In October of 2013 the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to Duke and Durham at the invitation of Duke Performances. Their visit was an occasion to learn about and discuss the history of this musical group, which profoundly shaped Afro-American and Afro-Atlantic music and consciousness.
The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is in part the story of how songs literally built buildings. Through their musical tours the U.S. and Europe in the 1870s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers raised the money that built Jubilee Hall, and then other buildings, at Fisk University. In 1881, J.B.T. Marsh compared the journeys of these singers to those of the Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece:
“It is the story of a little company of emancipation slaves who set out to secure, by their singing, the fabulous sum of $20,000 for the impoverished and unknown school in which they were students. The world was as unfamiliar to these untraveled freed people as were the countries through which the Argonauts had to pass; the social prejudices that confronted them were as terrible to meet as fire-breathing bulls or the warriors that sprang from the land sown with dragons’ teeth; and no seas were ever more tempestuous than the stormy experiences that for a time tested their faith and courage. They were at times without the money to buy needed clothing. Yet in less than three years they returned, bringing back with them nearly one hundred thousand dollars.” (Marsh, 1-2)
If it was an institutional project, it was also a critical aesthetic and artistic one. The Fisk Jubilee Singers confronted a landscape profoundly shaped by the influence blackface minstrelsy, which starting in the decades before the Civil War had sold itself in part as a form of access to the music of the enslaved. During the time in which they toured, there were many troops of African-American minstrels also performing through the U.S., Europe, and as far away as Southeast Asia and South Africa. As Paul Gilroy argued in his influential book The Black Atlantic, the Fisk Jubilee singers “set new standards of authenticity for black cultural expression.” “The legitimacy of these new cultural forms,” he continues, “was established precisely through their distance form the racial codes of minstrelsy.” (Gilroy, 90).
They did this by placing the tradition of Spirituals front and center, by drawing on traditions of religious singing and transforming them, with dignity and intensity, into a form of performance practice. As such, the Fisk Jubilee Singers represent both a critical link in a longer history and a moment of transformation that reshaped the meaning and possibilities of art and music in America and beyond.
The music of the Fisk Jubilee Singers left a profound intellectual mark as well. In writing the Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois was inspired and driven by the spirituals he had heard them sing. He opened almost every chapter with a counterpoint between two epigraphs, one a fragment of Euro-American romantic poetry, the other a fragment of one of the spirituals. In fact, we might say that DuBois’ was trying to find a way to make words speak as powerfully about the African-American experience as the music did.
In the final chapter of the book, “The Sorrow Songs,” W.E.B. DuBois celebrated the Fisk Jubilee Singers as vehicles of transforming song:
“. . . when I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.” (DuBois, 536)
He went on, famously, to claim that the music they sang was in fact the truest expression of American culture:
“. . . by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave – stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas. . . . the singular spiritual heritage of the nation…” (DuBois, 536-37)
Today, the Fisk Jubilee singers continue this tradition under the leadership of their Musical Director Paul T. Kwami. The following film documents the Fisk Jubilee singer’s visit to Durham, using the events organized during their residency to tell the broader story of the group.
During our roundtable discussion, Mark Anthony Neal posted a question on twitter about what contemporary rap songs incorporate spirituals. You can read a storify of the responses, complete with Itunes links to the songs mentioned, here.
W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986).
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).