Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are an African-American a cappella ensemble, consisting of students at Fisk University. The first group was organized in 1871 to tour and raise funds for college. Their early repertoire consisted mostly of traditional spirituals, but included some Stephen Foster songs. The original group toured along the Underground Railroad path in the United States, as well as performing in England and Europe. Later nineteenth-century groups also toured in Europe.

In 2002 the Library of Congress honored their 1909 recording of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" by adding it in the United States National Recording Registry. In 2008 they were awarded a National Medal of Arts.


The Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1870's
The Singers were organized as a fundraising effort for Fisk University. The historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by the American Missionary Association and local supporters after the end of the American Civil War to educate freedmen and other young African Americans. The five-year-old university was facing serious financial difficulty. To avert bankruptcy and closure, Fisk's treasurer and music director, George L. White, a white Northern missionary, gathered a nine-member student chorus to go on tour to earn money for the university. On October 6, 1871, the group of students, consisting of two quartets and a pianist, started their U.S. tour under White's direction. They first performed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over the next 18 months, the group toured through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers

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After a concert in Cincinnati, the group donated their small profit, which amounted to less than fifty dollars, to the relief to the victims of the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. As soprano Maggie Porter recalled, "We had thirty dollars and sent every penny to Chicago and didn’t have anything for ourselves." The mayor of Chillicothe, Ohio, expressed "thanks to these young colored people for their liberality in giving the proceeds of last evening’s concert to our relief fund for the Chicago sufferers." The group traveled on to Columbus, where lack of funding, poor hotel conditions, and overall mistreatment from the press and audiences left them feeling tired and discouraged.

The group and their pastor, Henry Bennett, prayed about whether to continue with the tour. White went off to pray as well; he believed that they needed a name to capture audience attention. The next morning, he met with the singers and said "Children, it shall be Jubilee Singers in memory of the Jewish year of Jubilee."

This was a reference to Jubilee described in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. Each fiftieth Pentecost was followed by a "year of jubilee" in which all slaves would be set free. Since most of the students at Fisk University and their families were newly freed slaves, the name "Jubilee Singers" seemed fitting.
Jubilee Hall at Fisk University
The Jubilee Singers' performances were a departure from the familiar "black minstrel" genre of white musicians' performing in blackface. One early review of the group's performance was headlined "Negro Minstrelsy in Church--Novel Religious Exercise," while further reviews highlighted the fact that this group of Negro minstrels were, oddly enough, "genuine negroes." "Those who have only heard the burnt cork caricatures of negro minstrelsy have not the slightest conception of what it really is," Doug Seroff quotes one review of a concert by the group as saying. This was not a uniquely American response to the group's performance, but was typical in audience receptions in Europe as well: "From the first the Jubilee music was more or less of a puzzle to the critics; and even among those who sympathised with their mission there was no little difference of opinion as to the artistic merit of their entertainments. Some could not understand the reason for enjoying so thoroughly as almost everyone did these simple unpretending songs."

As the tour continued, audiences came to appreciate the singers' voices, and the group began to be praised. The Jubilee Singers are credited with the early popularization of the Negro spiritual tradition among white and northern audiences in the late 19th century; many were previously unaware of its existence. After the rough start, the first United States tours eventually earned $40,000 for Fisk University.

In early 1872 the group performed at the World's Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival in Boston, and they were invited to perform for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House in March of that year.

They gave a separate performance in Washington, D.C., for Vice President Schuyler Colfax and members of the U.S. Congress. They traveled next to New York, where they performed before enthusiastic audiences at preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and at Steinway Hall in Manhattan. They garnered national attention and generous donations. Staying in the New York area for six weeks, by the time they returned to Nashville, they had raised the full $20,000 White had promised the university.

In a tour of Great Britain and Europe in 1873, the group, by then with 11 members, performed "Steal Away to Jesus" and "Go Down, Moses" for Queen Victoria in April. Queen Victoria was so impressed by the Singers that she commented that with such beautiful voices, they had to be from the Music City of the United States. Hence, the moniker for Nashville, Tennessee - Music City USA - was born. They returned the following year, they sailed to Europe again, touring from May 1875 to July 1878. This tour raised an estimated $150,000 for the university, funds used to construct Fisk’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and still stands.

The original Jubilee Singers disbanded in 1878 because of their grueling touring schedule. As Ella Sheppard, one of the original Jubilee Singers recalled, "our strength was failing under the ill treatment at hotels, on railroads, poorly attended concerts, and ridicule." Porter also said, "There were many times, when we didn’t have place to sleep or anything to eat. Mr. White went out and brought us some sandwiches and tried to find some place to put us up." Other times while the singers would wait in the railway station, White "and some other man of the troupe waded through sleet or snow or rain from hotel to hotel seeking shelter for us".

