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Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry$

Sandra Jean Graham

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780252041631

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252041631.001.0001

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Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

(p.82) Chapter 4 Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry
Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Sandra Jean Graham

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

The ever-growing success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers attracted widespread notice, and by 1873–1874 the troupe was facing a field of competitors, some of whom made innovations to the concert presentation of spirituals and others of whom were content to imitate the Fisk Jubilee Singers in style and repertory. Among the innovators were the Hampton Institute Singers, directed by Thomas P. Fenner. Their repertory was largely distinct from that of the Fisk singers, and they sang in a more folk-oriented performance style, as evidenced by the fact that they had a “shout leader” and sang in dialect. Another group of innovators was the Tennesseans (1874), directed by John Wesley Donavin, who sang in support of Central Tennessee College in Nashville. Their popularity rested on the supposed authenticity of what they billed as their “slave cabin concerts”—not a Fisk service of song but meant to be a naturalistic representation of slave life. The Tennesseans’ bass singer Leroy Pickett made many of their arrangements, becoming one of the earliest black arrangers of concert spirituals; later he became acting musical director. Imitators, on the other hand, reproduced the repertory and aesthetic of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They included the Hyers sisters, who reoriented their programming of art songs to include spirituals so that they could complete with other black singers at the time, as well as the Shaw Jubilee Singers, New Orleans Jubilee Singers, Jackson Jubilee Singers, Old Original North Carolinians (managed by T. H. Brand), and Sheppard’s Colored Jubilee Singers. With all of these groups, a jubilee entertainment industry began to take shape in 1872 to 1874, as performance norms were established and as organizations like lyceum bureaus began to add jubilee troupes to their roster.

Keywords:   Patrick Gilmore’s World’s Peace Jubilee, Hyer sisters, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Jubilee Singers and Hyers sisters, Hampton Institute Singers, folk traits and Hampton Institute Singers, Hampton Institute educational philosophy, Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, American Missionary Association, Thomas P. Fenner, Joseph Towe, ring shout, Robert Hamilton, James Monroe Waddy, Sallie Davis, Negro spirituals, slave music, cabin and plantation songs, dialect in spirituals, “Some o’ dese Mornin’s,”, “A Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land,”, “Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students,”, the Tennesseans (singers of slave songs), John Wesley Donavin, slave cabin concerts, Leroy (L. N. D.) Pickett (Tennesseans), “Rise, Shine!”, Anna Madah Hyers, Emma Louise Hyers, Shaw Jubilee Singers, New Orleans Jubilee Singers, the Reverend Joseph Pollard, Jackson Jubilee Singers, Old Original North Carolinians, James M. Waddy, Sheppard’s Colored Jubilee Singers, lyceum movement and jubilee song, Chautauqua and jubilee singers, camp meeting and jubilee song

The Jubilee Singers’ 1872 spring tour culminated in several appearances at Patrick Gilmore’s World’s Peace Jubilee in Boston, which celebrated the end of the Franco-Prussian War with twenty thousand choristers, some two thousand instrumentalists, and three weeks of mammoth concerts dominated by European classical music (17 June–4 July). Although the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang spirituals in three of the main concerts, their most conspicuous performance was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on Saturday, 22 June. Joining them were the Hyers sisters, a chorus of some one hundred fifty African Americans, and the distinguished festival orchestra. After a long orchestral concert of German and Austrian music (with Johann Strauss II leading his own “Neu-Wien” waltz) and a spectacular “Star-Spangled Banner” featuring a soloist, the full chorus, the orchestra, the military bands, and a cannon, the Hyers sisters began to sing “The Battle Hymn.” Their two verses were barely audible. Although several reviewers attributed this to the uncomfortably high key of E (a perfect fourth higher than normally performed), a more likely explanation for the “small” sound of these accomplished classical vocalists was the giant orchestra and even more gigantic hall (which had generated numerous complaints about acoustics during the festival)—and perhaps even the cannon shots still ringing in people’s ears. The Jubilee Singers were to sing the third verse. Outnumbering the Hyers sisters by five to one, their voices were said to be heard in every corner. The crowd and musicians erupted in cheers of “the Jubilees forever!” and threw up their handkerchiefs and hats, while Strauss waved his violin in excitement. Gilmore brought the Jubilee Singers onto the stage with him and had them repeat their verse as an encore, to an equally enthusiastic ovation.1

The glow from “The Battle Hymn” remained with the Jubilees the next day, when they were slated to sing two spirituals on a program by the festival chorus, orchestra, and soloists that included Mendelssohn’s “He, Watching over Israel,” Rossini’s “Inflammatus,” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” As the concert neared its (p.83) end, the chorus and orchestra began the well-loved hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and the audience joined in. Then the Jubilee Singers took the stage with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which the crowd greeted with an enthusiasm that “almost, if not quite, equaled any of the obstreperous demonstrations [against the singers] that were so prevalent during the preceding week,” according to the Boston Daily Globe. The second, unidentified spiritual was received “with a still larger share of plaudits and excitement,” which the singers rewarded by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Additional encores were demanded, but none was given.2 Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” brought the concert to a close.

The largest crowds at the Peace Jubilee numbered close to sixty thousand, and the festival received national newspaper coverage. Although the Jubilee Singers didn’t attract extraordinary attention from journalists, they made an indelible impression on those who heard them. Their appearance at the Peace Jubilee was the culmination of nine months of touring. In October 1871 they had been a motley group of students, dressed in cast-off clothes from their teachers, lacking overcoats and boots for the northern winters, plagued by stage fright and the insecurity of not knowing how their next train ticket or meal would materialize. They returned to Nashville in May 1872 as the Jubilee Singers, ambassadors of the AMA, well dressed and newly confident, with accolades following liberally in their wake—and with $20,000 for their school. The Jubilee Singers and their concert spirituals were well on their way to becoming a phenomenon.

