The Fisk Jubilee Singers

January 30th, 2009

The First Fisk Jubilee Singers

The First Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1871

The image displayed is from a nineteenth century group of students called, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The Fisk Jubilee Singers was an all African American group organized in 1871. The singers were from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The university was established in 1866 and was one of the first institutions that provided a liberal arts education to men and women of different color.

George L. White, treasurer and music professor at Fisk University, created the nine member ensemble and toured around America to help raise money for the school. The music group first performed in small towns until their popularity grew, which then allowed them to perform in bigger cities such as Columbus, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. While on the tour, White, in a gesture of encouragement, named the group “The Jubilee Singers” after the year of Jubilee from the Biblical source, the Book of Leviticus.

White encouraged the ensemble to sing hymns of their ancestors. The Fisk Jubilee Singers focused on “spirituals,” which were songs that expressed faith in God. Spirituals originated from slaves in America; the songs helped the African Americans keep their belief in God, helped survive the work day, and even decoded secret plans of slave revolts against their owners. The genre is similar to blues and gospel music. Many of the spiritual songs were influenced by white Christian communities during the nineteenth century. One of the famous songs The Fisk Jubilee Singers were known for performing was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The song’s message is about how the slaves at the time were asking the Lord to come save them from this terrible place and free their souls. The songs are sung without the accompaniment of instruments.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were one of the groups that opened the doors for other African American musicians during the 1800’s. An example is from 1876, when two women organized the first African American musical-comedy group called “The Hyers Sisters Comic Opera Company.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ music became very well known in America. In 1872, the group was invited to perform for President Grant at the White House, and by 1876 the singers toured in Europe for Kings and Queens. The money raised from their European tour allowed the group to construct the first permanent building on campus called Jubilee Hall. Jubilee Hall still stands and is considered a historic landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. Today the new generations of the Fisk Jubilee Singers still keep the traditions going strong and even sing the same hymns that their ancestors once sung.

In the photograph from left to right are the members: Jennie Jackson, M. Porter, E.W. Watkins, Marbel Lewis, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Carnes, H.D. Alexander, F.J. Loudin, and America W. Robinson. All the members in the photo shown were children of slave parents. The photographer who took the picture of the Fisk Jubilee group is unknown. The photo was taken during the peak of the Fisk Jubilee’s popularity. The style of clothing in the image shows that they had some money to purchase nice outfits for performances. The men are wearing nice black and white suites while the women are wearing long formal matching dresses. The clothing could display the style of upper-middle class during the nineteenth century.

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