PE0342. FISK JUBILEE SINGERS, 1909-11. (E.U.) Document DOCD-5533, recorded 1909-11. Final sealed copy - 714298553321
“In an account of her years as assistant director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ella Sheppard, a gifted musician who had been enslaved as a child, recalled one of the student ensemble’s earliest excursions outside Nashville, only a handful of years after the Civil War. The singers were all students at Fisk University, a school for emancipated former slaves. They were stranded at a rural train station with Ms. Sheppard and their director, a white abolitionist named George White, when an angry mob arrived. In the face of the white men’s fury, the students began to sing. ‘One by one, the riotous crowd left off their jeering and swearing and slunk back until only the leader stood near Mr. White and finally took off his hat’, Ms. Sheppard wrote. ‘The leader begged us, with tears falling, to sing the hymn again’. They have been bringing audiences to tears for the last 150 years with their renditions of the spirituals first sung by enslaved Americans before the Civil War.
Fisk University opened its doors 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. From its founding, Fisk faced immense financial difficulties, and each year its prospects for survival were worse than the year before. During the fall of 1871, with the school on the verge of collapse, George White struck on the idea of forming a traveling company of his best singers. He felt sure that abolition-minded audiences along the route of the old Underground Railroad could hardly help reaching into their pockets to support the school, once they heard his students sing. Audiences were spellbound. ‘All of a sudden, there was no talking’, the musicologist Horace Boyer noted of a performance in 1871, the year the ensemble was formed. ‘They said you could hear the soft weeping’.
Throughout their travels, the artistry and technical skill of these former slaves captivated, and in many cases shamed, white audiences. And the beauty of the ‘slave songs’ themselves made it clear to everyone who heard them that Black Americans had developed their own emotionally rich and creatively diverse culture, despite the unthinkable deprivation, brutality and trauma of slavery.
In the process, the Fisk Jubilee Singers also built the foundation for what we now think of as American music.”
- Margaret Renkl, THE NEW YORK TIMES, Oct. 4, 2021