As audiences took note of the Jubilee Singers, so did aspiring African American performers. In the fall of 1872, George White traveled to several New York towns to investigate the Canaan Jubilee Singers, a private enterprise that was trying to ride the coattails of the Fisk students’ success. In his opinion the group’s renditions of spirituals were “in the rough—the rudest & least musical I have ever heard … without any grip at all.” The Canaan Jubilees boasted earnings of $43,000 by that time—an impossibly large amount, given that the Fisk Jubilees had earned just upwards of $20,000. Although they claimed this money was for their “colored brethren” and, moreover, everyone who needed an education, they were not affiliated with an institution. White, vexed with this bogus competition, wrote, “They get what favor they do get because people think they are the Fisk J.S. I have no fear of their doing much but they ought to be prevented from humbugging the people if possible.”3

For the time being, the greatest threat posed by groups like the Canaans was that audiences might mistake the imitators for the imitated. Because they (p.84) appeared in the same towns and cities as the Fisks, White worried that such unscrupulous rivals would destroy the goodwill that his students had established. As it happened, the Jubilee Singers finished 1872 without serious competition. But the new year brought a better class of rivals as well as more imitators, thereby sowing the seeds of a jubilee entertainment industry. As jubilee singers began to saturate the cultural marketplace, variety and blackface minstrel performers inevitably made them the objects of parody. Innovators, imitators, and parodists all contributed to the jubilee industry, not necessarily by the quality of their performances but by their eventual ubiquity. The jubilee troupes that entered the field in 1873 and 1874 enlarged the repertory of spirituals circulating in the public domain and introduced new standards of performance.


The Fisk Jubilee Singers (it was now necessary to qualify them with their school name) had several advantages over their competitors: having had years to prepare, being first on the scene, originality, and the backing of a powerful missionary organization. Successful rivals would have to give audiences something different, and in 1873 two groups did just that: the Hampton Institute Singers and the Tennesseans.

The Hampton Institute Singers

The first significant rival of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was, in a sense, its mirror image. The Hampton Institute Singers, like the Fisks, sang for an institution in desperate need of money. But this small school in Hampton, Virginia, differed from Fisk by promoting an industrial rather than a liberal arts education. Just as Fisk University’s educational philosophy was reflected in the sound of its Jubilee Singers, so was Hampton’s in the singing of its student troupe.

Hampton’s Educational Philosophy

Hampton Institute owed its existence to Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893). Raised by missionary parents in Honolulu, Hawaii, he learned from them the values of elevating and protecting an “inferior” race through education and evangelism. His father, who served as minister of public instruction of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was instrumental in establishing a manual-labor model among the higher schools throughout the islands. Armstrong, whose youth was passed largely outdoors, grew up hale, hearty, independent, and irreverent—and these qualities endured as he matured.

(p.85) Armstrong came to the mainland in 1860 to complete his education at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he acquired an appreciation for the importance of social service. Although he was an abolitionist, he joined the army upon graduating in 1862 not out of any “burning patriotism” or “special interest in the cause of the slave” but because his friends were doing it, and because he had the temperament of a soldier.4

He applied for a command of colored troops, passed the examination, and in December 1863 became lieutenant colonel of six companies of the Ninth Regiment, United States Colored Troops, in Benedict, Maryland. He relished the work, and while serving in Benedict was appointed president of a military school for black soldiers operated by five women from Boston. His letters suggest that from this time on he began to treat the abolitionist cause more thoughtfully. Armstrong mustered out of the military in 1865 at the rank of brevet-brigadier general; the following year he was appointed bureau agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau at Fortress (today called Fort) Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, with responsibility for supervising the schools in more than ten counties on the Virginia Peninsula.

Settled in 1610, Hampton was connected to the earliest Africans in America, who were brought to nearby Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. The antebellum slave culture that developed in the region was unusual. Surrounded on three sides by water, Hampton furnished a variety of sea-related livelihoods as well as craft professions; soil exhaustion had diminished the importance of agriculture by the mid-1800s. This meant that African Americans had access to a greater diversity of work than in plantation economies. There were 201 free blacks (many of them mulatto) in Hampton’s Elizabeth City County in 1860, some of whom owned property, and they mixed freely with whites. As a result, an African American social elite of literate community leaders emerged before the war. (Although education of blacks was against Virginia law, it took place informally and went unchallenged as long as there were no negative repercussions.) At the same time there were 2,417 slaves in the county, and they lived lives of destitution, despite the relative leniency of their owners.

The Union Army occupied Fortress Monroe early in the war. It was there, in May 1861, that General Benjamin Butler made his ingenious declaration that slaves were “contrabands of war.” Faced with three escapees applying for sanctuary, he reasoned that since they were property, he could seize them to prevent their use by the enemy in waging war. Before long Fortress Monroe was deluged with black refugees, who quickly outnumbered the white population. They became laborers for the troops, suspended between freedom and slavery.5

It was against this backdrop that Armstrong began to plan for a school in Hampton in 1867. Within a three-mile radius were seven thousand freedmen, (p.86) “camping in squalid fashion”—the failed result of the Union Army’s inability to cope with the overwhelming number of black refugees who arrived at Fortress Monroe during the war.6 On 1 April 1868 the Hampton School opened under Armstrong’s direction (a year shy of his thirtieth birthday), with fifteen students from Hampton’s black elite families and five teachers.7 Two years later the Assembly of Virginia voted to incorporate the school as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.

Influenced by his father’s work among the Hawaiians, Armstrong imposed a curriculum favoring manual and technical instruction: men would become skilled laborers, and the articles they made would be sold for the benefit of Hampton and freedmen’s education. The students would farm, and the crops would feed the school. The male students would work as printers, painters, carpenters, coopers (crafters of casks and buckets), shoemakers, janitors, clerks, mail carriers, waiters, police, and guards.8 The female students would learn to cook, sew, clean, and manage a household. This philosophy of industrial education was new in the 1860s, and it quickly became controversial. Critics of the “Hampton Idea” believed that it reinforced the subordination of blacks in society, whereas proponents found it pragmatic. (As Robert Engs recounts, black minister William Roscoe Davis spoke for many freedmen when he said that the idea of teaching work habits to a people who had spent their lives as slaves was “the height of foolishness.”)9

In Armstrong’s mind, his system had finer shades of gray. He regarded blacks as slovenly and indifferent, but improvable: labor would teach discipline, industry, and self-respect. To this end, he had his male students learn to make every article possible from wood and iron. Specialization was undesirable because it would elevate the object at the expense of the real lesson: that labor was a “moral force.” For the same reason, girls learned to play the piano through exercises, not tunes. This philosophy was the foundation of Armstrong’s own education. Labor was reinforced with religious instruction and mandatory chapel attendance; as at Fisk, all students were urged to become Christians. Whereas the AMA viewed slaves as victims, Armstrong—without endorsing it—saw slavery as a logical result of blacks’ inherent laziness and immorality, traits that could be offset by industry and discipline.10 Despite his “benevolent” racism, Armstrong seems to have been beloved by most of his students. His most famous protégé, Booker T. Washington, applied Armstrong’s educational model at Tuskegee Institute, which he founded in 1881 after graduating from Hampton.

