Monday, February 28, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: The legacy

In 1875 the singers went on tour again, repeating the schedule of starting in the Northern United States and then traveling to the British Isles.  This was also the ten-year anniversary of the university, and the year of its first graduating class.  Unlike traditional universities, Fisk students sometimes entered without any education at all.  The first graduating class therefore included students who had been prevented by law from learning to read as children, and had to start from the very beginning.

The singers' previous trip was successful in raising donations for the school, but also in uplifting the race.  These descendents of people who had crossed the Atlantic in shackles now traveled to Europe aboard a luxury steamer, with a discounted rate due to their reputation.

Again, they performed at religious services and concerts in London, attracting audiences as large as 10,000.  On a smaller scale, they also reached out to Sunday School children.  Another trip to Scotland was equally sucessful, with over 5,000 at one event.  By now their repertoire was more well known, and they received requests for specific songs, such as Steal Away and I've been Redeemed (below).  They returned from their second trip with £10,000 in donations for Fisk.

Their success inspired other Reconstruction era colleges for freed slaves to follow suit, and many colleges continue the tradition of an annual tour, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

For more on the history and impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, read Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus: The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871 - 1878.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Scotland, then home

After a successful concert tour in England, theh Jubilee singers spent their winter concertizing in Scotland.  As in England, they were welcomed warmly and performed almost daily.

They returned to Nashville at the end of the school year, exhausted but having been successful in securing cash donations and a donation of books for the library.

Maggie Porter, one of the group's best singers, had a personal mission while in England: to find her father.  After the war her father had left with other freedmen for Liberia to find work.  Liberia had been founded as a refuge for freed slaves before the war and continued to be a destination afterward.  Unfortunately for Maggie Porter, her father seems to have disappeared after signing on with a company of freedmen.  She attempted to find him through contacts she made while traveling in England.  Sadly, no word ever came from or about him.

After her second year at Fisk, Maggie took a position as a school teacher at a small town school for black children.  During Christmas break the school was burned, probably by local whites who disapproved of education for blacks.

Back at Fisk, Maggie was able to assume the role of Queen, as Esther in the Handel Oratorio, Esther.  Audiences in England who read Maggie's story in the commemorative songbooks probably wondered at the quickly changing fortunes of freed slaves who were treated like royalty in England and at Fisk and yet continued to face racism in daily life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: First Trip to London

In May of 1872, the Fisk Jubilee Singers set sail for England, after suitable groundwork had been laid by an advance party.

On their second engagement, they sang a private performance of three songs for Queen Victoria: "Steal Away," The Lord's Prayer," and "Go Down, Moses."  Later, they would perform "The Lord's Prayer" at a luncheon attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future Edward VII) who requested "No More Auction Block For Me." Their other engagements included members of the nobility, especially abolitionists and those who worked with the poor.

They had fewer choices of venue in England due to the differences in religious worship practices there, but at one event they sang to a congregation of over 5,000 people.

One of the most frequently requested songs in England was "John Brown's Body."  This used new words added to the melody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  John Brown was an abolitionist who believed in violent resistance against slavery rather than the peaceful means advocated by other abolitionists.  He was executed after organizing a raid on a federal armory with the intention to seize munitions to give to slaves for slave uprisings.  The song, "John Brown's Body," was sung by Union soldiers, and his execution was seen as an act of sacrifice on behalf of the slaves.  Stanza 3 begins with "John Brown died that the slave might be free," and Stanza 4 refers to the Jubilee.  For slaves and abolitionists alike, this song represented sacrifice and victory.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: New England

New England in the late nineteenth century was a busy hub of industry and commerce, and it was also home to some of the most active abolitionists of the pre-war era.  Wealth and empathy combined meant the group would finally be able to send finds and goods back home to Fisk University.  It was during this part of their tour that the first commemorative book of spirituals was published and sold at concerts "by the hundreds."

Manufacturers sympathetic to the university's mission contributed everything from clocks to silverware to a pipe organ to help the start-up university.  In New Haven, esteemed citizens took the singers into their homes when hotels turned them away on account of their skin color.   They never knew whether their first greeting would be positive or negative, but they always had friends ready to defend their rights.   In Bridgeport, Connecticut they stayed in the best rooms of a first-class hotel, but in Newark, New Jersey, they were thrown out onto the street when the proprietor of a tavern discovered their authentic dark skin, not cork-darkened skin of other traveling "minstrels."  This caused his other customers to leave, and the city of Newark's outrage over the event inspired a law granting black children access to public schools.

Concerts throughout Massachussetts and the rest of New England netted them more money and gifts for the university.  They returned to Fisk after six months on the road, bringing with them $20,000 in donations and promises of goods for the new building.  They rode in a first-class railway car as they headed home.

The also made a trip to Washington, D.C., where they sang "Go down, Moses" for the president and vice president.  Note that two of the later stanzas (18 and 22) reference the chains of slavery.

This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as told in The story of the Jubilee Singers; with their songs by J.B. Marsh, from the Ball State Library Music Collection.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: America Robinson

In the famous photo of the singers that opens The Story of the Jubilee Singers, only one of the singers is shown in profile.  She was America Robinson, a dedicated student who was part of the opening day student body at Fisk in 1866. 

