African American Spirituals in post-slavery, pre-civil rights movement, America

Late 1800s through early 1900s America was not a great time to be African American. I am not meaning to imply that African Americans have ever had it particularly well in America, but African American welfare throughout American history is a topic of whose discussion would be well beyond the scope of this blog post. Nonetheless, despite any social and cultural forces acting against them, African Americans still managed to keep spirits up and fight for a better future for them and their children. One of the ways they did both of these things was through singing spirituals. In slave times, the spiritual served as a musical outlet with which to keep spirits high, (or at least as high as one can keep spirits while enslaved) and a way to spread hidden messages, frequently about the Underground Railroad, without the slave-drivers realizing. After the Civil War, spirituals continued to aid in keeping spirits high, but took on the additional role of being a powerful force with which people used to fight for civil rights. One example of this is the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Program2

The Fisk Jubilee Singers can be heard in this recording1 singing the spiritual Golden Slippers. They were a group of singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee who became well-known after touring the United States and the world singing spirituals. However, one of the less remembered parts of their legacy is that of their civil rights tours from 1879 to 1882.2 As can be heard in the recording, the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought a style of singing and harmony to the white world that had been previously unknown and, in the process, won international fame for their university. While the Fisk Jubilee Singers were by not means the only African American musical ensemble singing spirituals,3 they are the most famous and remembered example to this day

1 http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/1815

2 Seroff, D. (2001). “A voice in the wilderness”: The fisk jubilee singers’ civil rights tours of 1879-1882. Popular Music and Society, 25(1), 131-177. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/208067875?accountid=351

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Their First Record

http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

In 1871, George White organized the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Tennessee, in order to raise money for the school. They were a group of black students from Fisk University who performed spirituals in the concert setting. While previous black concert artists performed standard white repertoire, the Fisk Jubilee Singers gave performances of black music, and this music did not follow the prevalent minstrel stereotypes. In 1898, John Wesley Work II, a later director of the group, helped get the Fisk Jubilee Singers recorded. This recording here is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was one of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ best tunes of the time.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers had a major influence on the introduction of the spiritual into American repertoire, but the group had to adapt their style in order to have that effect. The director of the group, John Work, carried out a deal with Victor Talking Machine Company in hopes of reaching a wider audience. In Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, he states that the purpose of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was to bring the history of Southern slaves into the present culture of Northern urban Protestants. The Jubilee singers dressed very properly and were polished in both behavior and musicality. They also didn’t sing in a dialect. This recording from Victor seems to have the typical sound of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, but it may not be representative of how the slaves in fields would have sung these songs. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were working against preexisting stereotypes and a racist society, so they found a more appealing sound that still maintained the idealized fervor of slave music to resonate with the white audiences. This reflects the idea of white people adapting music from other cultures or forcing others to match their own tastes of music, like we can see with Theodore F. Seward’s arrangement of Go Down Moses, in that it takes a standard spiritual and sets it within white hymnody.

While they did everything they could to appeal to their white audience, and were successful in that, they were still not always taken seriously. Even the Victor record company claimed that “they sometimes excite to laughter by their quaint conceptions of religious ideas.” The white audiences thought of them as novelties. Yet, Victor praises the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ emotional appeal to all. We should be grateful for the contributions of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as they helped with the acceptance, development, and preservation of spirituals. It is also important to acknowledge their struggles in promoting this music and how that has affected the development of the genre.

Sources

Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5406/j.ctt2jcc81.19.pdf?refreqid=search%3Ab6add585f9e3810555f5c47c576075a2

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Victor B-8420, 1909. mp3 Accessed October 2, 2017. http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

Roy, William G. Reds, Whites, and Blues. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt7rgqw.5.pdf?refreqid=search%3Aeac284c272f71c57421ddda9fc0c5238

 

“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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 5.30.29 AM

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.


Sources

“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. http://search.proquest.com/docview/90171741?accountid=351.

“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. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137032063?accountid=351.

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

“President Arthur and the Jubilee Singers.” Church’s Musical Visitor (1871-1883) 11, no. 6 (03, 1882): 162. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137466484?accountid=351.http://search.proquest.com/docview/125358571?accountid=351.

Oneida Community and the Fisk Jubilee Singers

 

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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. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137675405?accountid=351.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.19.43 PMScreen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.23.15 PM

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.

George-Pullen-Jackson-leads-a-sing

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: http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1932jun-00243.

SOURCES

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: www.oxfordmusiconline.com (accessed February 22, 2015).

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

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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.

 Sources:

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, http://search.proquest.com/docview/127336562?accountid=351 (accessed February 20, 2015).

H, W. B. 1872. THE JUBILEE SINGERS. Oneida Circular (1871-1876). Apr 15, http://search.proquest.com/docview/137675405?accountid=351 (accessed February 20, 2015).

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