Notwithstanding their fundamentally different educational philosophies, the Hampton and Fisk schools—and most of the white-sponsored schools for blacks at that time—were linked by their professed goals of racial uplift and (p.87) self-determination, as well as by a common pool of donors and advisers. There was considerable interaction among their leaders. In fact two of Fisk’s founders were on Hampton’s Board of Trustees: E. P. Smith and E. M. Cravath. Cravath’s tenure ran from 1870 to 1877, which virtually paralleled the original Jubilee Singers’ tours (1871–1878) and overlapped with the first two years of his term as president of Fisk University.

Organizing the Hampton Institute Singers

According to Hampton teacher Helen W. Ludlow (white; 1840–1924), the idea of using the students’ “wonderful musical talents for the good of their people had for years been a favorite one” with Armstrong, but he lacked a suitable leader.11 Perhaps his determination was renewed upon hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers at the High Street Church in Lowell, Massachusetts, in spring 1872, where Armstrong gave the opening address,12 for that summer he hired Thomas P. Fenner (white) to teach music at Hampton and to organize a choir of singers. Their goal would be to raise Virginia Hall, a dormitory for the female students.

Fenner (1829–1912) was born in Providence, Rhode Island. A singer and violinist, he helped Eben Tourjée establish the New England Conservatory of Music in 1867. As it happened, Tourjée was superintendent of the massive choir at Gilmore’s Peace Jubilee in Boston. It’s possible that Fenner attended the jubilee, and even heard the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing, before arriving in Hampton that September with his wife and daughters.13

Even with his formal music training and the Fisk Jubilee Singers as a model, Fenner was at a considerable disadvantage in starting a singing troupe to represent Hampton. George White had spent almost four years finding and training the best voices in the student body before heading north; Fenner had less than six months to become acquainted with his students, learn and arrange their spirituals, teach them repertory, and turn them into singers who could hold their own next to the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Armstrong gave Fenner a helping hand by personally recruiting many of the singers, from both within and outside of the school. Any outsider who consented to sing had to enroll as a Hampton student. Armstrong discovered singer Sallie Davis, for example, in a Norfolk, Virginia, classroom. Davis recalled the first time she met Armstrong:

Our teacher made us stand and sing for him when he visited our class one day in Norfolk. He told her he was going to send some students from the Hampton School to sing and get money to help finish a new building to be called Virginia Hall. … He needed more good singers to join the band and the school. … (p.88) What was my surprise when he said, “I should like to have that little girl go.” … He then approached my parents and my father, having heard of Hampton’s power for good, readily consented. … I became at once a Hampton student and a Hampton singer.14

The original Hampton Institute Singers numbered seventeen, almost double the number of the initial Fisk troupe (see web table 4.1 for personnel). The theory was safety in numbers: given the students’ lack of performing experience, the extra voices might camouflage vocal deficiencies. The singers left Hampton on a cold, rainy evening on 13 February 1873, a year and four months after the Fisk Singers launched their first tour.15

Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who at the time boasted exceptional voices in Maggie Porter, Jennie Jackson, and Thomas Rutling, Hampton also had its stars. Joseph Towe quickly distinguished himself as the troupe’s “shout leader”:

Many an audience was carried away by his improvisations and wild refrains, as he seemed to lose sight of all before him in the visions of the “Great Getting up Mornin’.” He was a genius in his way, and representative, as he was, of the “old time Negro,” he had a good head for books too, and a very earnest desire for his own improvement and his people’s. … Returning to complete his school course, as all the Hampton Singers did, he graduated with an honor. His Commencement essay was on the old slave music: in the middle of it he electrified all his hearers by breaking into an unexpected musical illustration of his subject.16

Robert Hamilton was in some ways the “Ella Sheppard” of the Hampton troupe—a reliable assistant to Fenner, an ongoing advocate of spirituals, and a vocal coach for later troupes. He was born a slave in Louisiana and was freed by the Union Army. At Hampton he learned tailoring and ran the industrial department (which made the students’ school uniforms and work suits) for seven years after graduating in 1877. At that same time “he also had charge of the music,” according to his alumni report, “drilling the choir, and teaching singing to the entire school—especially keeping up the old ‘Plantation Songs’” (meaning spirituals). He continued with this work after graduation. In 1884 he led and sang in a quartet of male jubilee singers that toured on behalf of Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University). In the summers of 1886 and 1887 he directed a company of student singers associated with Norfolk Mission College (Virginia), and in 1887 he joined Booker T. Washington full-time at Tuskegee Institute, where he became a teacher and director of their choir.17

Another impressive soloist was James Monroe Waddy; in fact, he was the only one of the original Hampton singers to perform professionally after graduating. (p.89) Waddy’s wife reported that the couple sang with a Chautauqua choir in 1876 under the direction of a “Mr. Bliss” and “traveled through the Northern and New England States and Canada.” In 1878, she wrote, “we sailed for Liverpool and spent three years abroad, visiting all the cities and towns of importance in England, Scotland and Ireland.” According to Waddy’s alumni report, they traveled with a “colored troupe, giving concerts for themselves in England and on the Continent.” Although Grace McLean Waddy returned home in 1881, her husband “wandered,” and it isn’t clear whether they remained married.18 In the 1880s Waddy turned up several times in Boston, performing with Marie Selika and Wallace King in Sam Lucas’s Colored Ideals in fall 1880, and giving a series of Sunday night concerts at the skating rink in 1885. He sang with Slavin’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin troupe in 1878 and was also one of only four black men credited with playing the role of Uncle Tom on stage as of 1891.19

Sallie Davis, James Waddy, and Hampton singer Joseph Mebane reunited after the original Hampton troupe dissolved and sang with an independent company known as the Virginia Choristers, who toured in 1876. The troupe was disowned by Hampton Institute, which had no confidence in its management and disapproved of singing for personal profit.20

The Hamptons’ First Tour

Whereas the Fisk Jubilee Singers had taken to the road with a borrowed sum of $100 and the clothes on their backs, the Hamptons left home with concert and travel wardrobes, a $500 donation, and the goodwill of the Jubilee Singers’ audiences to smooth their way. At the same time, they faced their own set of uncertainties: perhaps audiences had tired of jubilee songs, perhaps donors were depleted, perhaps listeners would judge the singing of the Hampton students to be inferior to that of the Fisks. In a “preemptive strike” against such possibilities, the Hamptons began their tour in Washington, DC, where they sang for President Grant (as had the Jubilee Singers before them)—the most esteemed audience the country could provide. Buoyed by that success the Hamptons headed for Philadelphia, New York City, and Massachusetts, where they were patronized by many of the same religious leaders who had welcomed the Fisk Jubilee Singers.21

