Hi, friends. This week’s BHM post relates to a phrase I’ve encountered multiple times in researching African-American spirituals. Rev. Thomas Dorsey, author of MLK Jr’s favorite hymn, briefly worked with the Pace Jubilee Singers, and John Wesley Work II, author of a beloved Christmas carol, played an integral role in the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In this post, we’ll explore the history and significance of jubilee singers to music.
Fisk Jubilee Singers
Fisk University, founded in 1866, is a historically black university in Nashville, TN. The American Ministry Association started the school after the Civil War to offer African-Americans new opportunities, but the school quickly began suffering financially. The school’s music director and treasurer, white missionary George L. White, began an a cappella (voices only) group with nine black students–four men and five women–and toured with them to make money for the school. They first performed in Cincinnati, OH on October 6, 1871, and they played all over the eastern seaboard for the next couple years. Early on, White prayed to God for a name to attract attention; the next day, he told the group they would be the Jubilee Singers in honor of the Jewish year of Jubilee. Per the book of Leviticus, every fiftieth Pentecost, slaves are set free in the year of Jubilee. Though people didn’t know how to interpret them initially, Americans soon grew endeared to the group’s rich vocal performances. The Jubilee Singers are credited with popularizing “Negro spirituals” to white and northern audiences who hadn’t heard them. The first US tours resulted in $40,000 for Fisk U, and their profits only increased over the years. They still perform today and were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008 (the nation’s highest award for artists and patrons).
Fun Fact: Nashville earned the nickname “Music City USA” because, after seeing a JS performance on one of their tours abroad in 1873, Queen Victoria commented that they must be from the music city of the United States.
Pace Jubilee Singers
Unaffiliated with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Pace Jubilee Singers were founded in 1925 in Chicago. They were among the first gospel groups to be recorded. Unlike the FJS, the PJS was not an a cappella group; they sang in close harmony and were accompanied by a piano or organ.
Spirituals vs. Gospel
Today, I learned that the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed spirituals initially while the Pace Jubilee Singers recorded gospel songs. I didn’t know there was a distinction, but this is why we have Black History Month, right? Spirituals are Christian songs written by African-Americans that depict Christian values but also the hardships of slavery. Gospel music draws its roots from black oral tradition and features dominating vocals with Christian lyrics. The genres are similar, but the specific references to slavery distinguish spirituals from gospel.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for similar posts throughout the month.