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.]
In April of 2002 I visited Fisk University with a college chamber choir with the intent of making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the concert performance of the African-American spiritual. While there, we were fortunate to share a concert with the current generation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers®, directed by Prof. Paul T. Kwami. This landmark campus on a hill looking over Nashville possesses a sense of history that permeates not only the buildings and grounds, but also the imaginations of the current students as well, who proudly carry on an important legacy of African-American education and empowerment. The most prominent building on campus still is Jubilee Hall, built with funds raised by the first two Jubilee Singers tours under the direction of George L. White and the inspired leadership of Fisk student and former slave, Ella Sheppard. Within Jubilee Hall hangs the famous portrait of the second group of Jubilee Singers painted by the English portraitist Edmund Havell at the time of the Singers’ historic visit with Queen Victoria.
The most surprising revelation came the next day at the beginning of our concert in Fisk Memorial Chapel. Eleven of the sixteen current members of the Jubilee Singers come out on stage in Victorian costumes (on a swelteringly hot day), moved into the exact same configuration as the eleven singers in the famous portrait in Jubilee Hall. They presented a medley of spirituals called A Portrait Comes to Life. The spirituals were sung using mostly simple four-part call-and-response harmonizations. [ Music Example 1 ] Some of these arrangements are from the collection published by former Jubilee Singers director John W. Work III and are very close in style to those recorded by his father with the Fisk Jubilee Quartet in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The young performers sought to emulate their predecessors by singing with directness, simplicity, restraint, and resolute dignity. In between selections, they stepped out from the “portrait” one by one to introduce their historic characters using more relaxed inflections suggestive of the conversational rural dialect of the slaves. They would then step back into the ensemble to sing another spiritual with tightly unified diction and unmistakable conviction. Hearing the spirituals sung by a small ensemble without a conductor instilled a desire to explore further the evolution of the spiritual from its origins in the ante-bellum slave communities of the South to the imaginative choral arrangements of the outstanding composers still building on this tradition today. As the result of recent research and reissues of historic recordings, it is possible to get closer to the heart of the spiritual, not in order to argue for one particular authentic interpretation over another, but to see how the biblically-based folk songs of the slaves have managed to maintain their essential integrity in spite of being subjected to a daunting range of transformations, accommodations, and appropriations.
For further background about the Fisk Jubilee Singers click on these videos:
John W. Work (III), American Negro Songs and Spirituals (New York: Bonanza Books, 1940).
Fisk Jubilee Singers, Volumes 1 (1909-1911) and 2 (1915-1920). Document Records, DOCD-5533,5534.
This experience at Fisk also brought to mind that I could not remember having heard one of the many still thriving Historical Black College choirs at an ACDA convention in recent years. If my memory is not mistaken, the wider choral community is missing out on the opportunity to remain connected to the most essential living link to the history of America’s most important contribution to choral repertoire.
For a thorough recent discussion of issues of authenticity related to the understanding of the spiritual (well beyond stylistic performance issues), see Jon Cruz, Culture on the Margins -- The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation. (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1999). Cruz credits educators in the new black colleges for preserving a cultural tradition that was otherwise in danger of being lost (the freed slaves often showed little interest in preserving the songs because they reminded them of their oppression, while white society treated black musical sources with ridicule and appropriation). But at the same time, he feels this wider exposure led to a romanticized approach by northern white liberal abolitionists and a detached scientific approach by emerging academic folklorists, both of which served to distance the observers from the people who originally sang the spirituals and their predicament, and by extension, the predicament they faced in the rapidly industrializing and segregated North alongside the failure of Reconstruction in the South.