A new Jubilee Singers choir was formed in 1879 under the direction of George White and singer Frederick J. Loudin. This troupe, formed by White, consisted of Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Georgia Gordon, Mabel Lewis, Patti Malone, Hinton Alexander, Benjamin W. Thomas, and newcomers R. A. Hall, Mattie Lawrence, and George E. Barrett. A. Cushing was the agent who managed their bookings.

Singers and tours

[note: Parentheses indicate performers who participated only a few months in a particular tour.]
First Tour October 1871 to March 1872
  • (Phebe Anderson) - contralto
  • Isaac Dickerson - bass
  • Greene Evans - bass
  • Benjamin Holmes - tenor
  • Jennie Jackson - soprano
  • Maggie Porter - soprano
  • Thomas Rutling - tenor
  • Ella Sheppard - soprano, piano, organ, and guitar
  • Minnie Tate - contralto
  • Eliza Walker - contralto
  • (George Wells) - performer
Second Tour May 1872 to May 1874
  • Isaac Dickerson - bass
  • (Greene Evans) - bass
  • Georgia Gordon - soprano
  • Benjamin Holmes - tenor
  • Jennie Jackson - soprano
  • Julia Jackson - contralto
  • Mabel Lewis - contralto
  • (Josephine Moore) - piano
  • (Henry Morgan) - tenor
  • Maggie Porter - soprano
  • Thomas Rutling - tenor
  • Ella Sheppard - soprano, piano, organ, and guitar
  • Minnie Tate - contralto
  • Edmund Watkins - bass
Third Tour January 1875 to July 1878
  • Hinton Alexander- tenor
  • (Minnie Butler) - voice and/or instrument unknown
  • Maggie Carnes - soprano
  • Georgia Gordon - soprano
  • (Ella Hildridge) - soprano
  • Jennie Jackson - soprano
  • Julia Jackson - contralto
  • Mabel Lewis - contralto
  • Frederick J. Loudin - bass
  • (Patti Malone) - mezzo-soprano
  • (Gabriel Ousley) - bass
  • Maggie Porter - soprano
  • America Robinson - contralto
  • Thomas Rutling - tenor
  • Ella Sheppard - soprano, piano, organ, and guitar
  • Benjamin W. Thomas - bass
  • (Lucinda Vance) - contralto
  • Edmund Watkins - bass


Notable people who were members of the Jubilee Singers include:
  • Roland Hayes, lyric tenor who was the first African-American male concert artist to receive wide international acclaim
  • Frederick J. Loudin, sang bass in the choir, the caliber of his singing was often compared to that of Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson, two of the greatest male vocalists born and bred on American soil. He also directed the "Original Fisk Jubilee Singers," before and after the group disbanded in 1878, touring the globe and receiving international acclaim, in the capacity of singer, director and manager of the group for nearly 30 years.
  • Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, soprano whose repertoire included grand opera, light opera, and popular music
  • Patti J. Malone, mezzo-soprano
  • Mandisa Lynn Hundley, American gospel singer professionally known as Mandisa; a Grammy and Dove Award-nominated vocalist, she was the ninth-place finalist in the fifth season (2006) of American Idol.

Jubilee Day

Fisk University commemorates the anniversary of the Singers' first tour by celebrating Jubilee Day on October 6 each year.

Recent accomplishments:

The Fisk Jubilee Singers' performance at the Dixie Carter Performing Arts and Academic Enrichment Center in Huntingdon, Tennessee in 2008.
The Jubilee Singers continue to perform as a touring ensemble of Fisk University students. As of 2000, the group had 14 members who sang without instrumental accompaniment and with their director offstage.

They also have appeared with popular performers including Danny Glover, Hank Williams Jr., Faith Hill, and Shania Twain.

Fisk Jubilee Singers 12 13 Ensemble

Representation in arts and culture:

On 15 May 2010 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a play The Jubilee Singers about the Fisk Jubilee Singers' European Tour of 1873 by Adrian Mitchell. (The poet, playwright and human rights campaigner died in 2008.) It portrayed the relationship between the singers and a Welsh journalist who admired them and later acted as their publicist.

Legacy and honors:

  • 1996, the National Arts Club honored the Singers with a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • 2000, the Singers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
  • 2006, the group was honored on the Music City Walk of Fame.
  • 2004, the song "Poor Man Lazarus" on the Singers' 2003 recording In Bright Mansions was honored with a Dove Award.
  • In Bright Mansions also was nominated for a Grammy Award that year in the Best Recording Package category.
  • 2008, the group was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
  • 2009, Fisk Jubilee Singers, along with Jonny Lang, released the song "I Believe" on the compilation album Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration.

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