NASHVILLE – In an account of her years as Associate Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ella Sheppard, a gifted musician who was enslaved as a child, recalled one of the student ensemble’s first excursions outside of Nashville, just a few years after the Civil War. The singers were all students of Fisk University, a school for emancipated former slaves. They found themselves stranded in a rural train station with Ms Sheppard and their manager, a white abolitionist named George White, when an angry mob arrived. Faced with the fury of the white men, the students began to sing.
“One by one, the rioting crowd stopped their taunts and curses and crept back until only the chief stood next to Mr. White and finally took off his hat,” Ms. Sheppard wrote. “The leader begged us, with tears falling, to sing the hymn again.”
When I walked into Jubilee Hall on the Fisk University campus last week, 150 years after the original Fisk Jubilee Singers sang a racist crowd in silence, the lobby of the historic building was being renovated and covered in protective cloths. There was no sign directing me to the Fisk Jubilee Singers rehearsal space, which I had come to hear, but a student soon appeared to lead me through the halls. âI am Hezekiah,â he said. âOne of the tenors.
Hezekiah Robinson, a junior, may sound like an ordinary student at this historically black college, but he sings like an angel. In fact, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are a whole collection of angels occupying the bodies of undergraduates. They have made audiences cry for the past 150 years with their renditions of spirituals first sung by American slaves before the Civil War.
This year has been extraordinary for the group. In March, their new album, “Celebrating Fisk!” received a Grammy Award for Best Roots Gospel Album. In September, an anonymous donor gave $ 1.5 million to establish a permanent endowment to support the ensemble. At the 20th Annual Americana Music Awards, also in September, the Fisk Jubilee Singers received the Legacy of Americana Award. This week, he will be celebrating his 150th birthday, an anniversary that Nashville Public Television commemorated with a new performance film called “Walk Together Children.”
Fisk University opened in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was run by white abolitionist missionaries and operated in the barracks of an abandoned military hospital in Nashville. School treasurer George White loved music and formed a student choir, quickly calling on Ella Sheppard to be his assistant principal.
Since its founding, Fisk has faced immense financial hardship, and each year its prospects for survival were worse than the year before. In the fall of 1871, when the school was on the verge of collapse, George White had the idea of ââforming a traveling company of his best singers. He was convinced that the abolition-conscious public along the route of the old Underground Railroad could hardly help putting their hands in their pockets in support of the school, once he heard from his students. to sing.
The company left Nashville on October 6, a date now celebrated annually as Jubilee Day in Fisk, but the fundraising tour did not go as George White had hoped. After weeks of performances, the tour didn’t even hit a breakeven point, let alone the kind of profit that could save Fisk. The students, who did not have coats, were still cold and completely exhausted. Too often, local residential schools refused them because they were black.
Their performances had always included a few spirituals, generally used as reminders. But the group’s fortunes eventually improved when Mr. White persuaded Ella Sheppard and the students to add much more music from their youth to their traditional choral repertoire. It was not an easy sale.
These songs were created by slaves and passed down from generation to generation. For the captives eager for freedom, security and peace, they had been a source of comfort and community, an expression of art and originality. For their children, cold and hungry and far from home, the songs were a reminder of home. But they were also a reminder of the very institution they had worked so hard to escape from: the songs “were associated with slavery and the dark past, and represented things to be forgotten,” Ms. Sheppard wrote. Nevertheless, they accepted.
The public was under the spell. “Suddenly there was no more conversation,” noted musicologist Horace Boyer of a performance in 1871, the year the ensemble was formed. “They said you could hear the soft crying.”
The current group of singers continues their legacy. âThis is no ordinary choral ensemble,â said music director Paul Kwami in a post-rehearsal interview I visited. âIf we are the ones who continue to carry this torch, then there must be humility and not pride. “
Today’s Fisk Jubilee Singers are as disciplined and cohesive a band as their musical ancestors were, and they clearly adore and revere their director. When Dr. Kwami interrupts them over and over again to correct an element of tempo or pitch or clarification or interpretation, they listen intently and adjust without a whisper of complaint. The night I visited, they were practicing Dr. Kwami’s new arrangement of the spiritual âBig Day,â which he composed, with their input, for this year’s anniversary. When he pointed out that a song of triumph must surely be accompanied by smiles of jubilation, the students laughed. On the next attempt, their smiles were genuine.
