Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Sacred Music of the African American Diaspora

The Legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were instrumental in preserving the unique American musical tradition known today as spirituals. In 1866, Fisk University was founded in Nashville, Tennessee as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” By 1871, the five-year-old university was facing serious financial difficulty. To avert bankruptcy and closure, Fisk's treasurer and music director, George L. White gathered a nine-member student chorus, consisting of four black men (Isaac Dickerson, Ben Holmes, Greene Evans, Thomas Rutling) and five black women (Ella Sheppard, Maggie Porter, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, Eliza Walker) to go on tour to earn money for the university.

The Jubilee Singers' performances were a departure from the familiar "black minstrel" genre of white musicians' performing in blackface and early performances were met with confusion and hostility. As the tour continued, audiences came to appreciate the singers' voices, and the group began to be praised. In early 1872 the group performed at the World's Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival in Boston, and for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House in March of that year.

In a tour of Great Britain and Europe in 1873, the group, by then with 11 members, performed for Queen Victoria. The queen, fascinated by the singers, commissioned a massive portrait of them which still hangs in the university’s Jubilee Hall. They continued to tour and perform and between 1875 and 1878 raised an estimated $150,000 for the university.

The Jubilee Singers are credited with the early popularization of the Negro spiritual tradition among white and northern audiences; many were previously unaware of its existence. They broke racial barriers in the US and abroad in the late 19th century and influenced many other troupes of jubilee singers who would go on to make their own contributions to the genre, such as the Original Nashville Students, Chicago’s Williams Jubilee Singers, and the Los Angeles- based Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers. The Jubilee Singers perform to this day. In 2017, they were inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame.

Hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" and "Rockin' Jerusalem"

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