From Slave Songs to Gospel

In 1866 an university was established in Nashville Tennessee that was open to women and men regardless of color. Founded by the American Missionary Association, Fisk University was only one of more than 500 schools and colleges this anti-slavery group set up before, during and after the Civil War.

Five years after its founding, the university found itself in financial distress. Hoping to raise money to keep the school open Fisk treasurer and music professor, George White, took nine of his students on tour to perform in small towns around the country.

 Deciding what songs to sing, Professor White wrote, “One day , there came into my room a few students with some air of mystery. The door was shut and locked, the window curtains were drawn, and, as if a thing they were ashamed of, they sang some of the old-time religious slave songs now long since known as Jubilee songs.” This was one of those moments that changed everything. It was a moment that altered the course of musical history. Current musical director, Professor Paul Kwamit, said of that moment “the Fisk Jubilee Singers changed the Negro spiritual into an art form and introduced it to the world.”

There were some hostile audiences. Refused first-class seats on the train, George Pullman intervened and ended segregated seating on his trains. But over time their beautiful voices and immaculate performances brought praise and recognition. Mark Twain was a great fan of theirs and said “I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again.” Their efforts to help the university was a huge success. They raised enough money to build the school’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall after them, it is now a National Historic Landmark.

The group sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and later at the White House for President U.S. Grant.

In 1873 the original nine members were increased to 11 (all but two of this group were former slaves) and they took their singing to Europe. There they performed before Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Queen Victoria was so enchanted by their singing that she commissioned a massive group portrait by her own official portraitist. This beautiful floor-to-ceiling portrait hangs in the Jubilee Hall.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1925, on their way to Windsor Castle to sing for the king and queen. Photograph: Getty Images

Since then the group has continued to share their talents around the world. In 2000 they were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Music City Inc. included them, along with Reba McEntire, Roy Orbison and Ronnie Milsap, into the inaugural class of honorees of the Music City Walk of Fame. The U.S. Embassy sent them to Ghana in July 2007 to help that nation celebrate their 50th independence anniversary. President George W. Bush presented them with the 2008 National Medal of Arts.

We owe much to the black community for our own music. Much of jazz, rhymn and blues, gospel, and even rock and roll was largely influenced by the black community and the songs they created from their experiences.

“If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation of blues and
gospel music, two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Anchoring the sounds of African America, these styles underlay the musical innovations
of the century: jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, soul and hip hop. They are known and
cherished around the world and in every corner of the U.S. It would be impossible to imagine American music without them
.”….Charles E. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies and History, College of William and Mary.

Check out the stories of some of these great black musicians:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Muddy Waters
  • Sam Cooke
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Ma Rainey
  • Jelly Roll Morton
  • Nat King Cole

8 thoughts on “From Slave Songs to Gospel

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