A History of the African-American Spiritual

How the African-American Spiritual has maintained its integrity in the face of major social and musical challenges

[Based on an article by Thomas Lloyd published in the August 2004 issue of the Choral Journal of the American Choral Directors Association; all rights reserved.]

3. The First Tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers




In 1867, a white, former Union army sergeant named George L. White (1838-1895), became the treasurer and one of the first teachers at the Fisk Free Colored School, funded by the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist organization. After a time, White began gathering a group of students together for informal singing in his home, in part to keep his and their spirits from flagging in the midst of struggles to keep the new school from going under. He was inspired by their voices and the dire financial straits of the college, so he began arranging occasional fund-raising concerts for the choir. The repertoire was drawn from the popular songs of the day, abolitionist hymns, Scottish folks songs, and eventually even complete cantatas.[1]

The second president of the new school, Adam Knight Spence, wrote in 1871 of an incident:

[O]ne day there came into my room a few students with some air of mystery. The door was shut and locked, the window curtains were drawn, and, as if a thing they were ashamed of, they sang some of the old-time religious slave songs now long since known as Jubilee songs.[2]

Ella Sheppard, the leader of this group of students, who would become lead soprano, pianist, and onstage director of the Jubilee Singers, wrote of this experience:

[S]itting upon the floor (there were but few chairs) [we sang] softly, learning from each other the songs of our fathers. We did not dream of ever using them in public.[3]

George White began to work closely with the students, transcribing some of the songs into musical notation and encouraging Ella Sheppard and the other students to work out arrangements of the songs that they could perform in public. White then pulled the group together into a resolutely disciplined ensemble. Andrew Ward outlines some of the written accounts from the first student singers concerning George White’s approach to singing in this way:

'He insisted we use the same naturalness of expression we would use if we were speaking to the audience.’ He had a horror of harsh tones: everything was softened; in fact, esses [sic] were not just softened but sometimes omitted. They were to sing with their mouths open wide enough to fit a finger between their teeth. The singers had to blend with each other, listen to the entire ensemble; no voice except a soloist’s was to be heard above another.

Because they were reluctant to expose their songs to white ears, and because they would so often have to rehearse their pieces in hotel rooms, their pianissimi would become a kind of signature of the Jubilee sound. White used to ‘tell the singers to put into the tone the intensity that they would give to the most forcible one that they could sing, and yet to make it as soft as they possibly could.’ [T]hey sang with ‘so much feeling in every syllable’ because ‘Mr. White drilled that into us.'[4]

The style of singing described here seems to be a far cry from the free, robust communal singing in the fields of ante-bellum plantations. It would also be hard to dismiss the view of some in the black community at the time that performing the spirituals in concert in this way represented a humiliating accommodation to white audiences. They saw it as an inappropriate sharing of a part of their cultural heritage that was painful and better to be kept within the collective memory of the people who suffered under slavery. By the turn of the century, there were even a few open rebellions in black colleges such as Fisk and Howard and in some prominent black churches against the idea of performing spirituals.[5] As time passes, the achievements of the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to be appreciated as more courageous and far-reaching in influence than may have been realized at the time.


[1]Andrew Ward, Dark Midnight When I Rise, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000) 83,90. Ward’s book contains a thorough and detailed account of the origins and first tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and was accompanied by a video documentary produced by WGBH and Nashville Public Television for the PBS American Experience series: Llewellyn Smith and Andrew Ward, Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory (60”) available through www.shop.pbs.org

[2]Adam Knight Spence, undated lecture, Mary Elizabeth Spence Collection, Notebooks; quoted in Ward 110.

[3]Ella Sheppard Moore, "Historical Sketch of the Jubilee Singers," quoted in Ward 110.

[4]Ward 114-115.

[5]John Lovell, Jr., Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (New York: Paragon House, 1972) 416; Ward 399-400.

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