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The Heart-Warming but Confusing Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

jubilee singers

This little-remembered musical group helped expose the world to African-American songs and spirituals, but left a legacy that doesn't quite fit our modern world.

For Black History Month this February, I decided to learn more about the Fisk Jubilee Singers by reading Andrew Ward's thick, dense and fascinating book "Dark Midnight When I Rise." It's May when I am finally writing this, but the book was slow going, and I needed some time to think over what I learned, and what I felt I could or should say. I am a white musician, and not really the guy to be offering expert opinions on issues of black history. I was disappointed that Ward seemed reluctant to draw conclusions at the end of his heavily-footnoted book. After exhaustively researching the factual surroundings of the group, I fully expected him to weigh in with a few opinions. I guess as a journalist he is trained to just stick to the facts, and it is admittedly an awkward thing for a white person to weigh in on these sensitive matters. I also didn't find much online in the way of succinct and clear summaries of what the Fisk Singers did or didn't accomplish, so I guess I am not alone in being puzzled about their contribution to music. I am sensing that neither black or white people want to stand up and make a proclamation about the Jubilees' value, presumably for fear of getting caught in an awkward or unpopular position. It's not fair to pass a quick judgement on them and summarily declare them good or bad, nor is there a good reason to take a stand on something that happened 150 years ago. I think theirs is a very compelling and interesting story, so I'll try to summarize it, offer some insights and opinions to stir the pot a little, and encourage everyone to dig into this slice of American musical history and decide how they feel about it.

I had known the basics of the Fisk Jubilee Singers saga for a while– they were a group of students who performed widely to raise money to support Fisk University, a school founded in Tennessee to educate former slaves during the era of Reconstruction. I also knew about Fisk because an African-American educator and musician named John Work was there in the middle of the 20th century, and his efforts and knowledge greatly guided the vastly better-known white folklorists John & Alan Lomax. The Lomaxes worked most of their lives to try to help the world appreciate African-American music, but it was Work who took the Lomaxes to meet Muddy Waters and other Delta blues musicians in Northern Mississippi. I’m only going to mention here a recently-published book written by Work, “Lost Delta Found.” Its reportedly “lost” manuscript was suspiciously found in the back of one of Alan Lomax’s file cabinets after he died.

The Fisk singers surprised themselves and the world by being very well-received, after a rocky beginning. They succeeded greatly in earning respect for themselves and for African-Americans in general, in making some money for their school, and in spreading some music around that wasn't getting far on its own. They made large numbers of people aware for the first time of music that used to be called "Negro spirituals," but that doesn't seem to have been given a better and newer name. It seems pretty clear that the Jubilees disseminated some strong music in an honorable way, and with a good motive. Whether they fit your idea of what African-American music should be is hard to say. Sadly, we have no idea what the singers sounded like, since the era of sound recording came a few decades too late. Whatever they did must have been good, because they brought people to tears and they brought them to their feet, and they generated an impressive amount of money, goodwill, and critical acclaim. The last tour of the group ended in 1878, and the earliest recordings of an offspring of the Jubilees were made in 1908, of a male quartet that may or may not have been stylistically similar to the original groups. That recording is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and includes the first recording ever made of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

I was eager to learn more about how black music influenced America, and wasn't prepared for the emotional impact of the story, or the details about who those people were, what they did and what they endured. It's really hard for modern people, even with racial intolerance rearing its head these days publicly, to imagine the world the Jubilees were in. I was stunned by the descriptions of the kinds of situations those people faced, and the depth of the hatred and ignorance they had to deal with their entire lives. On the very first page, Ward tells how students at the newly-christened Fisk school in Nashville were digging to make a garden, and dug up a pile of manacles and chains from what proved to be a former slave auction site. I'm not sure what I would have done in that situation, but they simply sold the scrap iron for money to buy Bibles and spelling books and moved on to the next thing on their "to do" lists.