Religious leaders didn’t immediately endorse the Hampton singers, however; their reluctance seemed to be fueled by fear that the students, and even General Armstrong, weren’t Christians. Fortunately Helen Ludlow, who was traveling with the Hampton troupe as teacher and girls’ chaperone and was herself a minister’s daughter, found a solution. Upon arrival in New York in March 1873, Ludlow invited a number of clergymen and their wives to a private concert. The select audience was so impressed that the ministers made a number of (p.90) resolutions to support the university and its singers. “These resolutions with the signatures in fac-simile, printed on all our programmes, became a passport to churches and public interest all through the North,” remembered Ludlow.22

The Hampton students had a challenging life on the road. They faced the same prejudice that had barred the Fisk students from hotels. They studied their schoolbooks all day on trains, then had lessons and recitations once they reached a boarding house. They lugged heavy trunks of programs and books for sale, as well as extra clothing for seasonal weather. They did all of this without expectation of remuneration. (By 1873 the Fisk singers each received a salary that significantly exceeded that of white teachers at Fisk, although their contracts set explicit limits on their public and personal behavior.)23

The Hamptons never adopted an official name. Known variously as the Hampton Institute Singers, the Hampton Students, and the Hampton Colored Students, they billed their songs as “Negro spirituals,” “cabin and plantation songs,” or simply “the quaint melodies of the Negro race.” Their publicity played up authenticity: “Go and hear the Cabin and Plantation Melodies sung in their Original Style!”24 They avoided the term “jubilee,” perhaps to avoid confusion with the Fisks. Although the Hampton singers styled their concerts on the service-of-song model like the Fisks, they did not use that term in their advertisements. General Armstrong, who traveled with them as much as he was able, delivered the appeal for donations. In his absence, Thomas Fenner or singer Robert Hamilton spoke.

In March 1873 the Hamptons arrived in New York after only one month of touring. The Fisk Jubilee Singers had preceded them in January, advertising new singers and “many new and touching songs.” The Fisks’ ads signaled a new boldness: “This is the year of Jubilee! We will sing the new song. The Lord has set his people free! We will sing the new song.” They proudly recorded the amount of money they had earned and named the influential patrons they had acquired.25 The troupe was beginning its farewell tour—on 12 April they were sailing to Great Britain, leaving the home field wide open for their competitors. After a brief tour of the Northeast the Fisks returned in March to New York, where the Hampton and Fisk students found themselves in the same place at the same time.

The Jubilee Singers attended the Hamptons’ fifth performance at Steinway Hall and afterward went to greet the Hampton students in the anteroom. They were reunited once again “at the farewell concert of the Fisk Singers, who were on the eve of their departure for Europe,” recalled Helen Ludlow, “and they enjoyed a social sing together before exchanging their good-bys and (p.91) good wishes.”26 Both Theodore Cuyler and Henry Ward Beecher opened their Brooklyn churches to the Hamptons for performances on 31 March and 5 April, respectively, while the Jubilee Singers performed at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music on 8 April. Other ministers who had helped introduce the Jubilees did the same for the Hamptons. If the Jubilee Singers hadn’t been leaving the country to cultivate new donors abroad, this overlap might have caused some rancor between the two troupes, but their relationship seems to have been mutually supportive. (Even so, it was a delicate one. A year later, Armstrong wrote to the AMA for permission to send the Hamptons to England; when consulted, G. D. Pike put a damper on the idea by estimating that the Hamptons might get half the amount of money they would earn at home. Pike was reluctant to discourage the enterprise outright, however, fearing that his motivation could be misread as an attempt to exclude competitors.)27

The publication of Jubilee Songs allowed the Hampton students to select spirituals that in 1873 were “entirely new and fresh, never having been sung in the North.”28 A program from a 23 May 1873 concert at Tremont Temple in Boston consisted of:

  • “Oh, the Heaven Is Shining” (with “Hail, Hail, Hail”)
  • “Don’t You View That Ship Come Sailing?”
  • “Yonder Comes My Jesus, Hallelu”
  • “Gideon’s Band, Or Milk-White Horses”
  • “Oh, the Fountain Lies Open”
  • “In Search of Liberty”
  • “Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells”
  • “Bow Low, I Know You Want Religion”
  • “The Gospel Train Is Coming”
  • “So Will I Go into Yonder World”
  • “I’m Hunting for a Home”
  • “In Dat Great Getting Up Mornin’”29

Just two days earlier in the same hall the Hamptons had sung thirteen different songs, and they advertised eleven more new titles for the next day’s concert; at the very least they had an active repertory of over thirty spirituals.

Performance Style

The Fisk and the Hampton singers performed the contrasting ideologies of their respective institutions on the concert stage. The Fisk students, as representatives of a liberal arts institution, performed “cultivation.” The Hampton students, representing the manual arts, were “less cultured than (p.92) their predecessors” but gave performances that were even “more characteristic” of actual slave songs, according to a report in Dwight’s Journal of Music.30 For example, they used dialect liberally. Their “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (see example 4.1), which shared a title with the Fisk spiritual but had a different melody and words, was sung to a “humming accompaniment, suggestive of the rhythmic moaning which was such a peculiar characteristic of the slave prayer meeting.”31 One New York reviewer pronounced their singing “very guttural.”32 The apparent improvisations of “shout leader” Joseph Towe transported performer and audience alike, suggesting that Fenner’s arrangements and the Hamptons’ performances were closer to a folk aesthetic than were those of the Fisk students.

Fenner arranged and notated the Hampton spirituals, and his preface to their first publication in 1874 is worth quoting in full. Unlike Theodore Seward and George White, Fenner took a distinctly folkloristic interest in this music:

The slave music of the South presents a field for research and study very extensive and rich, and one which has been scarcely more than entered upon.

There are evidently, I think, two legitimate methods of treating this music: either to render it in its absolute, rude simplicity, or to develop it without destroying its original characteristics; the only proper field for such development being in the harmony.

Practical experience shows the necessity, in some cases, of making compensation for its loss in being transplanted. Half its effectiveness, in its home, depends upon accompaniments which can be carried away only in memory. The inspiration of numbers; the overpowering chorus, covering defects; the swaying of the body; the rhythmical stamping of the feet; and all the wild enthusiasm of the negro camp-meeting—these evidently can not be transported to the boards of a public performance. To secure variety and do justice to the music, I have, therefore, treated it by both methods. The most characteristic of the songs are left entirely or nearly untouched. On the other hand, the improvement which a careful bringing out of the various parts has effected in such pieces as “Some o’ dese Mornin’s,” “Bright Sparkles in de Churchyard,” “Dust an’ Ashes,” and “The Church ob God,” which seem especially susceptible to such development, suggests possibilities of making more than has ever yet been made out of this slave music.

