Southern Harmony

Fisk Jubilee Singers

By Pam Windsor  |  Photography courtesy of Fisk University

A handful of Fisk University students sang to save their school 150 years ago, starting a legacy that echoes around the world today.

On Oct. 6, 1871, nine students at Fisk University in Nashville set off to do something that had never been done before and save their school in the process.

They planned to visit small towns across America and perform live music. The historically Black university was struggling financially, and the students hoped to raise money to keep it afloat. Not only were concert tours unheard of at the time, but the students would also be singing African American spirituals, the music of former slaves. Six years after the end of the Civil War, it was unclear how people in a once deeply divided country might welcome them.

And yet, these brave young men and women set off on their journey. Not everyone welcomed them in those initial concerts, but in time the students began getting high praise, as well as standing ovations. In 1872, they were invited to perform for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House.

The group that became known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers raised $20,000 that year to support the school. But the tour was also the start of something bigger, a musical and historical legacy that continues some 150 years later.

“The (original) Fisk Jubilee Singers were responsible for establishing a very unique form of American music and then sharing it with the world,” says Dr. Paul T. Kwami, who is the ensemble’s current music director.

He attributes much of their success to the unique approach founder and original choral director George White took to arranging their music.

“One of the things he did was teach the students to sing Western classical music,” Kwami explains. “Then, with the help of the students, took old spirituals — songs these students learned from their parents and grandparents — and arranged them and transformed them into art forms of choral music that could be presented at concerts.”

Kwami says that music laid the groundwork for other music genres we have today.

“The Negro spiritual grew out of the time of slavery when Blacks were on plantations making music. And of course, with the Fisk Jubilee Singers making this music popular, it led to the growth of other forms of American music. For example, blues, jazz, country music, gospel music, and even hip hop. I sometimes describe our music as the mother of these other forms of music.”

Kwami, who grew up in Ghana, West Africa, has made sharing the history and extending the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers his life’s work. As a child he sang African American spirituals in schools and churches, and even played them on his piano. But he wasn’t familiar with the Fisk Jubilee Singers until he came to the United States and enrolled at Fisk University in 1983. He sang with the group as a student for two years, then later returned as music director in 1994.

“It is honestly a humbling position for me,” he says about coming full circle.

He believes the 19th century students’ efforts to save Fisk University through their music is an important part of American history. Fisk was one of a number of Black colleges created in the 1800s.

“Right after the Civil War, the American Missionary Association, and other Christians in those days, believed they could help freed slaves by providing them with an education,” Kwami says. “However, shortly after Fisk was established (in 1866), the school began to experience financial difficulties.”

White’s idea to have the students sing to raise money wasn’t popular at the time. Both the administration and many parents were against it. But the students were determined.

“I’ve read the stories of their travels and realized how great a sacrifice these students made, giving up their education to raise money to prevent the alma mater from being shut down,” Kwami says. “Some of their stories before coming to Fisk were very sad. No one today would have thought in those days that these young people would become members of this legacy that we still talk about today.”

Kwami remains dedicated to making sure their sacrifice, and all they accomplished, is never forgotten.

Today, under his leadership, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to travel and perform. They arrive at venues to responsive crowds who know their story and are eager to hear their music.

“We’ve had some concerts where just walking on stage the applause makes us feel as though we were at the end of a great concert,” says Kwami. “And when this happens it just packs a lot of fire within us. And that carries through the whole concert.”

This October the Fisk Jubilee Singers will celebrate their 150th anniversary. And while they’ve received multiple awards through the years and are members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, it’s especially fitting that their latest album “Celebrating Fisk (the 150th Anniversary Album)” won a Grammy Award this past March for Best Roots Gospel Album.

It only serves to underscore their legacy, as well as to celebrate their future.

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