The Fisk Jubilee Singers were an African American singing group active in their first formation from October 1871 through July 1878. Comprised of between eleven and eighteen vocalists, many of whom were former enslaved people, the act toured under the direction of George Leonard White (b. 1838–d. 1895), a white man who served as treasurer and choral director at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Credited with bringing the sounds of slavery, specifically slave spirituals (also known as black spirituals or Negro spirituals), to the American and British mainstream, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were social activists, cultural icons, and entrepreneurs. The money raised in Fisk Jubilee Singers concerts is credited with saving the educational mission of Fisk University to educate and uplift recently freed Southern blacks. The Fisk School was founded in January 1866 by members of the American Missionary Association (AMA). A Christian society, the AMA was a white-led institution intent on fostering a cadre of teachers to spread Christian messages. One measure of success for the singing troupe is how well they did or did not spread a religious message through song. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, however, as the pioneers of slave spirituals in a post-emancipation society, stimulated many additional concerns—perhaps most important was whether the singers battled or confirmed 19th-century racist impressions of African Americans. Another question involves originality: was their music a product of black oppression, the result of African American creativity under slavery? Or was the music, which the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed on concert stages, catered toward white progressive tastes? These discussions were often situated within racial ideologies that modern scholars no longer accept. The fact that the Fisk Jubilee Singers started out singing standard popular melodies from the European music catalogue (only to switch to slave spirituals) has helped forever to fuel these debates. Note that the Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s represented only the first manifestation of a singing troupe whose work continues to this day. Later versions of the singers, particularly those from 1909 through 1920, are much revered for their first sound recordings of the group. To navigate the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, then, is to navigate many years of American cultural and social history. The rich scholarly debates over the form and function of the slave spiritual present one of the more active discussions on the American past. The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers can indicate the power of music in black slave survival or the selling of a blackness cultivated to the preferences of white consumers. The resources listed in this article are ordered to help researchers efficiently attack the complexity of the work and lives of the members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
The earliest narratives of the Fisk Jubilee Singers portrayed the cultural work of the group as fundraisers for Fisk University and as generally religious in nature. More recent scholarship frames the group as pathbreaking musicians whose social activism looked to combat the rampant racism of the post–Civil War era. Exploring their lives, concerts, and music brings a new understanding of the Fisk Jubilee Singer in a series of books and articles.
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