October 29, 2018


How African American Spirituals Moved From Cotton Fields to Concert Halls (SANDRA JEAN GRAHAM, OCTOBER 29, 2018, What it Means to Be American)

Spirituals began their transition to the concert hall in 1871 in an effort to save Fisk University from financial ruin. The school had been founded by the American Missionary Association in 1866 in Nashville for the education of freedmen. Its white treasurer, George White, was an amateur musician who in his spare time trained a group of some 10 to 12 female and male singers. Their repertory consisted of white parlor songs and hymns of the day until White overheard the students singing spirituals to one another. He then prevailed on them to teach him the songs.

After a series of local concerts, White gambled with the school's and his personal savings by taking his singers on tour. In October 1871 they set out for the north, initially touring towns and cities on the Underground Railroad from Ohio to Maine. Audiences met the parlor songs with indifference but enthusiastically embraced the spirituals.

White arranged the spirituals with the goal of transforming a participatory folk music into a concert music that would hold the attention of a listening audience. This meant training his singers to blend and synchronize their voices. He typically added harmony, regulated the rhythm, added dynamics and other expressive features, and changed dialect to standard English. Church musician Theodore Seward (also white) transcribed the songs, which were sold in books at concerts. Through this process, improvisatory songs became standardized.

In 1874, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went to England, spending most of their career in Britain and on the Continent until they disbanded in 1878. Over the course of their short career they collected $150,000 for their university.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are justifiably renowned for their artistry, fundraising, and consciousness-raising. But public enthusiasm for jubilee songs might well have died out once the singers began performing abroad, had not numerous other jubilee groups materialized. Although the popularization of jubilee songs--as spirituals became known--began with the Fisk singers, it certainly didn't end with them.

Posted by at October 29, 2018 4:07 AM