Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the painful, highly problematic birth of American music

 The Fisk Jubilee Singers, then and now.


On a sweltering June night in 1871, a handful of concertizing African American university students and their music director, George L. White, stood outside a small-town hotel in rural Tennessee, menaced by an angry, drunken crowd who called White a “Yankee nigger school teacher.”

“White and his troupe retreated to the train station to pray and sing. White interposed himself between the crowd and his frightened troupe and directed them in some hymns. Gradually, recalled (student) Ella Sheppard, the riotous crowd left of their jeering and swearing and slunk back, until only the leader stood near White, and he finally took off his hat. ‘Our hearts were fearful and tender and darkness was falling. We were softly finishing the last verse of “Beyond the smiling and the weeping I shall be soon—”

                        Beyond the farewell and the greeting
                        Beyond the pulse’s fever beating
                        I shall be soon.
                        Love, rest and home,
                        Lord, tarry not but come

‘—when we saw the bull’s eye of the coming engine and knew that we were saved. The leader begged us with tears falling to sing the hymn again, which we did.’”

This remarkable passage from Andrew Ward’s masterful account “Dark Midnight When I Rise” crystallizes the transformative impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who formed the secret songs of slavery into the spirituals that formed the bedrock of American music to come, and anchored the spiritual vocabulary of the culture as well.

Nearly every child growing up in America has either sung or heard songs such as “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Wade in the Water,” “Hold On,” “Rocking Jerusalem,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Go Down Moses” and “Balm in Gilead.” Even those who don’t share the brand of faith implicit in the words of these songs can feel their power. How did they wink into existence?

This remarkable body of music didn’t spring from any one identifiable mind, but from the consciousness of an enslaved race. Ward explains how the African slaves imported into America, cut off from their native cultures and forced into the acceptance of Christianity, shaped an amalgam of African song and Western hymn in services hidden away from the eyes and ears of their white overseers -- and put intense measures of agony and faith into it.

Ward quotes gospel scholar and singer Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer on spirituals:

“’ . . . after a while, it’s almost like therapy. It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders begin to come back to their natural position. What’s happening is, you’re going through a cleansing process. You’re coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are. And the more you sing it, the more you find relief, the more you believe that there is a way out of this.’”

These songs, passed down orally, were not shared with a larger public until George L. White, treasurer and music director for the newly founded Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee heard them in 1871.

The university, run by the American Missionary Association, was begun with the idea of educating African Americans. White, a missionary himself, had been searching for a way to stave off the institution’s bankruptcy.

Choral music had only recently come into vogue as a viable form of entertainment in America. Successful tours by Alpine folk-singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels in the late 1830s spawned homegrown concertizing by such traveling bands as the Hutchinson Family Singers and the Gibson family in the 1840s.

White hit on the idea of taking down these spiritual songs he heard from his black students, and formalizing and presenting them in concert. Surprisingly, his initial point of resistance was the students themselves, who felt that these folk compositions were relics of a slave past best left behind.

White found something profoundly musical and moving in them. He developed a cappella arrangements and drilled his students mercilessly; emphasizing not volume but intensity, until the Singers’ trademark sound was that of a pianissimo attack that filled any given venue with sound.

An 18-month tour across the Northeast began discouragingly. Writes Ward, “Nothing had prepared Northerners for White’s young choir. What little they knew of black culture was derived from the derisive ‘Darktown’ cartoons of Currier & Ives and the bug-eyed, burnt-cork minstrel troupes with their ‘Congo banjos,’ interlocutors, ersatz ‘plantation melodies,’ and ‘nigger’ jokes that cavorted across the stages of the day. For many Northerners, minstrel troupes were there only African American frame of reference, and even the pious Yankees who attended White’s first concerts took their seats expecting to laugh at the antics of a primitive people.”

