The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Herb Boyd | 11/28/2013, 6 a.m.
Jubilee Singers created to raise money for Fisk University
The Fisk Jubilee Singers

We may have to ask our resident numerologist Lloyd Strayhorn the significance of nine in African-American history. As many of us know, there was the “Little Rock Nine,” who boldly integrated Central High School, and nine was the number of the Scottsboro Boys who were unjustly accused, tried and imprisoned. Less known is that the original Fisk Jubilee Singers were comprised of nine members.

In 1871, five years after Fisk University was opened—notably the first American university to offer a liberal arts education—George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, founded the ensemble of nine and took them on a tour with the express purpose of raising funds for the university. The singers’ first tour began on Oct. 6, and that day has been enshrined as Jubilee Day and celebrated each year to commemorate this historic day, according the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ website.

A classic picture of the group reveals that it was comprised of five women and four men, all of them dressed to the “nines” and ready for the next engagement, many of which, in the beginning, took them to the small towns of America.

The Jubilee Singers were already fully established by the time W.E.B. Du Bois arrived there in 1885. During his three years at the university, the intrepid scholar roamed Nashville’s countryside as a teacher, and he heard some of the “sorrow songs” he reflected on so fondly in his treasured book “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903. According to historian David Levering Lewis in his incomparable study of the great man, Du Bois confessed he heard the authentic sorrow songs that were “unmannered, slurred diction purity which no Jubilee Singers concert could ever capture,” Lewis wrote.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Of course, capturing the raw emotional elements of those often guttural songs were never the intention of the Jubilee Singers, whose mission, along with earning money for their school, was to deliver a more refined version of the African-American experience, though not without losing some of the folksy urgency that was the essence of such songs as “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” or “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.”

The group also veered clear of the then-current stereotypical minstrelsy, and this may have been why, at the very beginning of their career, audiences were not that excited about their renditions.

One early concert in Cincinnati brought in $50, which was promptly donated to victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago,” the ensemble’s website relates. “When they reached Columbus [Ohio], the next city on the tour, the students were physically and emotionally drained. Mr. White, in a gesture of hope and encouragement, named them ‘The Jubilee Singers,’ a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 25.”

It took a while for the singers to gather enough money to take care of their travel and lodging expenses, and this breakthrough occurred simultaneously with their winning over hostile white audiences and critics. Soon, they were no longer met with derision, but with rounds of sustained applause after a concert date.