The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University

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The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University


From the mid-1800s, most black institutions of higher education fielded a group of jubilee singers and/or a vocal quartet to sing spirituals. These groups toured the nation and "represented" the institution outside the local community. One of the earliest and most famous of these groups were the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University. According to Ray Funk, in his essay accompanying the Document compilation EARLY NEGRO VOCAL QUARTETS, there is only one recording from the 1890s extant of an African-American vocal group, the Standard Quartette.

While this Fisk group was active in the l890s, it continued on throughout the years, of course with some different members each year and a complete turnover of members within each four years. For the most part, the singers were students at Fisk.

I don't think you are going to find anything recorded originally before 1900, but for some modern recordings of the Fisk Jubilee Singers you should look for a 1994 Smithsonian/Folkways recording called: African American Spirituals : The Concert Tradition SF40072

At a time when most black music was being performed by white minstrel musicians in blackface and vulgar caricature, a small group of exceptionally well-trained and talented black singers at Fisk University in Nashville achieved world-wide renown for their stirring and very professional performance of traditional black spirituals.

Originally, the group was composed of two quartets and a pianist, a woman named Wells, under the direction of the University musical director, George L. White. In 1871 this small group set out to raise money for the struggling little university (founded in 1866). Over the next decade they had toured most of the northern states, had performed at the White House, toured England and much of Europe and had played for Queen Victoria.

The group was given its name by director White. In Old Testament history, each fiftieth Pentecost was followed by a "year of jubilee" - a year in which Hebrew law required that all slaves be set free. Organized in 1871, in the dark shadow of slavery, the "Jubilee Singers" seemed a most appropriate name. Most of the students at Fisk had been former slaves.

In terms of musical history, the primary significance of the Jubilee Singers is that they introduced to the world for the first time a magnificent body of folk music -- slave songs, spirituals -- which celebrated life, survival, victory.

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Recordings of their music are available, I believe, from the John Edwards Memorial Foundation. I also recommend an excellent, though brief, article about the Jubilee Singers, in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The work is published by the U. of North Carolina Press.
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