Whoever said music is food for the soul wasn’t lying. Since the beginning of time, music has always been used to convey messages of hope, healing, happiness, and heartbreak. For us, it was also a method of survival used to tell stories, give direction and send secret messages. Above all, it brought people together and still does. Choirs, especially.
Around this time of year in 1866, John Ogden, Erastus Milo Cravath and Rev. Edward P. Smith opened the doors to The Fisk School, which later became known as Fisk University in Nashville. It was the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color,” and when the school ran into some financial trouble in 1871, its treasurer and music professor George L. White tapped nine students to create a choir that would go on to tour and earns money for the university. Thus, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were born and named after the year of Jubilee in the Bible’s book of Leviticus 25. They were known for singing “slave songs” that later came to be known as African American spirituals. And they became the first choir to go international in U.S. history.
Naturally, the choir was met with hate in a Black and White America, but “continued perseverance and beautiful voices began to change attitudes among the predominantly white audiences. Eventually skepticism was
replaced by standing ovations and critical praise in reviews,” according to FiskJubileeSingers.org. Steven Lewis, Ph.D., Curator at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, says the Jubilee Singers appealed to vast audiences because they adopted a European style they fused with the African American spirituals.
By 1873, the Fisk Jubilee Singers raised enough money to go towards the Jubilee Hall building named after them — the school’s first permanent structure — which became a National Historic Landmark a little over 100 years later in 1975. Jubilee Hall is one of the oldest structures on campus and features a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during their 1873 tour. The group continued on and is still thriving today.
In 1872, they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and the White House by invitation from President Ulysses S. Grant. By 1873, they were touring internationally. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the Fisk Jubilee Singers ’1909 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry. The choir was even honored with its own entrance at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.
This year, their Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album) is nominated for a GRAMMY for “Best Roots Gospel Album.” Legend has it that the Fisk Jubilee Singers are the reason why Nashville is called “Music
City.” Two-time Grammy award-winning songwriter/producer and producer of the singers ’150th album, Shannon Sanders, said the legacy is attached to the choir because the Queen of England said ‘you must be from music city ’to the group of students after hearing them sing in the 1800s.
Their groundbreaking efforts inspired a “jubilee” style of music that infused spirituals with rhythmic music and other “jubilee quartets” and groups including the Original Nashville Students, plus student choirs at other historically Black colleges including Hampton, Tuskegee, Wilberforce, and more.
People like the legendary Thomas Dorsey went on to further popularize Black choirs rooted in southern blues in the early 1900s and by the mid-1900s, groups like the Soul Stirrers and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi helped evolve it with even more rhythmic freedom expanded from the jubilee style. The popularization made room for Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walkers, Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, and other singers to make professional careers out of singing for God. And just like the tone of gospel music started to become influenced by mainstream music, so was R&B by gospel. From Sam Cooke to Otis Reading and Aretha Franklin to Patti LaBelle, the anointing in their voice was obvious. The next wave of change started with the legendary Shirley Caesar, The Clark Sisters, The Winans, and so many more who shifted gospel music and choirs into a contemporary sound that was still a reflection of the bold, fearlessness,
hardworking and God-loving principals the Fisk Jubilee Singers were rooted in.
Now, we have Kirk Franklin & the Family, Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers, Commissioned, Hezekiah Walker & the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir, Ricky Dillard & New G, and more who paved the way for singers like Mary Mary, James Fortune & FIYA, The Walls Group, Anthony Brown & group therAPy, JJ Hairston & Youthful Praise and too many more to name.
All that considered, let us never forget the Black choir that broke barriers and changed the game forever: The Fisk Jubilee Singers.