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September 20, 2020

150 Years of Touching the ‘Fount of Tears’

Top: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, early 1870s. Bottom: The Fisk Jubilee Singers of 2020 with Musical Director Dr. Paul Kwami (front row, second from right) (Photo: Bill Steber)



Fisk Jubilee Singers

Musical Director: Dr. Paul Kwami

Curb Records


By David McGee


Opened on January 9, 1866, less than a year after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia and effectively ended the Civil War, the Fisk Free Colored School (named after Union General Clinton B. Fisk, who, as assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau of Tennessee, secured a site for the school in a former military barracks and endowed the institution to the tune of $30,000) was one of several Southern schools dedicated to educating freed slaves. Only a few months after opening its doors, Fisk had an enrollment of 900 students, ranging in age from seven to 70. A year later, setting its focus on higher education, the school was reorganized and incorporated as Fisk University. In 1870, Fisk President Adam K. Spence laid out plans for the school’s expansion, not only in curriculum but in physical location, setting his sights on a larger campus that would occupy what had been a Union fort, Fort Gillem, in north Nashville, near what is now Union Station. To help raise funds to support her husband’s vision, Spence’s wife, Catherine Mackie Spence, traveled throughout the States organizing endowments through the American Missionary Association. At the same time, school Treasurer George Leonard White—“a tall, tubercular Gettysburg veteran,” whose job it was to collect fees from impoverished students and their parents, as described by historian Andrew Ward, author of Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers,—exercised his greater interest in music. Before the War, White had been a choirmaster and a band sergeant on the Union Army’s marches; since arriving at Fisk, he had felt the spirit of his students’ singing, especially the slave hymns he heard, and began gathering what became a vast collection of these “secret songs,” among them “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” while gathering his most promising pupils into an ensemble to perform contemporary tunes and European classics.

‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, the 1909 recording by the original quartet–the oldest known recording of the beloved spiritual–available on Volume 1 (1909-1911) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings. The image seen in this video shows the original 1870s Jubilee Singers ensemble.

‘In Bright Mansions Above,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, available on Volume 1 (1909-1911) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings.

Come 1871, a concatenation of events was threatening the Fisk school’s existence. Money was running out, and as Ward documents, “students were dying of disease and the cold, teachers sickened on a sparse diet of dried beef and corn bread.” As a fund-raising measure, White sold a reluctant Spence on taking his new vocal group on a concert tour following the route of the Underground Railroad. In Cincinnati, on October 6, 1871, White, financing this effort with every cent he owned plus the little left in the school treasury supplemented by as much as he could borrow, led the choir in its first concert. The meager box office from that show didn’t even cover feeding, housing and transporting the group. Earnings from their second concert were donated to victims of the Great Chicago Fire. Facing discrimination, distrust and hostility at every stop, a weary White and his flagging company pulled into the annual conference of the National Congregational Council at Oberlin College in Ohio, on November 15, 1871.

‘I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, available on Volume 2 (1915-1920) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings

‘I Ain’t Going to Study War No More,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, available on Volume 2 (1915-1920) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings.

“No sooner had they lifted their voices than the assembly was spellbound,” Ward recounts. “‘The singing was really fine,’ wrote the local paper, and ‘resulted in a market basket-full of scrip and greenbacks.” Success brought White to another crossroads: “…people still did not know what to make of White’s singers, nor even what to call them,” according to Ward. After praying on the matter, White confided in a letter to his brother-in-law, “[The] ‘year of Jubilee’ has been talked of and sung of so much that I can think of no expression…that so nearly gives the idea as the Jubilee Singers.’”

The newly named Fisk Jubilee Singers’ next stop was New York City, where, following a performance at the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn on December 27, 1871, the Reverend, deeply moved by what he had witnessed, urged his wealthy parishioners to open their pocketbooks wide for the group. Ward: “Suddenly, throughout New York’s metropolitan area, churches and theaters opened to them. Audiences were ecstatic. A minister fed up with white minstrels’ ‘coarse caricature in corked faces’ rejoiced that he could ‘now listen to the genuine soul music of the slave cabins before the Lord led his children out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ Their songs had ‘touched the fount of tears, and gray-haired men wept like little children.’ Over the next six weeks, the Fisk Jubilee Singers filled churches, theaters and music halls. A single concert in New Jersey raised $745. By the time they had pressed on to Connecticut they had nearly sung Fisk out of debt.”

‘Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime; Every Time I Feel the Spirit,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, available on Volume 3 (1924-1940) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings.

