- Mar 16, 2016
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1875. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
They Introduced the World to Songs of Slavery. It Almost Broke Them.
The Jubilee Singers were a global sensation. But an aggressive touring schedule would leave the young performers exhausted, underpaid, and in some cases, dead.
Words by Rebecca Onion
It was late December of 1871, and Henry Ward Beecher, the minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, had invited a group of young men and women from Fisk University in Nashville to travel to New York to perform for his congregation. “There is a band of singers here,” Beecher announced to the audience, “every one of whom has been baptized in slavery … they are coming to the East to see if they can raise some little funds for their education and elevation.” The group of performers—five women and four men between the ages of 14 and 25—looked out of place among the well-heeled throng of white church attendees; one observer later described the girls as “dressed in water-proofs, and clothed about the neck with long woolen comforters to protect their throats.” But when the nine young African Americans began to sing, the Plymouth parishioners found themselves charmed and moved, even transported, by the spirituals, which told stories of bondage and emancipation. “The first hymn they sang was ‘O, how I love Jesus!’,” the observer wrote. “I shall never forget the rich tones as they mingled their voices in a melody so beautiful and touching I scarcely knew whether I was ‘in body or out of body.’”
The rich tones of these “plantation melodies,” “slave hymns,” or, as they later came to be known, “songs of jubilee” were a product of generations of endured trauma and hard-won resilience, assertions of the humanity and creative genius of enslaved African Americans. Established in the early 19th century, the folk songs—which usually featured religious themes, strong use of metaphor and imagery, and erratic rhyme schemes—were used as multipurpose tools for worship and survival. The song “Wade in the Water,” for example, contained lyrics that, folklore holds, delivered coded advice for escapees by describing a strategy for evading pursuing, scent-hungry bloodhounds. (Harriet Tubman would rely on “map songs” as a method of giving directions to African Americans fleeing north.)
“Songs of jubilee” were also used to manipulate and coerce: As historian Katrina Dyonne Thompson details in her 2014 book Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery, during nearly two centuries of chattel slavery, enslaved people were regularly expected to perform on demand and in public by slave traders, who wished for them to appear carefree and cheerful to potential buyers; in his autobiography, one formerly enslaved man, the pastor and abolitionist John Sella Martin, recalled that his traders made slaves sing to “prevent any expression of sorrow for those who are being torn away from them.” In addition, owners of slaves with skills in the performing arts would often pit them against other enslaved performers and place bets on the outcome, in a kind of inter-plantation talent contest. “Slaves,” as Frederick Douglass explained in his 1855 autobiography, “are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”
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