BIRTH OF A JOYFUL NOISE: Long-forgotten Jubilee Singers Brought Spirituals to the World by JUDY LIGHTFOOT The Seattle Times, April 30, 1999
Seattle journalist and novelist Andrew Ward was doing research for a Civil War novel in local libraries when he stumbled on a wonderful, little-known American story. A discovery in the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library collection sent him to Nashville, Tennessee, where he found archives of material on the Jubilee Singers, a remarkable troupe of African American students who sang spirituals to audiences around the world after the Civil War, countering racial stereotypes wherever they went.
"The Jubilees were front-page news during the 1870s," says Ward. "From newspaper clippings it's obvious that their performances gave audiences everywhere their first exposure to authentic African American music. And at a time when it was risky for blacks to assert themselves in public, these young people (many of them former slaves) stood on stages and denounced any segregation they encountered. It astonished me that I had never heard of their contribution to American history."
History isn't Ward's field, though he won a Washington State Governor's Award in 1997 for Our Bones Are Scattered, a historical account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny against British rule. Local readers are more likely to remember his NPR monologues about living in the Seattle area, broadcast ten years ago on "All Things Considered" and collected in the volume Out Here: A Newcomer's Notes from the Great Northwest.
Ward says, "I'm an essayist and novelist, not an academic, and I don't have a historian's training. But I like to tell stories. When writing history I try to stay close to the experiences of people who were there."
Ward's "Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers" tells a deeply American story that shows the "can-do" national character at its best: people uniting to save something they love.
In this case it was Nashville's Fisk School, established for the education of African Americans after the Civil War. While many comparable schools offered only agricultural or industrial training, Fisk boasted a liberal arts curriculum meant to produce teachers and missionaries. But like other black schools of that era it was underfunded. When Fisk faced financial ruin, with teachers and students falling ill from poor food and bitter cold in buildings virtually rotting away, the choir and their director went on the road (another resonant American theme) to raise what today would be millions of dollars.
The story is also American in featuring people who work together despite divergent backgrounds and conflicting aims. Ward observes, "Many of the missionaries who helped build black colleges and the white teachers who staffed them were Northern abolitionists who thought they'd find in black people a kind of blank slate to write on. What they found were real African American persons in all their human variety, with a complex, vital culture of their own." Yet in spite of mistakes, quarrels, and mixed motives on the part of all, black and white, the Jubilees succeeded.
"'We were nothing but a bunch of kids,' wrote soprano Maggie Porter. 'All we wanted was for Fisk to stand.'"
But they were a savvy, resilient bunch, too. Tenor Benjamin Holmes had taught himself to read and write by studying the letters on city signs. Soprano Georgia Gordon had learned to read by memorizing a Bible verse she heard in church, comparing it with the text until she could match each word's sound with its shape, and finding other words like it. Bass singer Greene Evans had built a schoolhouse for black children from discarded lumber, wryly noting that the building "'did not lack for ventilation, for a bird could fly through anywhere.'" Like Evans, Porter had taught in a country school, until it was burned down by the KKK.
On their first U.S. tour the Jubilees wore shabby clothes and lacked winter coats. Critics confused the slave songs that, in soprano Ella Sheppard's words, "'were sacred to our parents'" with the vulgar comedy of blackface minstrels. Railroad conductors ignored the singers'coach tickets and banished them to the smoking cars. Hotels that didn't turn them away often provided rooms which, Sheppard wrote, were "'so well occupied' with insects 'that a part of us only could sleep while the others slew the occupants.'" Some innkeepers were more welcoming - - one tied his wife to the upstairs banister to keep her from throwing the singers out of the parlor.
Despite fears, threats, exhausting schedules, and serious illnesses (contralto Julia Jackson had a stroke; tenor Benjamin Holmes developed TB), the Jubilees persevered. Their gracious ways and marvelous music inspired newspaper reporters to write articles that shamed hotel and restaurant owners into admitting black customers, and several railways, steamship lines, and schools integrated.
Through incessant rehearsals the singers had developed a sweet, stirring sound "that rose and soared and faded like a passing breeze." They sang for royalty throughout Europe, they sang in the Taj Mahal. Packed audiences listened to their praise songs and sorrow songs with astonished joy, weeping and applauding.
It was the first truly American music, and it would influence music everywhere in the next century. In these spirituals, Mark Twain observed, America had "'produced the perfectest flower of the ages.'"
The songs live on in such favorites as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Little Light of Mine." No Jubilee performances were recorded, but every student choir at Fisk University has sung the original arrangements, and the present choir will appear in Ward's TV documentary, Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory, on May 1 at 9pm on KCTS-9.
Ward may either finish his Civil War novel or write about another historical event his work on the novel turned up, the massacre of African American soldiers at Fort Pillow. Writing history, he says, reminds him how his life is linked to the lives of others. "Driving to Silverdale, Washington, I'm haunted by a sense of being an interloper on Suquamish Indian soil. We're all interlopers to some extent, and we shouldn't fool ourselves with a proprietary sense about America that none of us has a right to." Ward adds, "We even treat African Americans like guests in this country. Though some of us try to make the 'visitors' feel comfortable, history shows us we're in no position to do this."
History also shows us, in Ward's inspiring book, a triumph of great music and personal courage.