For the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, success ultimately followed hardships: sold-out crowds, generous donations, backers from celebrities like Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant. A subsequent tour of the British Isles included a performance for Queen Victoria, who was so fascinated that she commissioned a portrait of the singers and presented it to Fisk University as a gift.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers accomplished what they set out to do in 1871, saving their university from financial ruin. But they kept singing, earning enough to buy the land for a permanent Fisk University campus, and even more to build a stone and brick building strong enough to withstand the arsonists of the Ku Klux Klan. This building, Jubilee Hall, is where the Fisk Jubilee Singers rehearse these days, standing on a small stage that rises in front of the original company Queen Victoria’s gift portrait.
Throughout their travels, the artistry and technical skills of these former slaves captivated and in many cases brought shame to white audiences. And the beauty of the âslave songsâ themselves made it clear to anyone who heard them that black Americans had developed their own emotionally rich and creative culture, despite the unthinkable deprivations, brutality, and trauma of slavery.
During their travels in the States of the Union, the Fisk Jubilee Singers encountered virulent racism – a New York World magazine called them “trained apes” – but they were so loved and admired by the public. that often the effect of such blatantly racist behavior was to shame some of these isolated communities to do better. The ensemble inspired the integration of hotels and public schools, and George Pullman himself incorporated the entire Pullman car fleet when students were denied seats on trains.
In the process, the Fisk Jubilee Singers also laid the groundwork for what we now think of as American music. If they had not started singing the songs of their ancestors in concert halls, this oral tradition, which only existed in the memory of former slaves, would probably have been lost in history forever. And if he had disappeared, he would have taken with him the DNA of much of the American music that followed: blues, gospel, jazz, country, rock, etc.
The recent Grammy Award-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers’ album – the first in the ensemble’s history – was created from live recordings of concerts performed in 2016 and 2017 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, l mother church of country music. (The group will appear there again on November 11.) The record features spirituals sung by the ensemble, such as “Wade in the Water” and “Way Over in Egypt Land”, as well as songs performed with musicians from other genres.
Blues musician Keb ‘Mo’ joins the ensemble for “I Believe”. Other guests include Christian hip-hop artist Derek Minor, jazz musician Rod McGaha, rocker Jimmy Hall, gospel artists CeCe Winans and The Fairfield Four, and country artists Rodney Atkins and Lee Ann Womack. Ruby Amanfu, the Ghana-born gender-defying artist, completely brushes aside âI want Jesus to walk with meâ.
This album, in other words, shows how songs born out of the suffering of slaves spawned the very music that most defines us as Americans.
Maybe that’s what Dr Kwami meant when he told me that being the manager of the Fisk Jubilee Singers “is really a very humiliating position”. It is not only that he bears the responsibility of choosing the young members of the ensemble, or of teaching them to sing so well together. It is because he is the guardian of a powerful musical tradition.
Dr Kwami was born and raised in Ghana, but he knew the music of the Fisk Jubilee Singers even before coming to Fisk as a university student in 1983. Africa – places a great responsibility on me. It is the responsibility to preserve this music and to teach the youngest to know its value â, he declared. âTo teach them about its history and its heritage.
Coming to Fisk, where he himself was a Fisk Jubilee singer, changed Dr. Kwami’s life. âBecoming a member of the ensemble gave me the opportunity to see that music is one of the cultural elements that still connect Africans with African Americans. Being African, that meant a lot to me. Being part of the ensemble that brought this music to the world has been a wonderful journey. “
At the end of the rehearsal, after a concluding prayer, Dr. Kwami released the ensemble into their student life. They were chatting as they gathered their things, but almost all of them had resumed humming as they left. By the time they reached the door, many were quietly singing:
Big day, just walking
God will build the wall of Zion