I grew up in Maryland, and I suspect it was not a coincidence that my education there in public schools was sketchy about slavery and especially about Reconstruction. Slavery was embedded in our country deeper than most of us realize. Eleven of the first 16 presidents of the United States owned slaves, and even the pastor of my little town in Maine had a slave named Phyllis in 1736, bought by the congregation. I had been fed the standard narrative; that Lincoln freed the slaves, the North won the war, and now black folks could vote and were free to go where they wanted and make their own decisions. I had never before read detailed accounts of the viciousness of the white people who resisted and resented the Black schools and churches. They intimidated, vandalized and physically attacked the do-gooder Northerners who selflessly flocked to the South after the war to help build schools, churches and hospitals for the freed slaves. My eagerness to learn the story of this singing group was quickly overshadowed by the vastness of the landscape of intolerance that surrounded them as they tried to scratch out a living and educate themselves.

Ward spent the first chunk of his book describing the setting of what Nashville and the South were like in 1865, and dug quite a bit into the family life and biographies of the individuals in the singing group. All but a couple of them had themselves been slaves, and what I learned about them was overwhelming. Ella Sheppard's mother had been sold away from her when she was a little girl, and she and her father spent much of their lives before and after the war trying to find and even purchase their lost relatives. Thomas Rutling never found his mother, who was sold when he was two, but Louis Hughes had a tearful reunion later with a lost brother he had not seen since early childhood. Freed slaves were mostly illiterate, they generally had no last names, and they didn't understand how the world worked, or even where they were geographically. Among other problems, they sometimes got caught in the middle of gigantic battles between Northern and Confederate armies, and were forced to flee, hide or hastily take sides in a conflict that wasn’t their own. They had few allies, no money or property, little or no ability to organize or communicate, and were understandably traumatized after suffering centuries of abuse and punishment. Ward tells of slaves who had been taught since birth that because they were black, they were not as smart as white people, and that their role in the world was to work and to serve since they couldn't learn. Preachers told them that black people had no souls, and could not go to Heaven. Blacks and whites were punished horribly, sometimes being publicly whipped almost to death, for even teaching the alphabet to a slave. One of the great fears of slaveowners was that the slaves might organize and communicate. Drums were even outlawed in the entire state of South Carolina for fear that slaves would use them to send signals to each other.

The other main characters in the Fisk Jubilee saga were northerners, who showed up to build, organize, and run Fisk University. It was originally called the Fisk Free Colored School, and at the time of its founding it was essentially a pre-school. The students didn't even know how to spell or write the most basic things, even though they ranged from elementary school age to 70s and 80s. The students were eager to learn, and it was truly impressive to find out how quickly most of them learned to read, write and do math. The men and women who ran the school, many of whom were affiliated with northern churches, worked for almost nothing to raise money and to educate, house and feed the students. They endured endless hardships trying to pursue their mission, being all the while heckled and tormented by local whites. Though they suffered considerable resistance from many of Nashville's whites, they learned that they were lucky, since in Memphis and Gallatin similar schools and churches were burned to the ground. The Ku Klux Klan was one of quite a number of other organized groups that did everything they could to resist any advancement of the freed slaves.

Emerging from this violent and turbulent backdrop was a central element in the Fisk story: the relationship between a white man named George White and the students. White's sister Laura had married Erastus Cravath, an abolitionist from Ohio who became the administrator of the school, and he hired George to be the school treasurer. White struggled with the job he wasn’t really qualified to do, and as Ward wrote: "... George White consoled himself and his students with the group sings he conducted in his apartments each evening, drawing on his makeshift training as a choir director and military bandleader." The idea of a school choir wobbled to its feet, and they raised some meaningful amounts of money with a couple local concerts. The songs they sang were not at all African-American at first, but as he bonded with the students and pursued his idea, White and some other northerners there became aware of the music the students brought with them. White noticed that some of the students were singing different songs, usually to themselves, or in private. He was moved by what he heard, and he and another teacher began to log and transcribe over a hundred of the songs the students knew, and encouraged the students to share them. White northerners had first encountered “slave songs,” “spirituals,” “plantation songs” and “Jubilee songs” during the Civil War, and the first book of non-European songs published in the United States was an 1867 book called “Slave Songs” that predated John Lomax’s ground-breaking 1910 book “Cowboy Songs” by 43 years.