Nothing could withstand the power and sincerity of their performances. What began as a predicted folly ended a triumph. The Singers raised tens of thousands of dollars for their university, and the troupe soon found themselves suffering from overwork rather than neglect. Subsequent tours that covered England and parts of Europe as well over the course of six and a half years were to prove lucrative, but also the group’s undoing.


In addition to the grueling schedule, the usual interpersonal frictions arose. More significantly, the singers began to demand better treatment – a less taxing schedule, higher pay, individual recognition. White and the others who led them in turn accused them of ingratitude, and invoked their sense of dedication to a higher cause (in this case, Fisk, Christianity, and racial equality, in ascending order of irony).

Another unfortunate long-term side effect of the Singers’ popularity was the unintended reinforcement of the Uncle Tom-ish stereotype of virtuous victimhood of African Americans. The myth of the passive, benighted, saintly Negro would persist even down to the well-intentioned metaphors connecting Tom Robinson and the title creature in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Was White’s well-meaning transmission of these songs simply another in an almost endless stream of white assimilation, exploitation and pollution of another culture’s handiwork? And then there is that nasty question: does art born of torment and torture redeem that experience, or simply use it as a means to an end?

Christianity’s central metaphor is suffering and redemption, and the Jubilee songs embody this theme. Art is redemptive only in the sense that it is cathartic – that in and of itself, whether lauded or even noticed by the outside world, it aids the soul in surviving and making sense of reality. Does that mean that art is therapeutic? Sure; but therapy is not art, something the self-indulgent will never understand. In other words – everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell a story.

The power of spirituals extends past the boundaries of the faith within which they were conceived. Any participant in vocal music can tell you how it feels to be swept up passionately in the act itself. To serve the tune is to relinquish self for a time, to become a vessel of a higher power.

Again, Ward:

“When White asked several Genevans through an interpreter how they could so enjoy the songs when they could not understand the words, ‘the answer was, “We cannot understand them, but we can feel them.”’”

European sacred and art music has its limitations. The majesty and beauty of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Schubert, Mahler, Verdi and all, despite their presumed dominance by educators and experts, still don’t touch much of the musical universe as practiced worldwide.

White codified the music, but did not tamper with its power. That power injected itself into the pale culture that dominated it. As Ward notes:

“An editorial in the A.M.A.’s (American Missionary Association) journal went so far as to suggest that a little exposure to black religion might do whites good. ‘One of the beautiful and blessed effects of a real Christian culture for the negro would be the reflex influence of his emotive religion upon the unimaginative and unemotional white people who are now benefiting him.’”

Painfully condescending, but spot on in terms of white religion. Anyone who has suffered through years in the sedate pews of non-evangelical Christianity knows that subdued obedience and unduly demonstrative participation is the order of the day. No wonder the Jubilee Singers’ listeners felt they were hearing, in many senses, revelation.

Ward quotes one of the group’s most enthusiastic and eloquent fans, Mark Twain:

“’Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary – to my surprise – has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning – to my mind – their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can.’”


After seven years and three tours, the Jubilee Singers raised enough money to build Fisk University’s first permanent structure, Jubilee Hall. Succeeding classes kept the tradition alive, and alumni, such as the brilliant Roland Hayes, spread the tradition.

Spirituals led to gospel music – the deliberate expressions of individual composers such as Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland. The harmonies and feeling filtered down through the culture, influencing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, bluegrass, pop songs, rock and others.

The Jubilee Singers continued, expanding their repertory and winning acclaim. Until recently, their efforts have gone largely unrecorded; however, the 2003 disc “In Bright Mansions” is a remarkable and moving recapitulation of the songs that cemented the group’s reputation nearly 150 years ago.

Meanwhile, the contradictions still chafe. It’s still evident that African Americans are still disenfranchised and culturally segregated in any number of ways – while their songs of suffering have been fully integrated into the American consciousness.


“In Bright Mansions”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Curb Records

Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Andrew Ward
HarperCollins, New York, 2000



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