Whilst browsing the Library of Congress’ “National Jukebox,” I came across recordings from a group called the Tuskegee Institute Singers (later known as the Tuskegee Institute Quartet). They started around 1914 as a college a capella group that took their talents beyond the halls of the Tuskegee Institute (an HBCU founded by Booker T Washington).
They directly adopted practices of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and sang spirituals in a modified harmonized style to appeal to white listeners as the Fisk singers did. Scholars have drawn direct lines from the Fisk singers to the Tuskegee singers. Even if their work had been changed to appease a broad audience, some still found their work “primitive.”1
This follows a long line of judgement of the music of other cultures, which western Europeans often found strange and lower than their own. One review of their music from The Victor Records catalog of 1920 details their sound, which they found at the same time “wholly American” and “primitive” at the same time.2
Additionally, it is interesting that the critic here refers to their music as reverent and to be respected, but from his language does not himself revere the music. They reference that the music came from the grandparents of the singers – that it comes from a long tradition of workers. However, the description acknowledges the hard “American” work of the singers, but does not acknowledge that this work was carried out under the hand of slavery. This critic takes credit for the desirable aspects of the music but does not also take credit for the factor that slavery played in the music’s inception.
Below is a recording of the Tuskegee Singers singing “Go Down Moses” (a spiritual). More of their work can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox online site.
What do you think of their sound? Did it earn its criticism?