It's a big idea to chew on that there was an unorganized body of songs, in the oral tradition, living in the hearts and minds of African-Americans, that included a lot of what we now take for granted as a vital part of our collective American heritage. We all know the song "Silent Night" largely because the Austrian Von Trapp Family Singers toured the world singing it. It was an obscure song written in 1818 in a remote village in Austria, and it did not go viral on the internet, or magically appear in all of our heads. Likewise, songs like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Deep River," "Go Down Moses," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" didn't just appear in our heads and songbooks. Somebody had to know them and choose to sing them night after night for years, and the Jubilee Singers did that. Maybe the songs would have made their way into the world by some other path, but a big part of why many of us know them is because in this one school in Nashville was a handful of white people who were moved and intrigued by a specific body of songs that their specific black students knew and were even reluctant to share.

There were a number of incarnations of the group over the years, but the ground-breaking basic ensemble was just 9 students, about half male and female. George White is one of the heroes of the Fisk story, as are all the singers themselves and all the people who bought tickets to hear them. The way the singers and their audiences discovered the power of this body of songs through their performances is the real story of the group, since their efforts then brought the music to large numbers of listeners. Ella Sheppard wrote in her memoirs "It was only after many months that ... we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs." The Fisk singers mostly sang in churches, schools and theaters, and they discovered that their own African-American songs were the best received, and the ones that ultimately brought them success and defined their legacy. The world did not know about the songs "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or “This Little Light of Mine” until the Jubilee Singers sang them.

White started out conducting, but Ella Sheppard and teenager Georgia Gordon soon became the musical leaders. Ella played piano to accompany the group, as she had very quickly excelled at reading sheet music. After years of hard work and frustration, the group eventually succeeded at generating publicity and acclaim, traveled extensively through America and Europe, and sold enough tickets and took in enough donations to save their school, and to win the hearts and respect of a lot of people. They also financed and built Jubilee Hall, an impressive performance venue on their campus.

jubilee singers (Jubilee Hall at Fisk)

The Jubilees taught a lot of people about the power and beauty of a body of music that somehow was created almost out of thin air and sung by an oppressed people. It is as enduring and beautiful a musical testament that exists anywhere, and demonstrates how we all might respond when mistreated. (Though of course there are those who think that resistance and violence would have been a better response than singing and enduring.) Obviously the impact of the Jubilees was a combination of the material they sang and the way they sang it, and Ward's book chronicles account after account of audiences who wept and were profoundly affected by the music. The songs were not just about suffering, nor did they demand revenge or justice. They were full of faith, longing, and hope. The mournful beauty of African-American spirituals is mixed with deep sadness and a defiant pride, as well as a profound acceptance and almost an optimism rooted in a type of Christianity that African-Americans developed and embraced to anchor them in their struggle.

George White worked to exhaustion to lead, rehearse and guide the singers, and he personally booked and promoted most of the concerts. He was the group's coach, agent and road manager, and took them to countless hundreds of performing destinations, and struggled to find them food and lodging along the way. This itself was not a simple task. Even in northern states they were jeered, denied food or hotels, and even kicked off trains when they had purchased first class tickets. Their audiences eventually included many rich and powerful Americans and Europeans, and among their avid fans were both Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. The success of the group also sparked copycat groups, somewhat diluting their importance but also broadening the scope and impact of African-American music outside the American South.

We can easily now take songs like "Swing Low" for granted, since spirituals and "slave songs" have continued to travel around the globe, but they did not just appear the hearts of singers and listeners everywhere, or in the song books and hymnals where we now commonly find them. In pre-internet, pre-telecommunication days, songs moved slowly, because dedicated people, who believed in their power sang them over and over with great conviction. The Jubilees brought dozens of songs they knew into the lexicon of American music, but on terms of their own, and not as an attempt to re-create the way they had been sung in the days of slavery. They sang to a world where a large percentage of the population truly believed that blacks were inferior to whites, and they chose as a modest goal to show that a black singing group could excel at doing the same kind of thing that white groups did. Remember that in this era there was no awareness yet of the ideas of folklore, and the European practices of conductors, sheet music and formal arrangements of songs had a pretty firm grip on American public music. It would be another 80 years until untrained & uneducated musicians would be widely celebrated anywhere.

