The Fisk Jubilee Singers


Godfrey Henneghan


On November 16, 1871, a group of unknown singers -- all but two of them former slaves and many of them still in their teens -- arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of influential ministers. After a few standard ballads, the chorus began to sing spirituals -- "Steal Away" and other songs" associated with slavery and the dark past, sacred to our parents," as soprano Ella Sheppard recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans had sung in fields and behind closed doors.

"All of a sudden, there was no talking," says musicologist Horace Boyer. "They said you could hear the soft weeping . . . and I’m sure that the Jubilee Singers were joining them in tears, because sometimes when you think about what you are singing, particularly if you believe it, you can’t help but be moved."

"Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory," produced by Llewellyn Smith, tells the story of a group of former slaves who battled prejudice and oppression to sing their way into a nation’s heart. Eventually, they would perform for presidents and queens, tour the United States and Europe, and establish songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Little Light of Mine" as a cherished part of the nation’s musical heritage. The program features today’s Fisk Jubilee Singers performing these and many other spirituals; Dion Graham narrates.

The concert in Oberlin was the turning point in a daring fundraising experiment for impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where the singers were students. Established in January 1866, Fisk taught freed slaves how to count their wages, how to write the new names they had chosen for themselves, and read both the ballot and the Bible. Despite emancipation, the South was a dangerous place: Fisk students who dared teach in the countryside were routinely assaulted and whipped by Ku Klux Klan nightriders; one was shot at in his classroom; another had her school building burned to the ground.

Charged with keeping the financially troubled school afloat, treasurer George Leonard White proposed taking Fisk’s most gifted singers on a fundraising tour of the North. Before they even left town, they encountered resistance: the parents were afraid to let their children go; White’s fellow teachers opposed the tour; and the American Missionary Association, the northern religious organization that operated Fisk, refused to help, worried that the chorus’s appeal for funds would jeopardize their own fundraising activities. But White persevered. "I’m depending on God, not you," he told the AMA, and set off with his singers and the last $40 of the school’s treasury. "Not one of us had an overcoat or wrap," remembered Ella Sheppard. "Taking every cent he had, and all he could borrow, Mr. White started with his little band of singers to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of people."

Following the path of the Underground Railway, the group made its debut in Cincinnati. Despite the warm reception, donations totaled less than $50. Night after night, it was the same: crowds loved their singing, but the collection plate yielded barely enough to cover their expenses. Yet no one turned back. "All we wanted," recalled soprano Maggie Porter, "was for Fisk to stand."

Life on the road took its toll. White and the singers endured rheumatism, bronchitis, chronic coughs. Their clothes ran to rags. But after the triumphant Oberlin performance, word started to spread. In December, the Jubilee Singers appeared at Henry Ward Beecher’s weekly prayer meeting at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. "Every church wanted the Jubilee Singers from that time on," wrote Maggie Porter. They sang for Mark Twain, President Ulysses S. Grant, congressmen, diplomats. "These singers," said one newspaper, "are doing a great work for humanity."

Ella Sheppard wrote, "We sang as if inspired. We not only paid the debts at home, we carried home $20,000 with which was purchased the site of our new school. We returned to Fisk amid great rejoicing."

After less than two weeks’ rest, the singers were back on the road, touring the Eastern United States. Eventually they would tour Europe to universal acclaim and sing for the royal families of Holland, Germany, and Britain. "They are real Negroes," Queen Victoria wrote in her journal. "They come from America and have been slaves. They sing extremely well together."

The group raised what today would be millions of dollars, but they paid a terrible price. Worn down by the relentless schedule, an advance man suffered a nervous breakdown. George White lost his wife to typhoid fever. White himself nearly died of a pulmonary hemorrhage. Contralto Minnie Tate’s voice was torn to shreds. Tenor Benjamin Holmes’s nagging cough was caused by tuberculosis. They faced discrimination on the road and from the press. The "New York World" called them "trained monkeys" who sang "with a wild darky air" and the "Newark Evening Courier" listed them as if they were items from a slave dealer’s catalogue. A grueling tour of Germany -- ninety-eight days, forty-one towns, sixty-eight concerts -- brought with it low morale, frayed nerves, and rivalries among the singers.

After almost seven years of touring, the Jubilee Singers returned home. They were honored by Fisk for raising the funds to complete Jubilee Hall and save their school.

But their contributions extended far beyond Fisk University. They had introduced the world to the power of spirituals and challenged racial stereotypes on two continents. "In their wake, hotels, railways, steamship lines, and boards of education integrated their facilities. The Jubilees not only introduced the world to the music of black America, they championed the liberties of all Americans," says Andrew Ward, co-writer of the documentary and author of "Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers." More than 125 years later, the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University continue the concert tradition begun by that courageous original chorus of former slaves.

 Fisk Jubilee Singers 1 1909-1911  Fisk Jubilee Singers by Fisk Jubilee Singers (2012-05-30)  In Bright Mansions by Curb Records (2003-01-28)
 Fisk University Jubilee Singers 2  Sacred Journey  Eye of the Storm 43rd Annual Arts Festival Fisk University 1972
 The Fisk Jubilee Singers 1955 Folkways Records    Fisk Jubilee Singers; Directed By John W. Work. The Gold & Blue Album.(1955) LP


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African American Spirituals A National Treasure

From 1619 to 1865, enslaved African Americans created their own unique form of expression known today as African American Spirituals. As African Americans were not allowed to speak their native languages or play African instruments, African American Spirituals incorporated into the English language and the Christian religious faith.