Both of America's parents were part-white slaves in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Her mother served a hard-hearted mistress who beat the child, leaving a gash across the face.  This may have been the reason for sitting in profile, though a later photo shows no scarring.

When Union troops evacuated Murfreesboro, they helped the entire family escape, concealed in an army wagon.

Her father was a rare slave who had been taught to read, so America had learned well enough from him to be able to make a living between school years as a teacher.

Number 53 in their songbook is "I'm Troubled in Mind," a song given to the singers by a former slave who remembered her father singing it to soothe himself after beatings.  Many spirituals functioned as a kind of musical salve to slaves who experienced beatings, separation from family, and other indignities.  By using imagery and references to Christianity, they created a genre that could soothe in any circumstance and reach the heart of the freeborn white audiences of the North.  The audiences probably wondered what horrors the former slaves had experienced as they listened to the song.   And for some singers, like America Robinson, it may have held special meaning.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Serenade your Sweetie: Music for Valentine's Day

The Music Collection has songbooks with background CDs with lots of love songs for you to serenade your sweetie.  These are just some of the Songbook/CD selections for your romantic date:

For Men:

Great Standards Collection

For Women:

Easygoing R&B


Taylor Swift

Frank Sinatra Standards

Patsy Cline

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Climbing the Hills of Zion

After touring Ohio, the group crossed into the hilly terrain of Pennsylvania en route to the East Coast.  They continued singing at church services, praise meetings, and concerts, raising money to reach New York City.

Their praise meeting in Elmira, New York, was held at the church presided over by the Rev. T.K. Beecher, brother of famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.  He sent word ahead to his brother, who would be one of their greatest supporters.

The group spent six weeks in New York, supported in their efforts by Henry Ward Beecher.  He helped them secure venues and wrote glowingly of their artistry in advance of their trip to Boston:  "They will charm any audience, sure; they make their mark by giving the 'spirituals' and plantation hymns as only they can sing them who know how to keep time to a master's whip.  Our people have been delighted."

"Climbing the Hills of Zion" might have taken on significance for the singers as they viewed the Adirondack Mountains on their way to New York City and Brooklyn. 

Jennie Jackson, the soloist for this song, was free-born due to her grandfather's owner (General Andrew Jackson) setting him free in his will, and her mother likewise benefitting from the President Jackson's wife's will.  Jennie helped her family by working as a laundress and nurse during the mornings, and her schooling was limited to a few hours per day at a freedmen's school.  Her years at Fisk were punctuated by periods when she had tro work to help her family and save for her tuition.  Jennie sang a solo at the group's first concert and remained with them for many years.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Touring the U.S. (Ohio)

The select group of talented singers from Fisk University started touring in the Fall of 1871.  Their venues consisted of churches where they sang "praise meetings," rented music venues, and university concert halls.  The group toured at first without a real name, sometimes being advertised as "a band of negro minstrels who call themselves Coloured Christian Singers." Money coming in barely paid the group's expenses, so Mr. White decided on the name "The Jubilee Singers" in reference to the "year of jubilee" which slaves looked forward to as their time for emancipation.

"Way Over Jordan" is one of the "signal songs" that could be understood two ways. The literal meaning references the Israelites' travels under the leadership of Moses in the book of Exodus.  For the Israelites, crossing the Jordan represented the end of their travels back toward Israel and freedom.  Likewise, for escaping slaves, the Ohio River was the boundary between slavery and freedom and the end of a long journey for many.  Songs signaled to escapees in hiding when it was safe to cross or when "Satan" was on the loose.  A slave in hiding who heard this song would know that it was safe to cross the Ohio River to safety.

So it's fitting that their first tour began with several dates in Ohio.

But although people of the northern United States included dedicated abolitionists, Union soldiers, and people who risked their lives hiding escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, not everyone in the North was so welcoming. In Chillicothe, Ohio, the singers realized that the trip would not be just a fund-raiser for their newly-founded school, but also a mission to break down prejudice.

Here at Chillicothe they met with an indignity which was often repeated in the next year's experience.  Applying at one of the principal hotels for entertainment, they were refused admittance because of their colour.  Treated in the same way at a second, they only secured shelter at a third by the landlord's giving up his own bedroom to them to use as a parlour, and furnishing them their meals before the usual hour, that his other guests might not leave the house.
  Within a few years, their reception had changed: 
People who would not sit in the same church-pew as a negro, under the magic of their song were able to get new light on questions of social equality.
After singing in Cincinnati, Chillicothe, Columbus, Akron, Oberlin, Cleveland, and Zanesville, they moved Eastward to continue their mission.