Another obstacle to its rendering is the fact that tones are frequently employed which we have no musical characters to represent. Such, for example, is that which I have indicated as nearly as possible by the flat seventh, in “Great Camp-meetin’,” “Hard Trials,” and others. These tones are variable in pitch ranging through an entire interval on different occasions, according to the inspiration of the singer. They are rarely discordant, and often add a charm to


Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Example 4.1. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as arranged by Fenner in 1874 for the Hampton Institute Singers. The observation that this was sung to a humming accompaniment underscores one of the deficiencies of scores as sources for performance practice.

From Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 179.

(p.94) the performance. It is of course impossible to explain them in words, and to those who wish to sing them, the best advice is that most useful in learning to pronounce a foreign language: Study all the rules you please; then—go listen to a native.

One reason for publishing this slave music is, that it is rapidly passing away. It may be that this people which has developed such a wonderful musical sense in its degradation will, in its maturity, produce a composer who could bring a music of the future out of this music of the past. At present, however, the freedmen have an unfortunate inclination to despise it, as a vestige of slavery; those who learned it in the old time, when it was the natural outpouring of their sorrows and longings, are dying off, and if efforts are not made for its preservation, the country will soon have lost this wonderful music of bondage.33

For a classically trained musician, Fenner shows unusual sensitivity to performance context. Like George White, he recognized that folk spirituals could not simply be transplanted from the camp meeting to the concert stage: functional, participatory music was not necessarily interesting for audiences to listen to. Yet he also evinces a desire to portray spirituals in as characteristic a manner as possible, by leaving them largely “untouched.” Those spirituals that he lists as benefiting from “improvement,” like “Some o’ Dese Mornin’s” (see example 4.2), anticipate the jubilee gospel quartets of the twentieth century in the independence of parts, which echo or base one another—a style familiar in white gospel hymns of the time. In “Mornin’s” Fenner achieves a rich texture by splitting the voices into six and sometimes seven parts, a hallmark of his arranging style. On the repetition of the chorus, which he writes out (not shown in the example), the first altos sustain a high E until the closing cadence (the last two measures). This provides an anchor for all the moving parts and creates tension before the voices reunite in a homophonic resolution. Fenner also “improved” what he called the “more characteristic” (i.e., simpler) songs with passing tones in the harmony. In general, the Hampton arrangements have a busier and denser texture than the Fisk spirituals, allowing for a heterogeneous sound ideal.

Whereas Seward professed his 1872 transcriptions to be “entirely correct,” Fenner—like the editors of Slave Songs before him—admitted defeat in trying to identify certain pitches and explained that his choice to notate flat seventh scale degrees, for example, was meant as a compromise (compare to the flat seventh in “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” example 3.4). An interesting example of this is “A Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” (see example 4.3), which was recorded by a Fisk Jubilee Quartet in 1916 and by an independent group called the Southland Jubilee Singers in 1921.34 (See web recordings 4.1, 4.2.) The Fisk Jubilee Singers added it to their published jubilee songs in J. B. T. Marsh’s 1881 narrative, taking (p.95)

Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Example 4.2. Excerpt from “Some o’ Dese Mornin’s,” which Fenner “improved” by creating a dense texture to mask the simplicity (especially repetitiveness) of the folk spiritual.

From Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 190.


Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee IndustryInnovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Example 4.3. Pitches outside the diatonic scale frustrated transcribers from William Allen to Seward to Fenner. A lowered seventh scale degree appears in the last two measures of the first page of this Hampton spiritual, on the words “Gwine” and “mourn.” Pitch is further obscured in the next measure, on “tire,” which has both a lowered seventh and a grace note.

From Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 222.


Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Example 4.4. The expressive markings in Fenner’s transcriptions point toward a folk performance style. A: The grace notes in the first two measures of “Gwine Up” suggest ambiguity of pitch. B: The marcato markings in the chorus to “Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells” designate emphasis and a percussive way of singing.

From Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 216, 174.

(p.98) the arrangement from the Hamptons’ anthology (with attribution); the song was performed by George White’s independent group of Fisk singers in 1882, which he reorganized after the original group disbanded. It’s instructive to compare these two recordings with Fenner’s score. Both recordings begin at a quicker pace but slow the tempo dramatically at the chorus (“Gwine to mourn …”), resuming the original tempo in the last two measures. The Fisk quartet sings the chorus almost exactly as notated by Fenner (with allowances for register in the harmony, since it’s all male), with an absolute flat seventh. The Southland Jubilee Singers, however, demonstrate the kinds of problems Fenner probably faced. The soloist who sings the chorus starts on C (the words “gwine to”) instead of E; on the word “mourn” he slides up, almost to E natural (see example 4.3). The word “tire,” pronounced as one syllable by the Fisks, is two distinct syllables (ti-yer), and there is a melisma instead of a grace note on that word. In addition, the rhythm throughout swings more than the notation indicates; for example, the internal refrain of the verse—“don’t you get weary”—is often anticipated rather than sung exactly on the first beat of the measure.

Shout leader Joseph Towe took the solo calls when the Hamptons performed this song. The contrast between the expressive solos and the exuberant responses sung by the large choir (as opposed to the small groups on the recordings) must have been exhilarating.35

In general, Fenner’s scores notate folk traits by way of accents, grace notes, and flatted pitches. He uses grace notes more liberally and suggestively than Seward; in example 4.4A, for example, the graces suggest that the first three iterations of “B” are varied in rhythm and pitch. Finally, many of Fenner’s scores contain accents to indicate a percussive vocal effect—another trait common in folk performance of spirituals (see example 4.4B). In the end Fenner, in contrast to Seward, admits the inadequacy of notation and admonishes readers to go listen to native singers.

There’s no evidence that George White was motivated to preserve the spirituals in concert or in written form because they were rapidly passing away; certainly he had deep respect for the music, but economic profit was his driving force. Although Fenner too had an economic mandate, he seemed genuinely concerned with preservation, much like the editors of Slave Songs. In fact, Fenner often prefaces a song score with a description of its origin or manner of performance (the explanation in example 4.3 comes from bass singer Joseph Towe); such descriptions are rare in the Fisk transcriptions.

