ear. Tom’s master then paid the best musicians to come play for Tom so that he could imitate them, therefore gaining a fairly high musical education. Blind Tom’s case may be unique because of what his blind condition allowed him to achieve (namely, not doing slave labor), but there is no question that hard work and training went into Tom’s musical genius, not just talent. His international fame as a musical genius and his many compositions are evidence enough to debunk hypotheses such as the one in the above article, yet conceptions about the inferiority of black musicians persisted.

blind tom


To add another layer of complexity in this story, Tom’s master, General James Bethune, hired him out to tour all over the country, earning the Bethune family and his managers approximately $3,000 per month during his performance career. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Tom was a slave to his performance managers and master, not receiving a penny of the touring profits. Articles advertising his performance raved about his ability to improvise and play multiple tunes at once, but also portrayed him as an exhibit, often referring to him as “it” or “the idiot” and described with barbaric features.[2] In other words, Tom’s talent and hard work did not prove the musical potential and value of African Americans as humans, rather is evidence to show that white people became interested in black musicians and black music when they could make money from it and when they could control it.

[1] Sonja Gable-Wilson, “Let Freedom Sing! Four African-American Concert Singers in Nineteenth Century America.,” Doctorate Thesis, University of Florida, 2005.

[2] Geneva Handy Southall, Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer Continually Enslaved, Lanham, Maryland: Scarcrow Press, Inc. 1999.

[3] “NEGRO MUSIC,” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897) 24, no. 7 (07, 1895): 179.

Spirituals: An Important Message with the Influence of Religion

African- American spirituals should be performed more because they represent a truth that many can relate to. You do not have to be “African-American” to understand the emotions behind silence, helplessness, struggle and liberation. But, you also do not have to be religious in order to understand the biblical references that are made in many of these songs. There is a connection in the text of spirituals that relate reality (in times of slavery) to the written evidence of the Hebrew’s slavery.

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King, Willis J. “The Negro Spirituals and the Hebrew Psalms.” The Methodist Review (1885-1931) 47, no. 3 (05, 1931): 318.

After reading the first paragraph from the article above, called “The Negro Spirituals and the Hebrew Songs” written by Willis J. King; the relationship of black slavery and biblical slavery is justifed. This whole article does a good job in comparing the similarities and differences between Negro Spirituals and Hebrew Songs. What King does best is capture the positivity that comes out of many of these spirituals. In the first paragraph in the photo above King says “However mournful and depressing the opening lines are, there is almost a note of triumph before the Song is done,” which is so true. It amazes me the amount of spirituals that are out there that are musically joyful, where the text represents very emotional and sometimes painful realities that black slaves went through. But, the beauty in these texts is that the slaves used their religious beliefs to find “triumph” and liberate themselves from the horrors that they had to live through in silence. This is just one small aspect of Spirituals, but it may be the most important because the authenticity of African-American Spiritual text is simply the truth in the message that they are putting out to mentally liberate themselves through a time of struggle.

Transmission of “Nobody know(s) the(de) Trouble I(‘ve) See(n)”

As former slaves entered American culture and society as citizens with slightly more rights after the Civil War and Reconstruction they created bands and groups for themselves to play in. In the late 19th and early 20th century military bands, small orchestras, and “stock bands” were formed mostly performing popular music of the day as well as notable Classical music such as Mozart Operas.

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition <>


At this time spiritual music had long been co-opted by white culture with many former slave songs being compiled in “American” songbooks. In the 1920s black composers and arrangers were able to publish their settings for these groups. Composers Gussie Davis, M.L. Lake, Robert Cole, and others were very popular stock band composers and arrangers during the ’20s. Here is a setting of the familiar tune “Nobody knows de trouble I seen” from M.L. Lake.

Setting for small orchestra.

Setting for small orchestra.


We can find the melody in the treble voice and this is a form of the melody that modern listeners would most likely be familiar with. However because of its setting it and acculturation it is rife with western harmonization and figuration. This adaptation of black folk songs is something that we are very comfortable with and reminds me of William Grant-Still’s Afro-American Symphony.

H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was an essential figure in bringing black folk music to the classical music scene in post-reconstruction America. He introduced popular singers to the literature and was well connected with influential musical big-wigs, including Antonin Dvorak.

H.T. Burleigh's setting of "Nobody knows" for voice and piano.

H.T. Burleigh’s setting of “Nobody knows” for voice and piano.