Increasing popularity produced profit as well as pain for the road-weary Singers, but a demanding tour itinerary booked by White soon had them performing before enthusiastic audiences across Europe, before royalty, in the finest concert halls the continent had to offer, while their burgeoning schedule of concerts in the States took them throughout the northeast, with great acclaim following wherever they visited, domestically and internationally. By the time they returned to Nashville following a long tour in 1874, they had raised $50,000 for the construction of Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on Fisk’s campus. In assessing the Jubilee Singers’ achievements, a member of Fisk’s Board of Trustees wrote an appraisal for the ages: “No one can estimate the vast amount of prejudice against the race which has perished under the spell of their marvelous music. Wherever they have gone they have proclaimed to the hearts of men…the brotherhood of the race.”

“By accepting the burden of personifying their people’s aspirations,” wrote Ward in his liner notes for the 2003 Jubilee Singers album In Bright Mansions (the source of his quotes herein), they made the cause of the freedmen, once the exclusive province of radicals and missionaries, plausible and respectable among vast numbers of American whites who would otherwise have turned away.”

‘Keep A Inchin’ Along,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, available on Volume 3 (1924-1940) of Document Records’ chronological collection of the group’s recordings.

In fact, the Jubilee Singers’ mission, if you will, has remained intact for a century and a half. During its legendary breakthrough years at the turn of the 20th Century, the group was a male quartet led by the brilliant John Work II, who sang 1st tenor, with James Andrews singing 2nd tenor, Alfred Garfield King singing 1st bass and Noah Walker Ryder as 2nd bass.  While on a northern tour in 1908, this iteration of the Jubilee Singers made the group’s first recordings, for Victor. From that point through1927, the group and its ever-changing lineup of student-singers recorded steadily, bringing the African-American spiritual legacy out of the shadows of slavery, at once laying the groundwork for modern gospel and shaping the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997 Document Records issued three essential CDs documenting the Jubilee Singers’ groundbreaking years, from 1909-1927, with Volume 3 (1924-1940) also featuring 15 transcriptions of the group performing live in 1940 on Nashville superstation WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. But the Singers carried on through the decades, occasionally making stops in a recording studio. By 2003, the male quartet heard on the first recordings with John Work II had grown into an 18-member mixed gender vocal ensemble under the direction of Dr. Paul T. Kwami on the Grammy-nominated album, In Bright Mansions.

What better way, then, to honor the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ impending (in 2021) 150th anniversary than to assemble the current members in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, legendary home of the Opry, to reprise in the here and now some great moments of the past century and a half along with contemporary spiritual and inspirational fare. In a bit of exquisite cultural timing that is part and parcel of the Jubilee Singers’ storied history, some special guests join in to add an inclusive element to the proceedings: From being ‘buked and scorned by Whites at the outset of their journey, their numbers on this project include White artists. Shed all this history, however, and still, what you have in Celebrating Fisk! Is one of the most important albums of this or any other year—but especially of this year, for all the obvious reasons.

‘Wade in the Water,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album

‘Blessed Assurance,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers with CeCe Winans, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)

Guided by Musical Director Dr. Paul Kwami, the Singers begin almost at the beginning of their history, with “Wade in the Water,” a haunting spiritual first published by John Work II and his brother, Frederick J. Work, in 1901 but dating back to the mid-18th century when it may have been one of several “coded” songs Harriet Tubman used in sending coded messages to escaping slaves bound for the Underground Railroad to hide their scent from tracking dogs by using water routes where possible. Regardless of its origins, “Wade in the Water” was first recorded by the Singers under Work’s direction in 1925. Here it serves as a somber setup to the roar welcoming CeCe Winans to the stage for an epic testimony of faith in “Blessed Assurance,” a Christian hymn dating to 1873 here given the full force of Ms. Winans’ soulful declaiming with the entire ensemble soaring behind her as one, echoing her sentiments over booming percussion, assertive horns and a celebratory gospel piano. Keb’ Mo’ follows this fury with a dip into medium-cool blues-gospel, picking a spare groove on his resonator guitar and leading the Singers in an antiphonal workout on a rousing affirmation of faith in “I Believe,” the assembled voices alternating phrases with him until the whole shebang coalesces into a stomping, jubilant, percussion-driven testimony of the first order.

‘I Believe,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers with Taj Mahal (slide and vocal), from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)

‘Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers with Lee Ann Womack, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)

Two cuts later, Keb’ is bookended by the Fairfield Four’s a cappella hand clapping, foot stomping rendition of the venerable “Rock My Soul,” a slave song dating to at least 1837 in its first documented form, although it existed long before in slightly different incarnations. In between Keb’ and the Fairfield Four comes another of the album’s guest highlights when Lee Ann Womack inspires a fusillade of clapping, stomping and shouting in systematically delineating the moral instruction offered on an otherwise spare arrangement of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 gospel blues missive, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right.” Last heard from on her stunning 2017 album, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone, a Deep Roots Album of the Year selection, Ms. Womack’s husky, swinging reading is as gripping as it is authoritative—she’s fully invested in Blind Willie’s appeal to our better angels to the point where the effect of her conviction is near-palpable. Here, she and the Jubilee Singers elevate this celebration onto a higher plane of feeling and commitment.

