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Group Hits the Right Notes at Fisk : Jubilee Singers Preserve Black Songs of Plantation Life

Charles Hillinger's America

April 06, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At historic Fisk University in this capital city the school's heroes for more than a century haven't been football or basketball players.

They have been members of a musical group. In fact, Fisk--one of the nation's most prestigious predominantly black universities--would not exist today had it not been for the Jubilee Singers.

Until the Jubilee Singers came along, the rich musical treasures of Southern plantation life had not been heard outside the black communities.

Performing songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Little David, Play on Your Harp" "Go Down Moses" "Steal Away to Jesus" and "Deep River," the Jubilee Singers introduced the world to the Negro spiritual and black music as an American art form.

The American Missionary Assn. of New York City and the Western Freedman's Aid Commission of Cincinnati launched Fisk University in 1866 for those freed from slavery after the Civil War. The first classes were held in abandoned Union Army barracks in Nashville.

Lacking financial support, the school closed six years later. That's when George L. White, Fisk's treasurer and professor of music, came up with the idea of taking his choral group on a fund-raising tour. The school's board of directors considered the plan but turned the professor down. Undeterred, White borrowed money for the tour and set out on Oct. 6, 1871.

"It took great courage. They faced real dangers traveling at the time of Reconstruction when racial hatred was intense. Accommodations were not easy to find. All but two of the original nine singers had been in bondage until the end of the Civil War," explained Henry Ponder, 58, Fisk's current president.

"The young men and women began by singing classical music. At night, back in their rooms, they would sing songs that gave themselves comfort, the old Negro spirituals."

Ponder said that White, noting the deep emotional feeling and great fervor displayed when singing those songs, decided to include a spiritual in the the Jubilee Singer's performance before a convention of the National Council of Churches in Oberlin, Ohio, Nov. 15, 1871.

"They sang 'Steal Away to Jesus' that night," Ponder said. "The rest is history. The song sprang from the heart and soul of an oppressed people and conveyed the message of human emotion."

Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher became the choral group's patron, and under his auspices the Jubilee Singers continued their tour that first year to New York and New England. They sang in the White House before President Ulysses S. Grant.

Proceeds from the concerts were used to purchase 45 acres of land, now the site of Fisk University.

In 1873 the Jubilee Singers, numbering seven women and four men, embarked on a European tour. White and his choral group electrified audiences in England, France, Germany, Russia and other countries, including heads of state.

Queen Victoria was so moved by the group that she commissioned court artist Edmund Havel to paint a life-size portrait of the singers.

The $150,000 raised on the European tour that year was used to build stately Victorian red brick Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building erected for educating black students in America.

Beth Howse, 42, Fisk University's special collections librarian, looked admiringly at the painting of her great-grandmother, Ella Sheppard Moore. Moore, who lived from 1851 to 1914, was one of the original Jubilee Singers who continued with the group until 1878.

"Every time I come into the auditorium in Jubilee Hall I spend a few moments with this painting Queen Victoria had Edmund Havel do," said Howse. "I'm so proud to be Ella Sheppard Moore's great granddaughter."

The 10 other Jubilee Singers portrayed in the painting are Benjamin Holmes, Isaac Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins, Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, Julia Jackson, Maggie Porter and Georgia Gordon.

Historic Landmark

Jubilee Hall, named after the Jubilee Singers, is the pride and joy of Fisk University. The building was dedicated Jan. 1, 1876, and the Havel painting has been hanging in the auditorium ever since. Today, Jubilee Hall, a national historic landmark, houses two reception rooms and the auditorium and serves as a freshman women's dormitory.

Most universities celebrate Founders Day. Here at Fisk an equivalent celebration is Jubilee Day each Oct. 6, marking the day in 1871 when White and the Jubilee Singers launched their first tour.

The musical group for the last 23 years has been directed by Matthew Kennedy, 65, who earned his master's degree from the Juilliard School of Music and made his debut as a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall. Kennedy was a Jubilee Singer when he attended Fisk as an undergraduate.

His wife, Ann Gamble Kennedy, is the group's pianist. Their daughter, Nina, a concert pianist, is currently pursuing her doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

"The repertoire of the Jubilee Singers today, as throughout history, is primarily Negro spirituals," noted Matthew Kennedy.

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