Fenner’s arrangements and the Hamptons’ performance style, then, represented an innovation in the arranged concert spiritual rather than a direct imitation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. One might argue that the Hamptons used dialect and retained folk aesthetics because Fenner didn’t have time to purge (p.99) his singers of these habits in only six months; perhaps he was trying to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. But Fenner’s remarks in his preface to the transcriptions suggest genuine pride in the songs as originally sung. Fenner harmonized only those spirituals that he believed were “susceptible” of development; the “most characteristic” songs were left (almost) untouched. In the greater retention of folk traits, Fenner and his singers—whether intentionally or not—gave audiences an alternative to the more cultivated performance style of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The Hampton troupe toured for almost a year. After spending the summer of 1873 in the Berkshires resting and rehearsing, they began their concert season in September to enthusiastic crowds and good financial returns. Their season was abbreviated, however, by the nationwide financial panic induced by the failure of the investment banking concern Jay Cooke and Co. A domino chain of collapses—the closing of the New York Stock Exchange for ten days, the failure of banks and factories—meant that the previously steady stream of charitable donations dried to a trickle. The Hamptons kept touring, but they worked harder for diminishing returns.

By the time the Hampton singers returned to New York in November 1873, the Times declined to review them, deciding that “their efforts have so often received attention that they do not require notice at present.”36 Despite friendly audiences, the financial panic proved fatal to their tour, and they disbanded at year’s end, bringing back to Hampton $10,000 for the building of Virginia Hall. (This was admittedly a large sum, but by contrast, the Jubilee Singers earned twice that amount in less time during their first tour, which was completed before the panic.) Armstrong, in the habit of staring down adversity, pared the troupe, devised a new strategy, and put them back on the road again a month later.

The new plan—to tour the West and Canada, where there would be untapped audiences—could have been highly successful with proper planning. Instead it was a disaster. Not anticipating Canada’s short but hot summers, the Hamptons arrived just as city dwellers were heading south to lakes and rivers. The next major destination, Chicago, was still recovering from the great fire of late 1871. The Hamptons’ advance agent had them push farther west, through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, where they encountered a grasshopper plague that intensified the already devastating consequences of the financial panic. The students returned to the Berkshires for the summer disheartened, exhausted, and in poor health. Their performances may not have reaped the desired financial rewards, but they had spread spirituals far and wide. They concluded this second season of touring with a return to Hampton at Christmastime 1874.

(p.100) There would be one more campaign, in 1875. A troupe of some ten students toured for about a year. Fenner left Hampton in 1875, and for the rest of the century the university sent out quartets and quintets assembled for short-term tours.37 Hampton deserves greater recognition for the important role it played in enlarging the soundscape and repertory of jubilee song in the early 1870s.38 Certainly popular entertainers took notice (see chap. 6).

The Tennesseans

In January 1874 John Wesley Donavin (1833–1893), a white Methodist layman from Delaware, Ohio, launched a singing tour with nine young people to raise money for a new building at Central Tennessee College in Nashville (see personnel in web table 4.2).39 Central Tennessee, established by the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau) and chartered in 1866, opened in temporary buildings but moved to a permanent site in 1868. John Braden, a Union Army chaplain, directed the school from 1870 until 1900 on the Fisk model, with an emphasis on teacher and professional training, and instruction in vocal music. Unlike Fisk, however, slave melodies were the foundation of the music program; only later was “white” repertory—Sunday school songs, church hymns, and instrumental music—introduced.40

Donavin had a flair for business, vocal music, and politics—a handy skill set for the director of a black singing group at the time. In the 1860s he sang with a quartet and directed a large male glee club while running a grocery store; he eventually engaged with a range of successful business ventures. As Marvin Latimer Jr. notes, he was an abolitionist “particularly known for … his concern for the disenfranchised poor specifically, especially former African-American slaves.”41

A New Kind of “Authenticity”

The original Tennesseans offered “slave-cabin concerts,” described in this February 1874 advertisement:

They sing with wonderful power and effect the GENUINE, RELIGIOUS MELODIES OF THE PLANTATION, just as they have known them from childhood, or have learned them from the lips of the “Old Aunties” in the lowly cabins of the South. The music of these singers is as original, quaint, and touching as the songs themselves. It is THE WONDERFUL UNWRITTEN MUSIC of our country, and our only characteristic National Music.42

Authenticity, religion, and nativism were already standard emphases of the Fisk and Hampton publicity machines. Although the Hamptons advertised “slave (p.101) cabin songs,” the Tennesseans went a step further, calling their performances “slave cabin concerts.” Theirs was not a “service of song” but a naturalistic representation of slave life, as descended from the lips of the “old aunties”: the nurturing caregivers who were stereotyped as mammies in minstrelsy, and later in film. The songs were “religious,” part of the female domestic sphere rather than the arena of “wild” and “primitive” worship.

This advertisement is also interesting because it uses oral transmission as a selling point. Although the troupe eventually published broadsides (large inexpensive flyers with song lyrics) and songsters (with and without musical scores), in these early years they did not. Audiences who wanted to appreciate the elusive songs of the Tennesseans would have to return in person again and again to hear them.

Puff pieces were designed to attract the demographic that appreciated populist music from the past:

There are thousands of people in [Chicago] to whom there are no songs like the old songs. Those lovers of old-fashioned music will undoubtedly go and hear the Tennesseans. There are very many enthusiastic devotees of music, who will avail themselves of this opportunity to study a class of music composed without art, preserved without any system of musical notation, and attributable to no known composers. There is a host of habitual concert-goers who will be glad to descend from operatic heights to the vales of humble, unpretentious song. And they will go to hear the Tennesseans. There are many people who will hail a really enjoyable sacred concert, and these will go to hear the Tennesseans.43

The ad covered all the bases: nostalgia for the rural past, populism, and religion.

Donavin was well aware that the Tennesseans were taking to the road “on the very heels of the great panic.”44 Clever marketing was essential, and so too were strategic tour routes. Rather than revisit the eastern venues depleted by the Fisk and Hampton troupes, the Tennesseans initially stayed mostly in the west, beginning in Nashville and proceeding north to Ohio and then to Wisconsin, heading east for their first major tour only in 1876–1877.45 (They eventually toured throughout the east, north, and west.) Although the Fisk Jubilee Singers were in Great Britain when the Tennesseans started out, the Jubilees were hardly forgotten thanks to numerous weekly if not daily press reports of their successes abroad. They were still the yardstick of success for any jubilee troupe.