This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as told in The story of the Jubilee Singers; with their songs by J.B. Marsh, from the Ball State Library Music Collection.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Origins of a Tradition

Education was the key to success for blacks in post-slavery America, but having been denied an education for their whole lives, former slaves needed schools that could take adults from complete illiteracy to college graduation.  Fisk University was one of the first seven universities established toward this goal.  Students were enthusiastic learners:
All their lives, the lash or the auction-block had been the swift penalty for slaves who were caught learning to read. Now that the fetters had fallen from mind as well as body there came an eagerness to learn that was like a consuming fire. The world never saw such a sight before as these schools presented. Families pinched with hunger asked more eagerly for schools than for bread.(p. 6)
Although Northern charities funded these universities, money was needed for building and development.  George L. White, a teacher from New York and Union Army veteran, selected the best singers for additional training and formed a group from these voices.  In 1871 they began touring the U.S. and Europe.

They were at times without the money to buy needed clothing. Yet in less than three years they returned, bringing back with them nearly one hundred thousand dollars. They had been turned away from hotels, and driven out of railway waiting-rooms, because of their colour. But they had been received with honour by the President of the United States, they had sung their slave-songs before the Queen of Great Britain, and they had gathered as invited guests about the breakfast-table of her Prime Minister."
The song on this page was given to the group by Frederick Douglass.  Like many spirituals, songs of freedom, hope, and despair that drew on themes from the Bible that resonated with the experiences of slavery.  Some songs carried additional meaning for people escaping slavery via the underground railroad.  "Signal" songs told escapees when it was safe to travel, which way to go, or what dangers lay ahead.  "Run to Jesus" may have been one of these songs.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers

The introduction to the songbook portion of The Story of the Jubilee Singers shows the kind of bias the singers faced, but also the sympathy that audiences felt for their circumstances:
The excellend rendering of the Jubilee Band is made more effective and the interest is intensified by the comparison of their former state of slavery and degradation with the present prospects and hopes of their race, which crowd upon every listener's mind during the singing of their songs

Regarding the songs themselves, author Theo. F. Seward writes from the perspective of the "cultivated" white audiences, accustomed to parlor music and classical concerts, who were hearing the voices of black people for the first time:
Their origin is unique. They are never "composed" after the manner of ordinary music, but spring into life, ready made, from the white heat of religious fervour during some protracted meeting in church or camp. They come from no musical cultivation whatever, but are the simple, cstatic utterances of wholly untutored minds. From so uenpromising a source we could reasonably expect only such a mass of crudities as would be unendurable to the cultivated ear. On the contrary, however, the cultivated listener confesses to a new charm, and to a power never before felt, at least in its kind.

The field of "ethnomusicology," the study of folk music (mainly), would not nuance this understanding for many years to come. Research into the folk music of other peoples would reveal charms and powers of those cultures as well, despite a lack of "cultivation."

For concert audiences of the late Nineteenth Century, the Fisk Jubilee Singers revealed the artistry of folk music and the musicality of non-Europeans. A common bond of appreciation for finely honed musical performance helped break down barriers created by centuries of oppression and degradation.

A short ten years after the writing of this passage, researchers in "systematic musicology" (or "comparative musicology") would take recording equipment into the "field" to study the music of "uncultured" peoples. Until that time traveling groups like The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the only way that many Americans and Europeans could hear the music of a culture that was so alien to them.

Celebrate Chinese New Year in Song!

Celebrate Chinese New Year with music from the Music Collection.  Use the Media Finder for World Music to search by country or language.  You can also use the Media Finder for Musical Recordings other than Classical to search for popular music sung in Chinese.  To see all the Chinese music in the Music Collection, use the Advanced Search in CardCat to specify format (compact disc, audio) and language (Chinese).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Ground Hog's Day!

Happy Ground Hog's Day!  Have you ever wondered why we don't seem to have a song specifically about ground hogs for celebrating the day?  Sure, there's the "Pennsylvania Polka," played over and over in the movie, "Groundhog Day," but where is the cute song about the furry little critter? 

The cute little critter does have one old folk song to "celebrate" with, but it doesn't end well for him.  Take a look at the folk song below, which came from the hills of Eastern Kentucky.  The song was "collected" in the hey-day of ethnographic research to preserve America's heritage of folk music.  Researchers travelled from town to town with tape recorders and notepads, documenting the songs they heard the townspeople sing.

This version comes from a songbook that is so old it is now in the public domain (i.e., the copyright has expired).  Check out the lyrics and you might underestand why this song hasn't come down to us for celebrating Ground Hog Day:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Black History Month: Fisk Jubilee Singers

For Black History Month, this blog will share some of the songs and stories from the Music Collection's copy of The story of the Jubilee Singers; with their songs by J.B. Marsh of Fisk University in Nashville. (ML400 .M34 1877)  The book chronicles the history to that point of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a college singing group that toured the U.S. and Europe to raise awareness of African-American spirituals and to raise money for their university.

Organized after the civil war, Fisk University and other universities educated former slaves, many of whom had been denied even the most basic education until then.  The singing group was called the "Jubilee" singers after the the Biblical term "jubilee," which referenced the Emancipation Proclamation.  The university has carried on the tradition to this day, and the Jubilee Singers still perform both on-campus and away.

Throughout February, this blog will summarize the biographies of the individual singers as described in this book, as well as discuss arrangements of the spirituals the group sang.