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.

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