The Arrangements

Initially the Tennesseans’ repertory consisted of about forty-five spirituals, many of which had already been introduced by the Hamptons and the Fisks. A small number of their arrangements survive in an undated (p.102) broadside and two songsters (ca. 1882 and ca. 1884) with identical contents. The songsters contain music and lyrics to “Rise! Shine! And Give God the Glory”; “Steal Away to Jesus”; “Good News! The Chariot Is a Coming”; “We’ll Camp a Little While in the Wilderness”; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; and “There’s a Meetin’ Here To-night,” as well as the lyrics to “History of Jonah and the Whale” as sung by J. T. Washington, the troupe’s “shouting tenor.”46 All but two of these songs (“We’ll Camp” and “Jonah”) were in the Fisk repertory at the time.

The Tennesseans’ repertory grew to comprise at least 166 spirituals that were largely distinct from those performed by the Fisk and Hampton troupes (see web table 4.3 for a repertory list), as were their arrangements. In the cases of overlap, the Tennesseans’ arrangements differed from the Fisks’ or Hamptons’ by a change in key, minor textural alterations (e.g., duet vs. unison), or more abundant expressive markings. The Tennesseans’ expressive markings were notably elaborate compared to other published concert spirituals and would be incongruous even in parlor music of the time, with such phrases as allegro ma non troppo and adagio religioso for tempo, and afflito or crescendo e incalcendo poco a poco for expression.

Some if not all of the Tennesseans’ arrangements (“I’ve Been Redeemed,” “Rise! Shine! And Give God the Glory”) were made by their bass singer, Leroy (L. N. D.) Pickett, who was credited as arranger on the broadside but not in the songbooks. These seem to be the earliest examples of concert spirituals arranged by an African American. Pickett was a multi-instrumentalist, a composer of parlor songs, and an orchestrator. In addition to serving as the group’s organist he also played violin, cornet, and xylophone. The biography of this extraordinarily talented musician remains frustratingly obscure.47

The broadside score of “Rise! Shine!” (see example 4.5) reveals some interesting differences from the spiritual as sung by the Jubilee Singers, titled “Rise and Shine,” first printed in Marsh’s Story of the Jubilee Singers in 1875 (217–18). Pickett’s score begins with the verse rather than the chorus (Seward preserved the folk trait of starting with the chorus); the tempo is marked allegro (the Fisk version has no tempo indicated); and the lyrics differ. Most important is the direction in the Tennesseans’ score to sing “in staccato style” in the chorus; a rest between the words “rise” and “shine” facilitates this. The Fisk version, in the absence of rests and performance directions, implies a legato articulation. As a result, at least on the page, the Tennesseans’ spiritual seems to have much more personality than the Fisk version. The percussive quality is also more consistent with folk performance, resembling that found in Fenner’s arrangement of “Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells” (see example 4.4B). (p.103)

Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Example 4.5. “Rise! Shine! And Give God the Glory” as sung by the Tennesseans is one of the earliest examples of a concert spiritual arranged by and credited to an African American.

Undated broadside, “Songs of the Tennesseans,”courtesy of Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro.

(p.104) Like the Hamptons, the Tennesseans seemed to offer a folk-inflected performance style that allowed for improvisation. A Chicago reviewer observed that “the distinction of parts [i.e., SATB], though made by the troupe, is not very clearly defined throughout, the songs consisting mostly of the peculiar camp-meeting melodies, which are sung in chorus, and each individual member intoning his or her voice to the harmony adds to it as seems most effective at the moment.” This suggests not only improvisation but a layered, possibly heterophonic but definitely heterogeneous texture. Of the “stirring” chorus that closed the concert the writer observed: While singing, “the troupe shook each other by the hand, and danced in a sort of religious phrenzy.”48 (The song may have been “Goodbye, Brother”—a spiritual found both in Slave Songs of the United States and in the Fisk anthologies; the Jubilees often sang it to close their concerts.) Another article noted the interactive nature of the concerts: “They sing with more spirit and ‘power,’ when encouraged by a full house, than when singing to a small audience.”49 The Tennesseans may have pleased audiences, but they failed to impress George White. When searching for singers to refresh the Fisks in October 1874, White wrote: “We could do nothing at all with such singers as comprise the ‘Tennesseans’ without months of drill”50—an apparent confirmation of the Tennesseans’ lack of cultivation and discipline.

For their part, the Tennesseans tried to lure singers away from Fisk that same month, just before their northern tour.51 A few years later in 1878, Fisk president E. M. Cravath coveted one of the Tennesseans when illness debilitated the Jubilee Singers’ leading sopranos. AMA official E. P. Gilbert reported to Cravath: “The Central Tennessee people have a company formed to go North, of which Miss Patti Ewing is the leading Singer. They hesitate about going, and yet hold on to her, so that we cannot interfere to get her.”52 Maneuverings like these illustrate the increasing professionalization and profitability of jubilee singing, such that management recruited talented singers without requiring them to enroll as students.

Later Incarnations and Impact

The original Tennesseans raised $18,000 over three years for the erection of a building for Central Tennessee College.53 After that they toured under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Aid Society for three years, then reorganized as a private enterprise under J. W. Donavin’s management. Figure 4.1 shows the company as of 1878. The Tennesseans toured for ten months out of the year, typically playing 256 engagements. Since the company regularly received more invitations to perform than they had time for (in the 1880–1881 season they had to refuse 163 requests), Donavin created two companies for the 1881–1882 season: Donavin’s Original Tennesseans and (p.105)

Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Figure 4.1. Although this poster is undated, Donavin’s troupe would have made its fifth annual tour in 1878. Pictured here are (from top, moving clockwise) Leroy N. D. Pickett, who arranged some of the spirituals; Bella Sayler, Delia Scott, F. A. Stewart, J. A. Coleman, W. E. Thompson, Jasper Washington, Bertha Heathcock, and Jennie Robinson. Manager J. W. Donavin is in the middle.

Library of Congress, minstrel poster collection.

Donavin’s Famous Tennesseans, each troupe having nine singers. Donavin was careful to point out that there was no first or second, no good or bad—both companies were equal in merit.54 (George White had similarly tried to meet demand by creating two companies of Fisk Jubilee Singers in fall 1872, but the plan proved financially unsustainable.)

(p.106) Before the split into two companies, twenty-eight vocalists had cycled through the original Tennesseans, owing to “sickness, marriage, and various other reasons.”55 With the creation of a second company, it becomes difficult to trace the Tennesseans’ career with accuracy. Not only were newspapers lax in reporting names of troupes and singers, but rival troupes purposely cultivated confusion by using similar names, such as the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, Tennessean Jubilee Singers, Tennessee Cabin Singers, and the like. Even the Fisk Jubilee Singers were sometimes referred to by their state of origin, so that “Tennessee” became a metonym for slave song in the public imagination. This put the original Tennesseans, like the Fisks before them, on the defensive. “Beware of the many imitators,” warned the Tennesseans’ 1883–1884 songster, in capital letters.

