The history of Fisk University has been told through song all over the world. Thanks to a new article on the Jubilee Singers from Fisk that have carried Black history with them, we finally know the extent of their impact. Read a profile on one of the greatest HBCU choirs to grace a stage in a new article from Dave Paulson at USA Today below.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home, I hain’t got long to stay here.”
In the mid-19th century, you’d hear those words echoing across the fields of Oklahoma, as Wallace Willis and other slaves sang while they worked in the state’s Indian Territory.
Within a decade, those same words had made their way to the Queen of England. In a private room at a royal estate in London, Queen Victoria listened as 11 brave students from Nashville’s Fisk University — many of them former slaves — sang “Steal Away” for her, with voices as lush and melodious as any traditional choir.
One hundred and fifty years later, those voices are still ringing out.
The creation, rise and endurance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is a true American triumph. When Fisk treasurer George Leonard White assembled the group in 1871 and booked a tour to raise money for the struggling school, it introduced the world to “slave songs” or “negro spirituals” — music Black Americans made for themselves.
A century and a half later, the group still survives, rejuvenating itself with new student members each year. Just a few months ago, the latest arrivals to Fisk were learning “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “I’m A-Rolling Through an Unfriendly World.”
And an “unfriendly world” is important to keep in mind when tracing the Singers’ legacy. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as popular minstrel shows continued to denigrate Black culture, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were a radical development. Suddenly, a group of young Americans was sharing the songs of their own people with pride and poise.
Dr. Paul Kwami has been the group’s musical director since 1994. Along with the music, he makes sure every new member learns of the “sacrifices” made by the original group.
“Their travel happened at a time when slavery had just ended, at a time when many people did not expect much from African Americans, even though they were very intelligent,” he says.
“Many times our audiences in large halls were discouragingly slim,” original member Ella Sheppard wrote in 1911. “Our strength was failing under the ill treatment at hotels and on railroads, poorly attended concerts and ridicule.”
The group’s fortunes began to change, however, as they brought new songs to the stage. Their songs.
Their first concerts had been “made up wholly of what we called the white man’s music,” according to Sheppard: traditional hymns, temperance songs and even the minstrel-rooted “Old Folks At Home.”
But as “slave songs” — which the group would only sing after finishing rehearsals — were introduced, their concerts transformed. Six weeks after their first concert, they arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform for a convention of ministers. There, they sang “Steal Away,” but through the lens of White’s training, rooted in traditional choral music.
“They originally did not even want to sing (spirituals), because the songs were sacred to them,” Kwami says. “But people began to love the music. And in some accounts that I’ve read, people talk a lot about the beauty of their voices. (White) taught them to sing very, very softly. That was said to be a unique quality of their singing. So even in their first tour, they made a very big impression upon people.”
In stark contrast to minstrelsy, the Jubilee Singers showcased one of the first sincere blends of European and African-American influences — a blend that defined western popular music ever since. And within two years, its global appeal was evident.
In 1873, the group sailed to England. In addition to Queen Victoria, they sang for the nobility of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Before the invention of the phonograph, it marked the first time overseas audiences had heard the music of American slaves.
They were engrossed, if condescending: “Though the music is the offspring of wholly untutored minds,” wrote the Times of London, “it possesses a peculiar charm.”
When the group returned to Nashville the following year, they had raised $50,000 for the university. With it, they constructed Jubilee Hall, the South’s first permanent structure built for the education of Black students. Additional buildings followed, including Fisk Memorial Chapel, completed in 1892.
In the decades that followed the inaugural tour, the group’s repertoire began to be preserved on paper. Many of the earliest collections were edited by Fisk graduate John Wesley Work, Jr. — and his son, John Wesley Work III, followed in his footsteps as a celebrated composer, musicologist and director of the group.
On October 6, 2020, the latest ensemble of Fisk Jubilee Singers gathered at the chapel to celebrate the annual “Jubilee Day.” Every year, Fisk commemorates the date , when those first nine singers in 1871 embarked on a mission to save their school — and make history.
“We thank you for their melodious songs of Zion,” Reverend Dr. Jason R. Curry said in the invocation. “(Songs) which are still able to lift up a bowed-down head. They are still able to soothe an aching heart.”
On the chapel’s stage, the 15 newest members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers began one of those sacred songs: “Walk Together Children.”
“Going to sing and never tire/ Sing and never tire…There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.”