The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Or, The First Time Most White Americans Heard African-American Music

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1875

In 1866, Fisk University was chartered in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first American college to make a liberal arts education available to “young men and women irrespective of color.”

“It was the period after the American Civil War, and there was such a large question about whether or not the former slaves, the African American, was educatable,” Dr. Reavis Mitchell, professor and chairman of the Fisk history department, said in an interview. “And one of the main challenges after the war was to prove in fact that the African American could meet the challenge of education.”

The need was great. Reverend Gustavus D. Pike was associated with the university since its founding. “For 4,000,000 freed people at the South,” he wrote in 1873, “as yet but one person in every 40,000 is in college; and of these, eighty percent, are in institutions which have been founded in the interests of the colored people by northern benevolence, assisted by the government through the Freedmen’s Bureau.” By 1871, benevolent donations to Fisk had dried up, and the school was nearly bankrupt.

George L. White, the school’s treasurer, music professor and a white missionary, formed a group of nine acapella vocalists, with an idea to tour the country and raise the rather extravagant sum of $20,000. This group became known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they are with us to this day.

This story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is one of cultural triumph. They brought authentic Black expression to a society too used to its own approximation. By doing so, they built the foundation for the next century of popular music. Through dignity and perseverance, the Jubilee Singers became exemplars of the idea that equality was not only possible, but necessary. In addition, they raised enormous amounts of money, guaranteeing a legacy of education and accomplishment.

Pike accompanied the group on its first tour, later memorializing his account two years later in The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars. He included first person biographies of some of the original members, most of whom were born into slavery.

“Once, when five or six years old, I had seen my own mother,” Ella Sheppard recounted. “My old master’s family were on a visit to Nashville, and just the day before they were to return, they gave my mother permission to see me a little while; but when she came to leave me, she found it so hard, and screamed so loud, that they said she never should see me again.”

Ella Sheppard with her daughter

“I may have been born out in the woods for ought I know,” Thomas Rutling said. “My mother was in the habit of running away and concealing herself in the woods; my sister would sometimes carry her food, but she never remained long before she was found, brought back, and whipped. But whippings proved useless, and she was sent further south. The very earliest thing that I remember was this selling of my mother. I must have been about two years old then; for they tell me I was born in Wilson County, Tenn., in 1854.”

Thomas Rutling

The group headed north to Ohio, where they were treated like zoo animals. “On reaching the depot, though holding first-class tickets, they were shown into a caboose car, or, as one of them styled it, a ‘chicken box;’ and in this they rode through the day, reaching Cincinnati in the evening,” Pike wrote.

Here they found lodging in a colored boarding-house; and, the next day, Saturday, visited the Exposition, which, at the time, was attracting a large number of visitors. On reaching the musical department, Professor White requested Miss Sheppard to play “Annie Laurie,” with variations upon the piano. Almost at once a crowd gathered, and exclamations were heard on all sides: “Only see! She’s a nigger.” “Do you see that? Do you hear that? Why, she’s a nigger.” On being invited to sing, the troupe gave “[The] Star-Spangled Banner,” with “Red, White, and Blue,” “Away to the Meadows,” and other favorites, every note seeming to increase the crowd, till it became so great one could scarcely tell where it commenced. Wherever the Singers moved the crowd followed, with an admiration entirely new to these people, who, for many years, had no rights a white man was bound to respect.

A correspondent from a Cincinnati paper reviewed another performance, having been especially enchanted by the slave spirituals. “The hymn which followed was the masterpiece of the evening,” he wrote in a piece equally affecting and paternalistic.

Rough in language, it was richly melodious, and showed that analogy between the feeling of the slaves at the South and that of the captive Israelites, upon which Mrs. Stowe has dwelt so much in her Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It began with “Go down, Moses.” Then came “Singing for Jesus,” “My Lord Says There’s Room Enough;” “O, Redeemed, Redeemed, I’m Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” was sung beautifully by the rich, clear voices. What might be done with such voices, subjected to early, thorough, and skilful culture, the singing of last night afforded a faint intimation. The unaffected, simple fervor, breathing forth the soul, were remarkable and touching qualities of the performance.

“The definition of a spiritual is that they’re always improvised and not arranged,” professor Robert Darden told me, “whereas gospel [music] is always written.” This information came as a bit of a shock, but since the man is director of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University, I took him at his word, but wondered out loud why songs like “Wade in the Water” seem to have a definite lyric. Darden began his answer with a gentle laugh.

“It does,” he explained, “because someone in 1862 wrote it down. It’s like a Polaroid picture of what it sounded like on that plantation on that day. The next night, it would be sung with different lyrics. True spirituals are always improvised. They were only codified when those first collectors went down in the early 1860s and started writing down…this weird and wonderful music. They wrote down a version of “Wade in the Water,” but there are tens of thousands of versions of all of them.”