A song’s history gets no richer than that of “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.” Over the decades, scholars have found evidence of its early 19th century origins in both rural Appalachian culture and in the African-American spiritual tradition. Without question, though, the song is as deeply embedded in the Jubilee Singers’ history as it is in the collective African-American experience. On an early tour, the Singers’ performance of the song—a regular part of its repertoire–reportedly saved its members from being attacked by a mob. On an individual level, this “journey song” is oxygen to African-American spirituality. As African-American author Gwendolyn Warren noted in her book, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hyman, and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997): “African-American Christians found great comfort and encouragement in believing that this life was only a journey—“passing through”—to a better place. … As they passed through the bitter trials of this earth, their desire was that they not walk alone, but that Jesus walk with them. Knowing that Jesus, who had already passed through the fiery trials and come out triumphant on the other side, was walking beside them gave them courage to go on.”

‘I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, lead vocal by Ruby Amanfu, a native of Ghana, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)

‘Rock My Soul,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers with the Fairfield Four, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)

The past is prologue: in performing the song for the Ryman audience, the Singers are joined by Ruby Amanfu, a native of Ghana, from whence enslaved West Africans were shipped to America, bringing with them their native musical idioms that would become the “secret songs” the Jubilee Singers introduced to the White world in 1871. The Fisk group made its first trip to Ghana in July of 2007 to participate in the country’s Golden Jubilee Anniversary festivities, and it turned out to be life altering for many. Soprano Kelsey Porter, native of Memphis, TN, remembered the performance at Elmina Castle as being like “going back to where we came from and telling the ghosts of our ancestors that we made it, and everything is going to be okay.” All of this history is manifest in the version of “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” on Celebrating Fisk! The collective voices’ passion and power as the song swells to majestic heights is chilling in its depth of feeling, but no more so than the plaintive importuning, informed by the sweep of bloody history, Ms. Amanfu summons with a profound sense of the message’s urgency. Paralleling this selection from deep in the past, a searing performance is offered in “Glory/Stranger,” from the film Selma (in which actor Stephen James portrays the late Civil Rights icon John Lewis, a Fisk University alum), with Derek Minor and Shannon Sanders, one singing, the other rapping, addressing persistent, corrosive spiritual anxieties and social injustice alike.

‘Glory/Stranger,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers with Derek Minor and Shannon Sanders, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album).

‘Way Over in Egypt Land,’ Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album).

With the female voices taking the lead, the Singers offer a gripping antiphonal arrangement of “Way Over in Egypt Land,” descended from “Go Down Moses,” which encourages the fortitude and faith of those in bondage with the repetitive refrain “March on, march on, and you shall gain a victory/march on and you shall gain a day…,” with the high soprano voices triumphantly anticipating the day of Jubilee. Kicking the celebration up a notch to a honky-tonk-tinged workout, Rodney Atkins comes in for a gritty, driving, crowd pleasing dip into the venerable “Working on a Building,” a song rooted in the African-American and southern gospel traditions alike, with its most famous interpreters being the Carter Family (who recorded it in 1934), Bill Monroe, B.B. King and Elvis; John Work II included it in his 1940 collection American Negro Songs and Spirituals. Over the Singers’ smooth responses, Atkins swings through a bluesy reading driven by thumping percussion and a piano player punctuating the festivities with Jerry Lee Lewis-like glissandos at precisely the right moments to accentuate the arrangement’s heated rhythmic thrust. Speaking of which, Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall keys the big finish in leading the southern gospel blues groove of a house wrecking reimagining of Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.” Over the Singers’ spirited repetition of the title sentiment, Hall improvises variations on Hank’s original lyrics and for all the world assumes the country preacher’s pulpit in delivering the event’s glorious benediction. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect live album, the best sort of tribute to the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ legacy at 150 years and counting. In the end, Celebrating Fisk! illustrates the degree to which these songs have traveled through time to arrive in 2020 undiminished in their power—nay, even stronger in their power–to light a spiritual path for all races, especially at a time when moral and ethical boundaries of behavior seem to have been obliterated in bald-faced pursuit of power and profit. As James H. Cone observed in his book The Spirituals and the Blues: “The spiritual, then, is the spirit of the people struggling to be free; it is their religion, their source of strength in a time of trouble. And if one does not know what trouble is, then the spiritual cannot be understood.”

Oh, sing, choirs of angels. Sing in exultation.

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