Saturday, February 26, 2011

NPR: 'At Fisk University, A Tradition Of Spirituals'

[(Courtesy of Doug Seroff) The Fisk University Jubilee Quartet in 1909. Left to right: Alfred G. King (1st bass), James A. Myers (2nd tenor), Noah W. Ryder (2nd bass), and John W. Work II (1st tenor).]

by Jeff Bossert
February 26, 2011
“For nearly 150 years, a largely black private university in Nashville has prided itself on its liberal arts studies and its music. Vocal ensembles at Fisk University have been there about as long as the campus itself. But the songs performed there today could have sounded very different if it hadn't been for the efforts of one of the school's first music directors.
“A new collection from Archeophone Records, an Illinois label that revives old recordings, not only preserves that effort but also reopens the debate on whether so-called Negro spirituals are simply cruel reminders of slavery. The collection is titled There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and His Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916. Between 1909 and 1916, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet recorded more than 40 songs. John Work II was a scholar, musician and anthropologist who collected these songs from the days of slavery, had them published and recorded many of them with the quartet.”

“When Work came to Fisk University in 1891, the institution had already used music as a way to save the school from insolvency. The first Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world, performing for Queen Victoria, among others. And what they were performing was just as significant: They switched from operatic arias to religious songs like "There Is a Balm in Gilead." But by the time Work came to Fisk, the choir had disbanded and was all but forgotten, in part because of those very songs. 'Because of their very sacred nature, they had been an essential part of the insular slave worship,' author Doug Seroff says. 'Further, white minstrel performers had seized on their spiritual songs and subjected them to parody and ridicule — ridiculing the slave's religion as well as the songs.'

“Seroff has traced the earliest history of black vocal harmonies and written the liner notes for the new collection. He says there was a reluctance to perform spirituals following emancipation because they were seen as a degrading reminder of slave life. Freed men were anxious to put this era behind them, he says, and saw a college education as a way to achieve that. But Seroff says Work saw things differently. 'For John Work, the spirituals preserved the religious faith and wisdom of his forebears,' Seroff says. 'And he took great pride in the racial heritage of sacred folk music, especially the fact that the songs in his mind contained no trace of hatred or revenge against the slave masters and oppressors.'”

“John Work II was the son of a slave. He eventually convinced the university to let the singers go back out on tour. Reduced from a chorus to a men's quartet for financial reasons, they made their first recordings in 1909 for the Victor label. The Fisk Jubilee Quartet became messengers for black music, says Tim Brooks, author of the book Lost Sounds, a history of the earliest African-American recordings. 'They only toured in the North, of course, and usually to a kind of upper-educated group, and churches, and things like that,' Brooks says. 'They didn't play vaudeville or broad-based entertainment. So when those records came out from Victor — the big record company in 1910 — they spread across the country. People everywhere, including people who would never allow a black person in their front parlor, bought those records.' Some blacks felt the Fisk Jubilee Singers were pandering to white audiences. But Brooks says there were fans, including Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak, who believed black Americans should look to their own roots and traditions for music, and then build on them.”

“Surprisingly, John Work II's contributions to African-American music on the Fisk campus were largely overshadowed by those of his son. John Work III spent more than 40 years at Fisk, not only as a student and teacher but also as leader of the Jubilee Singers. He ultimately became the first African-American chairman of the school's music department."

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