Simply defined, African American Spirituals are the songs created and first song by African Americans during the times of slavery. These songs are celebrated as a American National Treasure.  For they are the source for which gospel, jazz and blues evolved.

The lyrics of these songs are tightly linked with the lives of their authors who were inspired by the message of God and the gospel of the Bible. The most pervasive message conveyed by African American Spirituals is that of an enslaved people for yearning to be set free. The slaves believed they understood better than anyone what freedom truly meant in both a spiritual and a physical sense.

The Old Testament scriptures that are referenced in their songs spoke of deliverance in this world and they believed God would deliver them from bondage. These spirituals are different from hymns and psalms because the African American slave used them as a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave while also singing about their love and faith in God.

The African American slave was forbidden to learn how to read and write. They had to find ways to communicate secretly. African American Spirituals were a medium for several layers of communication and meaning

African American Spirituals where the strong oral tradition of songs, stories proverbs and historical accounts. African American Spirituals have been apart of American culture from times of slavery to today and their legacy is clear in today’s gospel music. African American Spirituals where also song during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Songs that we are familiar with such as "We Shall Overcome" and "Marching Round Selma were heard in the south to united African American in the struggle for civil rights.

Some of the more commonly known songs including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "The Gospel Train", used language which described activities but had a second meaning relating to the underground railroad.

The lyrics used in African American Spirituals became a metaphor from freedom of slavery and they were a secret way for slaves to communicate with each other, teach there young, record there history and heal there pain.

Frederick Douglas a fugitive slave who became one of the United States leading abolitionist stated that African American Spirituals told a tale of woe which was all together beyond feeble comprehension and that every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.


Deep River   Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child   Oh, Peter Go Ring Dem Bells
The Lonesome Valley   Listen To The Lambs   Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I'm a-Trav'ling To The Grave   Go Down, Moses   It's a Me, O Lord Standin' In The Need of Prayer
Steal Away   My Way's Cloudy   Hard Trials
Heav'n, Heav'n Goin' to Shout All Over God's Heav'n   I Don't Feel No-ways Tired   Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Had
Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit   I'm A Rolling   Wait 'Till I Put On My Crown
Jesus On The Waterside   Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel   Roll, Jordan, Roll
Wrestle On, Jacob       I've Been In The Storm So Long

Harry T Burleigh
December 2, 1866 to September 12, 1949

African American Classical Composer, Arranger and Professional Singer



Harry T Burleigh

For more than 200 years, slavery was legal in the present boundaries of the United States. A country founded on the belief that all men are created equal with the God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With one third (1/3) of its populations living in slavery, the United States would partake in one of history great ironies. Its incarceration inhabitants, a nation enslaved would write the countries first folk music and sing the nations first songs of freedom.

Millions of voices and centuries of toil will rise up and become one voice and that voice will create a musical genre to which all American songs could trace their lineage and their roots.

Although his name is relatively unknown, Harry Thacker Burleigh (named Henry after his father) born on December 2, 1866 in Erie Pennsylvania.

Music was everywhere in the Burleigh’s home. His father Henry Burleigh who died when Harry was a child would lead the family in singing while they worked. His grandfather formerly enslaved was the town crier and lamp lighter and would take Harry and his older brother Reginald with him on his nightly rounds. Grandfather and grandsons would sing the songs of the African slave. The songs that the grandfather’s father and his grandfather sang songs of life and freedom. Harry’s mother Elizabeth Burleigh and her sister Louisa taught him the songs of the European classical tradition. Elizabeth Burleigh was a college-educated woman fluent in both French and Greek. But in the early days of emancipation she was only able to get a job as a janitor and housemaid. She and her son Harry worked in the home of Elizabeth Russell a local arts patron who hosted performances of art songs. Young Harry would listen from a distance and the songs and singers he heard in Elizabeth Russell’s home help release his inner voice. A deep and rich baritone voice that was soon in demand at churches synagogues and homes in and around Erie Pennsylvania.

In 1892, Harry T Burleigh left Erie Pennsylvania to pursue a musical career. With only a few belongings an a head full of music, Harry T Burleigh traveled to New York City to audition for the National Conservatory of Music.

The years Harry T Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career mostly due to his friendship with Antonin Dvorák the Conservatory’s director. After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African American Spirituals that he had learned from his grandfather, Harry was encourage to preserve these songs in his on arrangements and their themes could be heard in Antonin Dvorák’s new world symphony.

Before the turn of the century Harry T Burleigh established himself as a composer of popular art songs. For decades Harry T Burleigh traveled the world performing the songs of his grandfather all the while giving his country it’s first song which became jazz, swing, blues and eventually rock.

Harry T Burleigh died on September 12, 1949 and was buried in Erie Pennsylvania.

 Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh: Low Voice [Songbook]  Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance (Music in American Life)  25 Spirituals Arranged by Harry T. Burleigh: With a CD of Recorded Piano Accompaniments High Voice, Book/CD (Vocal Library)
 Hard Trials: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh  You'll git dar in de mornin'  From the Southland: Piano Solo
 Nobody Knows: The Forgotten Story of One of the Most Influential Figures in American Music  African Americans on Martha's Vineyard: From Enslavement to Presidential Visit (American Heritage)  Safe Harbor [in Pennsylvania], Full-length Documentary about the Underground Railroad, in association with The Harry T. Burleigh Society - Narrated by Sarah Blake Alston,
 Deep River: Songs and Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh  Every Time I Feel The Spirit (Live)  Nobody Knows: Songs Of Harry T. Burleigh


African American Spirituals




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