The earliest notated record of this particular tune we have is from Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, the seminal work of collecting slave songs in the Antebellum South. This representation from the collection is not definite however, it is still subject to editing and doesn’t account for massive variation across the southern states. SlaveSongsThis post outlines how different settings of the same tune have been treated when brought into a western context and setting. First the tune is in its most original form (that we have available), then adapted to solo voice and piano for mass consumption and use in the home and then finally used as popular music that can be recognized by the populous who attend concerts.


The Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing

Shape notes are a style of music notation most popularly printed in the songbooks of The Sacred Harp, and is categorized as sacred choral music. Shape note singing originates in the New England region of America as way to help illiterate Americans read music and participate more freely in religious activity. This style of singing was mainly found in the Protestant sect of Christianity. Shape notes reinforce the importance of congregational style of singing in church, allowing for a broader inclusion of church-goers.

The first iteration of shape note notation, invented by Psalmodist Andrew Law, was meant to simplify singing by assigning different shapes to different syllables (fa, sol,  la, and mi) so that singers knew which syllables to sing without needing to read lyrics. In 1801, the system was developed by William Little and William Smith and assigned these shapes to different pitches on a staff. This resulted in the creation of The Sacred Harp tunebook. In an article posted in the Common School Advocate in the year 1838, the tunebook was regarded as “decidedly the best and most permanently useful work yet published… made up of the finest compositions of the great masters of ancient and modern times, with new music.” A review that pays homage to the times, as this was a fairly new invention that gave a church goers a new and inclusive experience participating in the singing of psalms and hymns.

A popular hymn that is sung today that The Sacred Harp transcribed into shape note notation is “Amazing Grace.” Largely sung at funerals, this originally baptist tune transcribed in shape note notation is a great example of the choral music of the Antebellum south period. The Christian Observer, an Anglican evangelical periodical that existed between 1802 and 1874, wrote highly of the Sacred Harp tunebook, posting numerous recommendations of its publication. One that particularly stood out, read “New_Britain_Southern_Harmony_Amazing_GraceThe volume is composed of very beautiful melodies; and harmonies of almost unequalled richness… The tunes are admirably adapted to the effective expression of poetry, a circumstance upon which the happiest effect of Christian Psalmody depend.”  A boasting review of a simple style of music, which goes to show the nature of music during this time period in America. Neither monophonic nor polyphonic, this unique style, which is heterophonic in texture, has a surprising sound that is unfamiliar, even to a trained ear. The more popular hymnody has a far more recognizable polyphonic texture that most trained and un-trained ears are accustomed to.

At the annual conventions, there is a specific structure to how they sing each song, whether or not that is how it was performed in 1850 is unbeknown to me, but the format is as follows: “sung through once on the solfege syllables, then sung in its entirety, with the final phrase repeated as a conclusion” (Miller). Despite the repetitive nature of such singing style, the participants are very enthusiastic in their singing of such tunes, and often clap and stomp along with the beat. Through shape-note singing a community emerged, one that is based around the Protestant faith, but is much more than that.

Shape note notation is important in American music history, as it is seen as the first original American music style and it is a defining style that influences genres to come. Some music historians say that African American spirituals were influenced from the shape note singing of groups like the Sacred Harp. If this is in fact true, the shape note style is an important one in American history that continues to influence music today.



Miller, Sarah Bryan. Post-Dispatch Classical, Music Critic. “Amazing Grace at The Missouri Sacred Harp Convention, Shape-Note Singing Isn’t for Listening, It’s for Participation.” St. Louis Post – Dispatch, Mar 28, 2001.

“VALUABLE MUSIC BOOKS,” 1841. Christian Observer (1840-1910), Oct 29, 176.

“A VALUABLE music book,” 1838. Common School Advocate (1837-1841), Vol. 14: pp. 95.

“A novel sight”: Women and Southern Singing Conventions

A prominent event in Southern music making of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the singing convention. In rural areas of the South, families from neighboring farms would gather to sing sacred Christian music from shape note singing books such as The Sacred Harp. The singers used this type of musical notation because its utilization of only four solfege syllables and corresponding symbols made reading music easier (than traditional Western notation), and most people were able to learn the notation by attending local singing schools. In the excerpt below, a journalist from the Atlanta Constitution reports his observations from the 1892 Chattahoochee Musical Convention near Carrollton, Georgia:

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.04 PM   Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.25 PM Figure 1

The journalist seems to be writing for an urban audience that would not be familiar with such a singing tradition. By referencing how a mother might sing these songs “as a lullaby for her babe,” he emphasizes the music’s importance as a transmitter of culture for rural folk.