As the singers began to succeed, it also marked a turning point in the Fisk Jubilee story, where it gets "fuzzy" and controversial just as it starts getting good. What happened and what didn’t happen can be looked at from two very different angles. It makes sense from one viewpoint that the freed slaves would sing their old songs in a way that resembled the way white people did, to show their competence and to make their music more accessible to the people who might be sympathetic and donate money to help them. The opposite argument also makes sense, that they shouldn't have tried to be something they were not, and should merely have embraced their own brand and identity. We weren't there, and we weren't them, and none of us alive can even begin to imagine what it would be like to be a slave, so my vote is to respect the decisions they made about how to take their music to the world.

In an effort to sell tickets and make money, White and his group decided not to try to have the ex-slaves sing pure “plantation songs" or be what modern African-Americans or fans of African-American music would likely want them to be. Instead they chose to be “less African,” and amazed their audiences by demonstrating that black musicians could play and sing beautifully and well. Bear in mind also that at that time some of the most popular entertainment in America were the so-called minstrel shows, where black-faced performers mocked and exaggerated African-American culture. Audiences everywhere marveled at the purity of the Jubilees' voices, their intonation and singing skill, their harmonies and arrangements, and of course at the conviction with which they sang these “eerie” songs.

The Jubilees showed that freed slaves could sing together in a choir that impressed primarily white people, and there isn’t much indication in the book as to what other freed slaves thought of the group. Frederick Douglass was a friend and fan, but for the most part, the Jubilees were not singing for their own people. The old spirituals that were such a hit with the white audiences have been pretty painful for a lot of black people to hear, since they came from a past that most don't care to dwell on. We can look favorably at the Jubilees for working hard to do something that might have contributed to healing the racial problem in America, and commend them for helping to spread some worthy music around. Or we can criticize them or just George White for perhaps exploiting the legacy of black suffering to make white people feel something they needed or wanted. It's not a modern “Black Pride” idea that a mild-mannered, good-hearted white guy collaborated with the black students to make some music that white people liked. White ended up teaching the Jubilees to sing in the manner of a white choir, rather than just having them sing the way they might naturally do. They all seemed to agree that it was important for the singers to dress well, act impeccably, and have very precise diction and elocution when they sang. Was that the best choice? Who can say? Who should say? They were good songs. The students sang them well. People liked them. Could that be a bad thing?

I am filled with questions. Did those singers really want to do what they did, or after being slaves, were they so used to pleasing white people, and so glad to make some money doing something other than menial labor or difficult farm work that they were easily persuaded to do a music gig that white people perhaps wanted more than they did? Were they helping their white audiences feel better about just having fought the bloodiest war in the history of the world to free them? If so, how did they feel about doing that? Was it exploitive for them to do what they did, or honorable? Were they leading the way to a better society, or a symptom of a damaged one? No matter what you think of spirituals, and even if you think that it is wrong or exploitive for them or anyone to sell tickets so white people can hear well-dressed, polite black people sing spirituals, the work the Jubilees did is a big part of the reason that so many of us know "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" by heart. It's hard to get people singing together these days, but whenever there is an opportunity for a random group of people to sing that song together, it always sprouts wings, and does what songs like that are designed to do.

