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.

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