The shape note singing described above ensured that anyone could participate after little practice. The singing style at singing conventions reflected this inclusive attitude as well as valued the individual spirit. Singers were not expected to blend with one another; rather, they sang at full volume in order to praise God at their highest capacity. The ability of individuals to worship depended on their zeal as they sang, not their wealth, community standing, or musical sophistication. The clip below from the 2010 Chattahoochee Musical Convention shows that this atmosphere remains today.

Figure 2

As documents from the nineteenth century reveal, gender also carried less importance at singing conventions, which made them significant events in the lives of women. The Atlanta Constitution article states that women were allowed unusual freedoms like being permitted to lead songs at singing conventions.

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Figure 3  and Figure 4

While female leadership seems to shock the journalist observing the convention, Mrs. Denson’s leadership makes sense in the context of the convention’s democratic ethos.

Singing conventions also held importance for women because they provided a venue at which members of the opposite sex could mingle. In the following short story excerpt, published in Arthur’s Home Magazine (a magazine marketed toward women), the author describes a young couple who attends a singing convention together not because they enjoy the singing but because the young woman’s parents allowed her to leave the house with young man only because they would be attending a singing convention.

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Figure 5 and Figure 6

The women who read Arthur’s Home Magazine would have been interested in a story about a singing convention because the singing convention represented an arena in which a woman could participate in social activities without much attention paid to her gender.

Singing conventions were important in the lives of women for three main reasons: 1) they were integral to the transmission of culture, which has traditionally been the role of women,  2) they gave women leadership opportunities in worship, and 3) they provided social venues in which women had more freedom. However, while the democratic nature of the singing convention allowed for more equal treatment in regard to gender, it should not be overstated, considering that the spirit of inclusiveness did not extend to African-Americans. The tradition I have described above refers to white Southerners. Whether or not a similar treatment of gender occurred in separate African-American singing conventions remains a question for another blog.


A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015,

“Sacred Harp Chattahoochee Convention 2010,” Youtube video, posted by THEbubbleskid, September 9, 2010, 

A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015

Sacred Harp Singers. Available from (accessed Feb. 22, 2015)

Hester Grey. “At the Singing Convention,” Arthur’s Home Magazine (1880-1897) 65, no. 6 (1895): 570, accessed Feb. 22 2015,$N/1?accountid=351

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1867. Available from


The Beauty in “The Negro’s Songs”

Black slave song was once a purely functional form of music that was described as “primitive” or “not inherently musical,” and the thought of it pervading American popular music once seemed impossible. However, after going through a metamorphosis of sorts, it changed into a form that appealed to the people of the United States. By undergoing this change, the songs had lost basically all semblance of their original function as a work song to an art song. Thus began the assimilation of black folk songs into American folk-songs.

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As a result of black folk music being introduced to the American public, people wanted to capture the origins and nature of this new genre. Books were written chronicling and collecting black folk songs, among them Afro-American Folksongs, A Study in Racial and National Music by Henry Edward Krehbiel and On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs by Dorothy Scarborough. Although these books were invaluable as a source for the average person to learn more about black folk songs and accounts of their encounters with the people that taught the authors the songs, they were written by white people using standard musical notation that is not able to accurately portray how the songs would have actually been performed by the people that originally sung them.

For example, take this transcription from Scarborough’s book of “I Went Up on the Mountain Top:”

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The notes, rhythms, and words are present, but we have no idea how accurate this is. We can only assume how fast it went, how to pronounce the words, and the harmonies implied, if any. What results from this collection of songs is not an authentic depiction of black folk tunes, but “…a body of beautiful music. It has been neglected, distorted, made pretty, made tawdry, and now is being presented in various approaches to its native beauty.” [3] This issue of “beauty” became even more contentious when considering how to perform these songs:

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Due to the vague nature of the transcriptions written by authors such as Krehbiel and Scarborough, the “correct” rendition was up to interpretation. However, it was agreed that that the expression of the text was far more important than the style in which a person sang. Hayes and Robeson are incomparable, but they both hearken back to the original spirituals and the idea of expression as beauty. Although the black slave song was once thought as the music of savages, it quickly became an integral part of American music and was not going away anytime soon.