This is revealing of many things, not the least of which is that Southern culture made no effort to preserve the music made by a significant number of its inhabitants, because its ownership class didn’t believe them to be fully human. (As we’ve seen, many people in what had been the pro-Union state of Ohio didn’t really, either.) As a result, almost no one in the United States had ever heard African Americans sing their own music, because (as I wrote about extensively in the History of Protest Music series for Longreads), the dominant culture had appropriated black music in the form of minstrelsy, with white performers in blackface singing songs that often created and reinforced racial stereotypes.

“‘A band of negro minstrels will sing in the Vine Street Congregational Church this morning,” another Ohio paper wrote tellingly about the group. “They are genuine negroes, and call themselves ‘Colored Christian Singers.’”

At least up North, the group was embraced by audiences after their initial trepidation. “It is the first time that we at the north have heard the genuine songs of their race,” wrote the Hartford, Connecticut Courant, “executed with their faith and their feeling. It was like a revelation. … One heard in those strange and plaintive melodies the sadness and the hope of a trusting and a really joyous race.”

Regardless, it was tough going. An early performance in Cincinnati brought in $50, which the group promptly donated to victims of the recent Chicago fire. Accommodations remained bad; the tour schedule was grueling. Ella Sheppard remembered that “our strength was failing under the ill treatment at hotels, on railroads, poorly attended concerts, and ridicule.” By the time they reached Columbus, the group considered disbanding. Everyone went off to pray about it, including Professor White. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to rename them the Jubilee Singers, after a Biblical reference.

“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year,” reads Leviticus 25:10, “and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”

Most of the Singers’ repertoire was inspired from the Bible, and used as a pointed rebuke. “Go down, Moses — way down to Egypt land,” they sang. “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” Other slave spirituals performed included “What Shall the Harvest Be?,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “No Auction Block for Me,” “My Lord Says There’s Room Enough,” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”

Success built upon success. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, former leader of the Union Army, invited the Jubilee Singers to perform at the White House. Author Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, also saw the group perform, probably that year. “I heard them sing once,” he wrote in a letter from 1873, “& I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again.”

I was reared in the South, & my father owned slaves, & I do not know when anything has so moved me as did the plaintive melodies of the Jubilee Singers. It was the first time for twenty-five or thirty years that I had heard such songs, or heard them sung in the genuine old way — & it is a way, I think, that white people cannot imitate — & never can, for that matter, for one must have been a slave himself in order to feel what that life was & so convey the pathos of it in the music. Do not fail to hear the Jubilee Singers. I am very well satisfied that you will not regret it.

Clemens was writing to a potential listener in London. On their second tour from 1873 to 1874, the group performed in England, which included an appearance for Queen Victoria. Her majesty was sufficiently impressed to commission a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, which still resides in Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on the Fisk University campus. Their first tour brought $50,000 back to Fisk University, paying for the hall’s construction; a subsequent three year European tour netted $150,000.

Edmund Havel’s portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria

Thus saved from financial ruin, Fisk went on to educate American luminaries such as sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, historian John Hope Franklin, suffragette Ida B. Wells, and Civil Rights Activist and Congressman John Lewis, currently chairman of the House Ways & Means Oversight Subcommittee.

In 1909, a recording of the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet performing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was made. It is the earliest known recording of the group. It has been claimed that the spiritual “burst forth” from Sarah Hannah Sheppard, mother to original Jubilee Singer Ella Sheppard, and the one who screamed loudly at their parting.

“Sarah gave birth to Ella on a Tennessee plantation in 1851,” the Library of Congress tell us. “When she learned that her master intended to sell her to another plantation, thus separating her permanently from Ella, she resolutely set out for the Cumberland River, intent on drowning both herself and her daughter. She was stopped by an ‘old mammy’ who cautioned Sarah to ‘let de chariot of de Lord swing low.’ Reaching toward heaven, the wise woman pulled down an imaginary scroll and prophesied that the young child would one day stand before kings and queens. Sarah yielded to the old woman’s counsel, turned back, and allowed herself to be sold and taken to Mississippi.” While this can’t be proven as history, it’s proof positive that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were enough of a cultural phenomenon to inspire mythification.

When I first pitched the History of Protest Music series for Longreads, I was contemplating writing a history of canonical protest songs; ones about unionizing and things like that. I quickly realized that the heart of every protest song beats more for equality than politics. Equality is the organizing principle under which suffrage and equal rights are written. This understanding that has led me to the conclusion that the Fisk Jubilee Singers might be the most important singers of protest songs in American history, beyond their direct influence (“No More Auction Block for Me” inspired both “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ In the Wind”): Born in bondage, their protest was against a society determined to maintain racial injustice. They were probably the first organized African American musical expression, and thus are the bedrock upon which most American popular music — gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock and roll — was later constructed. They answered bigotry with melody, caused authenticity to triumph over approximation, and changed the world.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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