Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The NRR Project #26: ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’

From left: King, Myers, Ryder, Work of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet
‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’
Fisk Jubilee Quartet
Recorded December 1, 1909

The intersection of black and white music in American culture continues here. In this case, instead of white culture misappropriating and distorting black identity via the minstrel show and the “darkie” stereotypes, this is a genuine impulse from black culture phrased in a way that penetrated and permeated white identity forever.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers first concertized in 1871, to raise funds for their namesake university in Nashville, Tennessee. This early history is best studied via Andrew Ward’s excellent Dark Midnight When I Rise, discussed by me here in an earlier essay. Their combination of beautiful, deeply felt original material and precise, part-sung, a capella Western-art-music style was intoxicating. (To get a sense of how powerful this kind of singing is, listen to Fisk’s 2003 album In Bright Mansions.)

The Singers’ original ensemble disbanded in 1878, but the tradition continued through the auspices of the institution. This quartet is a breakout from the larger group, consisting of John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Alfred Garfield King, and Noah Ryder. It’s typical of the Fisk style – deliberate, precise, voluptuously voiced but blended dynamically, and filled with rectitude. It does anything but swing.

And perhaps the starch had to be taken out of it to make it palatable to Caucasian tastes, “churchy” enough. They introduced not only this song but also “Steal Away,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Wade in the Water,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and many more inextricably woven into our collective cultural DNA, black and white, Christian and non-, alike. As soon as the Fisk repertoire was out there, it spread madly – everyone sang these songs. They are vehicles of transportation, compelling in themselves as embodiments of faith forged into musical phrases.

Recordings like these pave the wave for the explosion of gospel music, one of the few things black and white culture could share without discomfort for decades. That would give birth in turn to many more American musics.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: cylinder recordings of Ishi, ‘last of his tribe.’

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