1. 3. 4. Seldes, Gilbert. 1926. THE NEGRO’S SONGS. The Dial; a Semi – Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information (1880-1929), 03, 247.

2. Scarborough, Dorothy. On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs. Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1925. Pg. 7. Accessed on

Frank Johnson: Successful Black Musicians Pre-Civil War Era

[Francis Johnson.]

Although the America of the Pre-Civil War Era presented racial discrimination and bias in most career paths, music was one of the few platforms in which both white and black musicians could successfully perform. Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844) was among one of these musicians. As a composer, bandleader, and trumpeter, Johnson possessed a diverse range of musical talents and ability which he drew upon for his concerts. His musicians were also multi-talented and would often switch instruments halfway through their concerts.

johnson review

This brief concert review from the Boston Musical Gazette on Oct 31, 1838 gives an insight into the positive reception that Frank Johnson and his band received after their performances. The song mentioned in the review, The Last Rose of Summer is based off of a poem by Thomas Moore. Though nearly 70 years later, this recording of soprano Elizabeth Wheeler from 1909 is the same basic melody that was performed at Johnson’s concert.

The Keyed Bugle referenced in the performance was a recent instrument introduced around 1810 but fading out before the end of the civil war in 1850. An illustration of the Keyed Bugle can be found in the 1941 book Soldiers of the American Army, 1775-1941, by Frederick Todd.

Corps d'Afrique, 1864.

Jeff Stockham of the Federal City Brass gives a brief history and demonstration of what the Keyed Bugle sounds like on YouTube:

The Boston Musical Gazette’s article is enlightening as a more detailed description of the type of music and instrumentation may have been used at Francis “Frank” Johnson’s concerts. Particularly with Pre-Civil War music and musicians, it is difficult to discover detailed accounts due to the lack of recordings from this time. This means that a heavier reliance must be placed on written newspaper reviews or eyewitness accounts. In this particular instance, some valuable information can be gathered simply from the short paragraph found in the Boston Musical Gazette: the positive reception of the concert by the audience, a title of one of the pieces performed, and a reference to one of the unique contemporary instruments used.


Questions of Originality and “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual”

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to perform “slave songs” on their tours, this style exploded in popularity and was hailed as a rejuvenating form of American song. Additionally, these songs were accepted as a legitimate contribution to American music by African Americans and weren’t subject to the sort of derision that other forms of African art had been in the recent past. Unsurprisingly, many people had problems with the notion that these slave songs were the slaves own work, and numerous music critics and commentators voiced concerns that this music comprised of unoriginal rehashes of white, European descended hymnody.

Perhaps the champion of this ‘white defense’ was George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953), American folksong scholar who specialized in southern shape note singing. His belief in the need for white reclamation of spirituals coalesced most famously in his 1933 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but the most upsetting and clearly politicized version of his argument came a year earlier in the article “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual”, published in the controversial and irreverent magazine The American Mercury.

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Left: The opening of Jackson’s article. Right: Comparisons of colonial song tunes and camp meeting variations.

Frustrated by what he perceives as an unfair appropriation of camp revivalist songs, Jackson offers textual and musical examples that are meant to show how spirituals were updated by upland revivalist preachers and singers with “simplicity and swing”. It wasn’t until the early 1800s and the involvement of Africans in these same meetings that Jackson claims the same revivalist musical tendencies and crowd emotionalism “infected the blacks.” He also belatedly accuses plantation owners and urban Southerners “who have always been eager to forget and disown the camp-meeting songs” of obscuring the truth in an attempt to disparage poor, rural whites.

Arguably the most upsetting part of the article addresses “the chief remaining argument of the die-hards for the Negro source of the Negro spirituals – the artistic merit of these songs.” Claiming that these rural whites were as musical and as “oppressed” as their Afro-American counterparts, he effectively reduces the body of Black music he is discussing to cheap parodies of purer, more original white music. Yet despite his apparent certainty in tracing the misunderstood development of the spiritual, he concedes the vast chasm of knowledge that existed between his time and the musical era he was studying, though he seems to suggest that this chasm only manifests for those seeking to promote the “superiority” of Black music.


Jackson leads a group of singers in sacred harp songs in Tennessee, 1941

Jackson made a career out of the white reclamation of spirituals. Mentioned earlier was his White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, though the misleadingly titled White and Negro Spirituals: their Life Span and Kinship (1943) is notable for its treatment of Negro music only as “variants” on white originals. Additionally, Jackson collaborated with Alan Lomax to record performances of large southern singing groups such as the Sacred Harp Singers, presumably as a more authentic representation of the southern spirituals.

