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.]

7. Performance Characteristics of the Early Recordings

The earliest recordings of the spirituals provide a wonderful insight into how the performance practice of the spirituals developed.  In the 1909 recording of I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray[1] John Work’s voice soars above the melody quite freely and expressively, revealing an improvisatory artistry associated with the spiritual far beyond the vocal conventions of other quartet genres such as barbershop.

[ Music Example 4 ]

Another cut from a Victor recording session two years later, Po' Moaner Got A Home At Last[2], is remarkable for its divergence from traditional harmonization. Until the final cadence, there is no four-part harmony at all, but rather unisons, solos, and duets with the high tenor and low bass in octaves on the wordless, free vocalizations of the refrain:

[ Music Example 5 ]

Up-tempo spirituals such as O Mary Don’t You Weep Don't You Mourn (recorded for Columbia in 1915[3]) swing with an infectious rhythmic buoyancy with a pulse that never wavers:

[ Music Example 6 ]

One track from these early recordings, Old Black Joe, bears mentioning in light of our earlier discussion of the minstrel movement. The 1909 Victor recording of the Fisk quartet singing Old Black Joe by Stephen Foster (1826-64)[4] is remarkable for a most unusual, haunting arrangement. John Work’s tenor is heard floating way above Noah Ryder’s bass on the melody, a spacious, almost symphonic use of solo voices. The text, depicting the nostalgia of an old male slave for times gone by, speaks of "the days when my heart was young and gay" and "Where are the hearts once so happy and free?"

[ Music Example 7 ]

Foster’s songs were a regular and popular part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers' non-spiritual repertoire. America’s most famous songwriter of the era, Foster aspired to reform the demeaning aspects of the minstrel repertoire with carefully crafted melodies consciously written in emulation (some would later say appropriation) of the black spirituals. His songs romanticized the plantation life of the slaves while glossing over the harsh realities of that life, making them easier for white audiences to hear. Foster’s songs were perennial favorites of black minstrel groups as well as the Jubilee Singers, were looked upon favorably by no less a black leader of the time than W.E.B Du Bois, and were performed by prominent black recitalists in the twentieth century such as Harry T. Burleigh and Paul Robeson. During the civil rights movement of the 1960’s there was a reaction against the legacy of minstrelsy and Foster’s proximity to the genre, but later scholarship saw his contribution in a more positive light for its perceived role in promoting racial reconciliation.[5]

At the end of 1916, John Work retired from the quartet and handed over the leadership to the second tenor, Reverand James Myers, whose wife Henrietta (always listed as "Mrs. James A. Myers") also became involved. Though generally unheard while doubling one of the middle parts, she eventually took over leadership of the Fisk Jubilees upon her husband’s death in 1928.[6] Recording sessions continued, with Columbia and smaller labels,[7] but these never sold nearly as well as the earlier Victor recordings (which remained in the catalog until 1928[8]). The performances never quite ascend to the level of the sessions led by Work. A comparison between the 1909 (Victor) and 1920 (Columbia) takes of Roll, Jordan, Roll shows the earlier recording to be much more vibrant and expressively energized with Work’s soaring tenor on top.[9]

1909 Victor recording with John Work:

1909 Victor recording with John Work: [ Music Example 8 ]  

1920 Columbia recording with James Myers:

1920 Columbia recording with James Myers: [ Music Example 9 ]

Interestingly, the later recording also raises the famous lowered seventh of the refrain, contrary to the earlier recording and the version later notated by Work’s son.[10]

A dramatic difference in dynamic shading occurs with the wider frequency range of the first electronic recordings of the Fisks by Columbia in 1926, here with a quintet led by Reverend and Mrs. Myers:[11]

[ Music Example 10 ]

The music of the spirituals had again reached an international mass audience, this time through the medium of a new technology that would revolutionize the musical world. The spirituals were now presented by four men singing alone in a room, one-on-a-part, through a megaphone. The resulting record albums, with their formal photograph in white tie and tails on the cover, would reach millions. As different as this was from the picture of a large community of people in bondage singing for their collective survival, the essential musical form of the spirituals remained intact: unaccompanied singing, a lead voice carrying the melody with an improvisatory feeling, and characteristic harmonization underneath, albeit with concert hall clarity. The religious and political implications of the texts were probably missed by most of an audience that was still enthralled by minstrel tunes. However, as was the case in a different mode of performance for the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, the dignity and emotional directness with which the songs were performed coaxed a wide range of listeners to respond to this music seriously on its own expressive terms.

Musical Examples:

4.  "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," Fisk Jubilee Singers/Quartet (John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Alfred Garfield King, Noah Walker Ryder), original by Victor, 1909; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume I – 1909-1911, Document Records: DOCD-5533.
 
5.  "Po' Moaner Got a Home at Last," Fisk Jubilee Singers/Quartet (John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Leon O’Hara, Noah Walker Ryder), original by Victor, 1911; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume I – 1909-1911, Document Records: DOCD-5533.
 
6.  "O Mary, Don't You Weep Don't You Mourn," Fisk Jubilee Singers/Quartet (John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, J. Everett Harris, Lemuel L. Foster), original by Columbia, 1915; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume II – 1915-1920, Document Records: DOCD-5534.
 
7.  "Old Black Joe," Fisk Jubilee Singers/Quartet (John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Alfred Garfield King, Noah Walker Ryder), original by Victor, 1909; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume I – 1909-1911, Document Records: DOCD-5533.
 
8.  "Roll, Jordan, Roll," Fisk Jubilee Singers/Quartet (John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Alfred Garfield King, Noah Walker Ryder), original by Victor, 1909; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume I – 1909-1911, Document Records: DOCD-5533.
 
9.  "Roll, Jordan, Roll," Fisk University Jubilee Singers (James A. Myers, M. Carl Barbour, Mrs. James A. Myers, Alfred T. Clark, Theodore H. Moore), original by Columbia, 1920; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume II – 1915-1920, Document Records: DOCD-5534.
 
10. "Shout All Over God's Heaven," Fisk University Jubilee Singers (James A. Myers, M. Carl Barbour, Mrs. James A. Myers, Horatio O’Bannon, Ludie David Collins), original by Columbia, 1924; re-issued on Fisk University Jubilee Singers In Chronological Order – Volume III – 1924-1940, Document Records: DOCD-5535.

 Notes:

[1]Document-Records DOCD-5533 track 2 (1909).

[2]Document-Records DOCD-5533 track 14 (1911).

[3]Document-Records DOCD-5534 track 8 (1915).

[4]Document-Records DOCD-5533 track 6 (1909).

[5]Deane L. Root: 'Foster, Stephen Collins', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 30 April, 2004), http://www.grovemusic.com. For a provocative recent biography of the composer with an overview of the place of Foster’s songs in American culture, see Ken Emerson’s Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997). For a detailed study of the sources and interpretations of Foster’s song texts, see William W. Austin’s Susanna, Jeanie, and the Old Folks at Home: The Songs of Stephen C. Foster from His Time to Ours, 2nd edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

[6]Brooks 300,306.

[7]Document-Records DOCD-5534, tracks 13-24 and DOCD-5535 (Fisk University Jubilee Singers, Vol. 3). Edison cylinder recordings from 1911, 1916, and 1920 can be found on DOCD-5613 (The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups, Vol. 5).

[8]Brooks 296.

[9]Document-Records DOCD-5533 track 5 (1909), DOCD-5534 track 17 (1920).

[10]Work, American Negro Songs 199.

[11]Document-Records DOCD-5535 tracks 3-8 (1926).

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