Another legacy of the Fisk Singers, other than the songs themselves, seems to have been those not-very-African sounding artists like Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and even Odetta, who had somewhat operatic rather than "bluesy" or "ethnic" black voices. When I was first learning about blues and the roots of rock and roll, I had trouble appreciating those artists, and thought that John Lee Hooker was much better and "cooler" than Paul Robeson. Though they were ground-breaking artists, they sound odd to us now, since we are used to hearing “blacker” voices like Otis Redding, Snoop Dogg or Aretha Franklin. Possibly they were an important intermediary step that needed to happen and should have continued. It's possible that they were some kind of an evolutionary dead-end that wasn't as successful, or that couldn't thrive in an America that seems to demand to be racially divided. Should we expect to see increasing or decreasing numbers of black artists who "sound black"? Whatever happens, we won't be sure whether to attribute the result to popularity or just marketing. It was hailed as a huge moment in civil rights in 1939 when Marian Anderson's performance for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall was banned by the Daughters of the American Revoution, and she instead sang for a massive crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. In the post-Obama world, here in the 50th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King, it's not clear that racial blurring and assimilation are a trend.

It's possible that the Jubilees inadvertently helped cause something else to happen. Folklorist John Lomax wrote in his 1947 book "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter" about how he feared that we were quickly losing the charming and unique music that he fondly remembered rural black people in Texas playing when he was young. Hearing smooth, polished black singers like the Jubilees, with their nice diction and careful arrangements, might have motivated Lomax to find and preserve the raw, rural, "uneducated" black music he liked so much. Ultimately, his work actually helped create the genre of blues, which oddly has been consumed largely by white people for the last 60 years, who have focused heavily on the idea of "authenticity" as an important measure of quality. I've heard it argued that celebrating the blues helps to perpetuate a racially divided world, and that its performers are reinforcing stereotypes. (I confess to enjoying good blues music myself, played by both black or white performers.)

Those of you who are fans of things like Delta blues or the Preservation Hall Band, and the more deeply African-American kinds of music that are out there would probably feel that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were too “watered-down” or perhaps even “Uncle Tom.” Those of you with a different lens in your viewfinders might see an early example of a successful collaboration between black and white people that ultimately helped build bridges between black and white culture. To me, what made American music strongest was when African and European music joined forces and mixed together, spawning hybrids that were more powerful than the individual ingredients. The blockbuster movie “Black Panther” was a collaboration between black and white storytellers and moviemakers, which may be why its message is so popular and powerful. The story of American sports in the last decades has been one of racial collaboration, and not just black teams playing against white teams, or each in their own leagues. Basketball was invented by white people, but it seems clear that it's a better game when blacks, white, Hispanics, Asians and Slavic people all play the same game, and play with and against each other.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers existed in the form they were in, and we can’t go back and make them more to our liking now. It's possible that they deserve much more credit and acclaim than they are getting these days, it's possible they don't. Right or wrong, it does seem that they deserve more of our attention, and that their powerful story should be better-known. The issues that surround them, and the very controversy about the value of their legacy is valuable. They affected people, and they changed the world’s attitudes in some ways about black people and about black music, and they taught us some great songs. They worked long and hard for little money. They acted very honorably amid a long difficult struggle, kept their faith, and apparently sang from their hearts on every occasion.

As Ward said nicely at the end of his book: “The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the fountainhead of a continuing steam of musicians who trace their source back to the praise and sorrow songs that Ella Sheppard and her schoolmates first shyly performed for their white mentor 130 years ago, in the curtained dark of Fisk’s decaying barracks.” I also like what Henry Proctor, an 1891 Fisk graduate wrote: “As the bruised flower yields the sweet perfume, and the crushed grape the blood-red wine, so the hearts of these people, bruised by oppression and crushed by adversity’s iron heel, poured forth the sweetness and purity of the gospel in song.”

I remain eternally appreciative of the immense contribution to music made by black Americans, and it's not just black music that owes gratitude to the Fisk folks. The ways that African-Americans used music to help survive brutal oppression is an incredible lesson all of us could learn from. The Christianity they embraced as part of their survival, rooted in hope, the continued presence of forgiveness amid a situation that seemed to call for retaliation, and the surprisingly honorable and hopeful horizons they sang about are an eternally inspiring example to all. I doubt that many listeners or musicians could stand to live in a world today where music had no African ingredients.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics. 

Chordally yours,