While it may be infuriating to reflect upon the writings of Jackson and other anti-Black critics, it is an important part of American musical culture that should not be ignored. By critically analyzing these sources we can gain a clearer picture of how politics and cultural aggressions infiltrated American music from an early stage.

Note: For the purposes of the assignment “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual” was discovered via the Readers’ Guide Retrospective. However, the full PDF was unavailable and was instead found at the following link:


Jackson, George Pullen. “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual.” The American Mercury (June 1932): pp. 243-249.

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: their Life Span and Kinship.

Jackson, Richard. “George Pullen Jackson.” Grove Music Online. http: (accessed February 22, 2015).

One for the Money, Two for the Show – The Fisk University Jubilee Singers


Founded in 1866 by the American Missionary Association, Fisk University in Nashville, TN became the United States’ first “black” university.  Formed in the Reconstruction era of America, Fisk was a school that would “offer a liberal arts education to young men and women irrespective of color.” Fisk University, however, did not avoid hardships as the institution struggled to survive past its infancy. Within five years, the school found itself in dire need for financial support. So what does any university do when they need to make money?  They form a touring ensemble.

Screen-Shot-2013-06-20-at-10.51.07-AMGeorge L. White was originally hired to serve as Fisk’s treasurer, but also found his way into the music classroom. Noticing the institution’s need for income, the treasurer turned music professor also became the school’s first director of choirs.  In 1871, White established a choir of freed slaves that he later named the Jubilee Singers. The choir’s purpose was to go and tour the country to raise money for the university.  Ella Shepard, the ensemble’s pianist, described the intentions and drive of White was “to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of the people,” and with that, on October 6, 1871, the choir left Nashville on their first benefit concert tour of the Midwest.

Long story short, the seven month tour was a resounding success. The ensemble wasFisk_University,_Jubilee_Hall,_Seventeenth_Avenue,_North,_Nashville_(Davidson_County,_Tennessee) able to return to Nashville with $20,000 to be put into the institution.  With the profit of their first tour, Fisk University was able to build it’s first permanent campus building, which was named Jubilee Hall and still serves the university to this day. So what exactly did the Jubilee Singers do to make their tour so successful? Simply put, they sang what they knew and what the people wanted to hear.

According to an article published in the Oneida Circular, the praise of the ensemble is simply “remarkable.” The singers did not have “superior talent” and though “they Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 10.30.10 AMare capable of singing ‘popular music’,” that had nothing to do with their success. What consistently worked for the ensemble was to defer to their “native, religious songs.” Described in one concert advertisement as the “simple melodies and spiritual songs which sustained the slaves during their long years of bondage,” the music of the Jubilee Singers captivated audiences with their novel sound and religious messages. When asked about their music by members of the public, the singers would respond that “it was never written down” and that is passed down “from generation to generation” within their families. This repertoire, coined “slave songs” would not only carry the ensemble through a successful tour, but also skyrocket them to the national and international stage.

getimageThe concept of a touring ensemble is not exactly new. Here at St. Olaf College, we too have a touring choral ensemble of our own. Under the direction of Dr. Anton Armstrong, the St. Olaf Choir tours annually across the country and occasionally around the globe. Known for their refined tone and lyric sense of line, the St. Olaf Choir is a night-and-day comparison to the Jubilee Singers. Even though their musical styles contrast greatly, their underlying reasonings for going on national and international tours are quite similar: to spread their music and to collect revenue for their sponsoring institutions. Founded 40 years after the Jubilee Singers in 1912, the St. Olaf Choir and their director F. Melius Christiansen took their first major tour in 1920 to the East coast and had a similar result to the Fisk musicians, bringing in a healthy sum of revenue for the college and even established a fund to construct the first official music hall on campus. What is particularly interesting is that both choirs had similar repertoire at the commencement of their tours. Classical choral music was to be the highlight of the Jubilee Singers program, but the hesitantly had to switch to singing their people’s history on stage in order to raise the necessary funds. Both ensembles had hugely successful tours singing what the audience wanted to hear, but is that necessarily right?

