Chains Of Vocal History...

[Not News - Just Compelling Reading]

How the world came to know American slaves' music

Houston Chronicle

"DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE: The Story of the Jubilee Singers.''
By Andrew Ward.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.

WRITING in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois called African-American religious folk songs "the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas."

He was speaking of songs such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot,'' "Go Down, Moses'' and "Steal Away to Jesus.'' When a black slave sang those songs, poet James Weldon Johnson declared, "His spirit must have nightly floated free/Though still about his hands he felt his chains."

Today millions of people have experienced that ennobling and liberating thrill while listening to stirring interpretations by Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman.

Explaining how those songs came to be known and loved the world over is the ambitious task undertaken by Andrew Ward in "Dark Midnight When I Rise'' a 400-page book that accompanies "Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory,'' an excellent television documentary broadcast on the PBS "American Experience'' series.

In 1862 Joseph McKee, an Irish immigrant who had become a Presbyterian missionary, set up surplus Union Army tents in Nashville, Tenn., and began ministering to black slaves who had been made refugees by the Civil War.

By war's end in 1866, McKee's haphazard haven became the basis of what would be Fisk University - one of the first schools established to teach the former slaves. By then, the Free Colored School was housed in the abandoned barracks of a Union Army hospital.

Among the emancipated slaves who came to learn were 16-year old Ella Sheppard, the talented Maggie Porter and former runaway Thomas Rutling. Among the earliest teachers was a 6-foot-5-inch former blacksmith, George Leonard White, who had been a sergeant in the 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

An aspiring schoolteacher before the war, White volunteered his time at the fledgling school teaching music and penmanship. While he attempted to teach his pupils what could be found of the classics in secondhand songbooks, White soon became fascinated with the folk songs the students sang among themselves.

As Sheppard later recalled, "The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten."

But the professor convinced Ella of his enthusiasm, and she began to help him collect the songs and arrange them for the voices in his student choir.

In October 1871, with the school suffering from shortages in all categories, White thought his choir might help raise funds by singing at churches. Thus was born the soon-to-be-world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The 11-member Jubilee Singers' first great triumph came Dec. 22, 1871, when they appeared at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. There, pastor Henry Ward Beecher - brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin'' - reigned as the nation's most famous preacher (though that fame was also touched with marital scandals that delighted the newspapers).

His congregation was large and wealthy. Astonished by the music they heard that evening, the congregation received the young singers with great enthusiasm - and a bountiful collection to match. There were repeat performances Dec. 29 and Jan. 3.

After these recitals, recalled soprano Porter, "Every church wanted the Jubilee Singers to sing for them." The New York Herald, however, printed a viciously derogatory cartoon, and other papers derided the choir as "a very entertaining band of Negro minstrels."

By May 1872 the singers had earned $20,000 to support their school. A second tour took them to England, where in May 1873 they performed for Queen Victoria. Legend has it that the monarch was so pleased she directed Edmund Havell, her official portraitist, to paint a life-size group picture - which now hangs, somewhat intimidatingly for new members of the troupe, on the stage at Fisk University's imposing Jubilee Hall.

Sadly, Ward deflates the myth by telling us that Havell was "a rather undistinguished genre painter" and that not all the singers were pleased with his depictions of them.

Ward's research does confirm that their fans included the Duke of Wales and Prime Minister William Gladstone and that their biggest booster in London that summer was Mark Twain, who had first heard them a year earlier in Connecticut.

The choir went on to make extended and successful tours of England and the European continent in 1875, 1876, 1877 and 1878.

While they continued to raise funds from delighted audiences, the Jubilees also had to put up with racist newspaper reviews and personal abuse from hostile hotel staffers and members of the public. The tours were also physically punishing; each season saw several members of the choir battered by ailments ranging from strained vocal cords to exhaustion to tuberculosis.

In addition, Fisk president Erastus Milo Cravath - always less interested in the group's artistry than in its money-making potential - was constantly at odds with choir director White.

The stress of the Jubilee tours left White, in his own words, "an old man at 53 - broken in health." Five years after he wrote those words, he died, in 1895, of a massive stroke.

The best word to describe Ward's work in "Dark Midnight When I Rise'' is thorough. He cares deeply about the people he writes about, his writing is fluent, and his scholarship quite impressive.

Drawing upon original scrapbooks, diaries, letters and the archives of Fisk University, the American Missionary Association, the Freedmen's Bureau and other sources, Ward has compiled an incredibly and meticulously detailed account of how the spirituals came to international public attention in the last quarter of the 19th century.

He has also provided a portfolio of fascinating photographs and illustrations. Some readers may feel that the dramatic elements of the story are smothered in Ward's dutiful detail, but the book will hold your attention.

Since their emergence in the 1870s there have been a number of academic controversies concerning the spirituals. In the 1930s some Southern folklorists claimed that the songs were attempts of illiterate blacks to copy white revival-meeting songs. In "Negro Slave Songs in the United States'' (1953), African-American historian Miles Mark Fisher argues that before the Civil War these songs facilitated secret prayer meetings and gave messages to runaway slaves.

Ward does not concern himself with any of this except to note, in his conclusion, that "you can hear an echo of the Jubilees in the works of Gershwin, Copeland, and Ellington."

Though the original Jubilee Singers predated the invention of the phonograph, Ward points out that when we listen to Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Whitney Houston, we're also hearing echoes of "the praise and sorrow songs that Ella Sheppard and her schoolmates first shyly preformed for their white mentor 130 years ago."



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