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.42.40 AMRegardless of your viewpoint on the ethics of choral repertoire when it comes to “selling” sound, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers have surely made their mark on our country’s history. More than 75 years after the Jubilee Singers inaugural tour, G. Robert Tipton wrote an article for The Missionary Herald in 1947, which was later re-published in Reader’s Digest in 1949, titled “Our Debt to the Jubilee Singers.” The article goes through a brief history of the ensemble from their establishment through their first European tour, but what I found most interesting was the summary sentence provided on the front page of the article.  Tipton writes that the Jubilee Singers are “a group of impoverished ex-slaves who took the old Negro spirituals on the road – and enriched America’s musical heritage.” There is no doubt that the work of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers has not only  enriched our nation’s musical antiquity, but quite possibly assisted in the preservation of the “slave song” genre that is so deeply rooted in America’s history.


TIPTON, G. Robert. 1949. “Our debt to the Jubilee singers.” Reader’s Digest 54, 95-97. Readers’ Guide Retrospective: 1890-1982 (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 19, 2015).

Advertisement 18 — no title. 1872. Zion’s Herald (1868-1910). Mar 14, (accessed February 20, 2015).

H, W. B. 1872. THE JUBILEE SINGERS. Oneida Circular (1871-1876). Apr 15, (accessed February 20, 2015).

“Fisk Jubilee Singers – Our History.” Fisk Jubilee Singers. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Shaw, Joseph M. The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative. Northfield, Minn.: St. Olaf College, 1997.

Documenting Native American Song

It’s no wonder that Americans have a narrow, stereotyped understanding of Native American song. On the one hand, there are mass media representations that run from the antiquated and embarrassing…

… to the downright confusing – I’m thinking especially of all the conflations between Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish musical culture in the 1920s and 1930s, including this one, and this one (at the very end). In fact, mass media’s propensity to get Indian song wrong is so cliché that the stereotyping itself has been parodied, most famously in the irreverent Fox cartoon Family Guy:

It’s not so hard to see where these misunderstandings come from. From the colonial era to the present day, the majority of Americans have never encountered Native American song themselves; they have mainly read accounts of it written by others. For example, Chicago’s Newberry Library preserves an 1835 account by John T. Irving, Jr. (accessible via the Adam Matthew database, specifically its “American West” collection) that describes an expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. We “hear” music through Irving’s ears, for example in this description of a group of Indians assembling before a journey:

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Likening the Indians’ song to a “low, and not inharmonious cry,” a “wailing moan,” and a “mournful chant,” Irving doesn’t really tell us what the “dirge” or “death song” sounds like. Rather, he sets the sounds he heard apart from what his readers might know; he renders the Native American song utterly Other.

It’s unfortunate that accounts like Irving’s have been more influential than systematic, respectful attempts to document Native American song, like that of Frances Densmore. A native of Minnesota, Densmore undertook an enormous study of Native American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under the aegis of the Bureau of American Ethnology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Densmore’s prescience about the misrepresentations referenced above borders on the prophetic. In 1927 she wrote, “There is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music when the Indian is seen through the bushes. Neither the “love lyric” nor theater tom-tom music are genuinely Indian, in the best sense” (Qtd. in this Smithsonian Institute online archive; see footnote 5 for archival citation).

Building on the pioneering work of Alice Fletcher, another ethnologist and collector of Indian Song, Densmore published dozens of book-length accounts of music making by individual tribes, including a volume on Pawnee music.


Her description of Pawnee music is nothing like Irving’s. Here’s an excerpt: “An important point, made evident in this comparative analysis, is the individuality of Pawnee music. It is distinct, in its entirety, from the songs of other tribes, though bearing a resemblance to one tribe or another in separate characteristics. The study of Indian music by an established system of analysis shows there are characteristics that are common to Indian songs of various tribes and different from the music of the white race, and also characteristics which distinguish the songs of one tribe from those of another. Among the former is the change of measure-lengths found in many Indian songs and the downward trend of the melody…” (Frances Densmore, Pawnee Music [New York: Da Capo Press, 1972, reprint of 1929 ed. issued as Bulletin 93 of Smithsonian Institution]). Below is another excerpt from the book, this one including a piece she transcribed from a recording made by one of her research associates.


Densmore took Indian music as seriously as it deserved to be taken, and as a result, created an incredibly rich resource for anyone who’d like to know what music Native Americans actually made.

Other Resources:

Books by Densmore at the Carleton and St. Olaf Libraries

Minnesota Public Radio profile of Densmore

Libguide on Densmore created by the Minnesota History Center

Edward Curtis’s Photographic Ethnography of American Indians, hosted by the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project