For these reasons it’s difficult to say how long the Tennesseans performed. As Marvin Latimer Jr. notes, from about 1880 the Tennesseans relied less on spirituals in favor of cultivated vocal and instrumental music.56 Pickett remained acting musical director until 1886, when he became musical director of the Wilberforce Concert Company. According to minstrel Ike Simond, the troupe was still touring in 1891 when Simond wrote his memoir. There’s an advertisement for the “Original Tennessean Jubilee Singers” as part of a concert and lecture course for the 1895–1896 season sponsored by the Wichita Lyceum Association, and a notice of a Tennesseans troupe singing jubilee melodies in January 1896 in Wellington, Kansas; a February 1896 article notes that the Original Tennessean Jubilee Singers are “in the twentieth year of their success,”57 which coincides with the year (1876) that the troupe began performing independently of Central Tennessee College. No notices appear after 1896. The Tennesseans were the longest-lived continuously performing jubilee troupe to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the Fisks’ initial success and were among the earliest to sustain a performing career independent of an educational institution. Even as they expanded their repertory to other genres, they never abandoned spirituals.

Like the Hamptons, the Tennesseans brought a new repertory of spirituals before the public. The Tennesseans’ initial success derived from their folkloric performances. Like the Hamptons they had a shouter, they contextualized their spirituals in concert through stories, and their singing style featured gritty timbres, bodily movement, heterophony, and some improvisation. If individual Fisk and Hampton singers helped arrange their spirituals, their contributions remained unacknowledged, in contrast to the Tennesseans’ Leroy Pickett. The Tennesseans’ innovations, combined with the high quality of their performances and Donavin’s astute management, set the troupe apart in the jubilee marketplace and attracted even those listeners who had already heard the Jubilee Singers.

(p.107) Naturally, the Tennesseans matured over time. By 1875 reviews began to shift their emphasis from authenticity to musical excellence. One reviewer quoted a gentleman who said, “If they were white, they could all get first-class positions as vocalists.” To this the tenor of the troupe reportedly remarked, “That gentleman would be almost handsome if he were black!” Concluded the reviewer, “The only distinction we see between the Tennesseans and an extra good troupe of white singers is, that the Tennesseans appear to have retained their modesty, while professional singers among our own race seldom do for as long a time.”58


Although the Fisk Jubilee Singers were in England from May 1873 until May 1874, their memory was kept alive stateside through newspaper reports of their triumphs and through sales of Jubilee Songs. Having set the standard for all who followed in their wake, they did their part to popularize spirituals even in absentia, and they remained the standard against which all others were judged. No one could rival the Fisks on their own terms. The Hamptons and Tennesseans didn’t even try, opting instead for more folk-inflected identities. Other troupes competed by imitating the sound and business model of the Fisks, with varying degrees of success. The imitators may not have contributed to the evolving style of spirituals in concert performance, but they played an important role in establishing a jubilee industry.

The Hyers Sisters

As African American singers of art music, Anna Madah (1855–1925) and Emma Louise Hyers (1857–1899) had little competition when they began their concert career in the 1860s.59 Raised in Sacramento, California, they received private classical training in voice and piano and made their debut at the ages of twelve and ten, performing with their parents as a family act at the Metropolitan Theater in Sacramento.60 Over the next several years they performed locally, honing their skills and attracting admirers. Under the management of their father, Samuel, they began a cross-country tour in 1871 that would take them to New York and Boston, where they intended to further their musical education.

The sisters experienced an ambivalent reception in the East. The timing of their arrival in 1872 was overshadowed by the newly celebrated Fisk Jubilee Singers, as demonstrated by their joint performance at the World’s Peace Jubilee described at the beginning of this chapter. Rather than go it alone, the Hyers sisters partnered with tenor Wallace King and Luca brothers John and Alexander of the Luca Family Singers to form a Grand Colored Operatic (p.108) Concert Troupe. Despite winning praise for its artistry, the troupe played to extremely small audiences during the first half of 1873. At a June concert in Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a meager audience, despite the reviewer’s unqualified praise for the sisters’ execution of “gems” from the “masters” of Straus, Balfe, Flotow, Verdi, and others. In Wilmington, Delaware, that same month they delayed the start of their concert at the Opera House to wait for an audience. “The number of persons in the hall not exceeding fifty, the most of whom were in the gallery, it was announced … that there were not enough present to warrant … proceeding with the performance,” and those who had come received refunds. Even black audiences seemed apathetic; the New York Sun noted that “only a handful” of blacks were present for a March concert, with most of the applause coming from the white audience. The Brooklyn Eagle offered a forthright explanation for the sparse attendance: “The fact is these vocalists are too much above the popular style of camp meeting songs of the Jubilee singers to attract the church people, and not artistic enough to suit the patrons of fashionable concerts.”61

The Hyers sisters had little choice but to accede to the demands of the marketplace. By the second half of 1873 they had added spirituals to their repertory, joining the swelling ranks of jubilee singers. Brooklynites gave the sisters and their expanded repertory a warm reception during two weeks at the end of September and beginning of October 1873. The Hyers sisters’ initial advertising was (likely intentionally) misleading and seemed to reflect some disquiet over their new direction:

  •     OF THE SOUTH (Colored),
  • Assisted by Jubilee Singers, will
  •     Give a concert at

“South” and “Colored” guaranteed authenticity, and “Jubilee Singers” was meant to confuse patrons aware of the Fisk and Hampton students’ relationship with Beecher’s Plymouth Church. The following Brooklyn Eagle puff piece attempts to promote the sisters as part of the jubilee phenomenon:

People who have a taste for what is known as “Jubilee singing” will have another and, perhaps for a long time, a final opportunity of hearing it to-night at the Simpson M. E. Church. The programme includes the Southern music which has in recent years attracted attention and curiosity when illustrated by actual Southern singers. The “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” long offered as genuine, was a (p.109) bald counterfeit. Just about the time the counterfeit began to lose favor, the real began to find it. Hence the popularity of Jubilee singers here and abroad. Several of them to-night will assist the Hyer sisters, whose performances have heretofore been heard in Brooklyn with marked approval.63

The Hyers sisters quickly discarded their initial tentativeness and fully embraced jubilee singing. The day after their concert the Eagle declared, “some of those present thought it superior to that of the Jubilee Singers.” By the end of the month they proudly billed themselves as “the Hyers Sisters (colored) and Jubilee Singers of California,” claiming that their musical abilities were “equal, if not superior, to the celebrated Jubilee Singers or Hampden [sic] Students.”64

Success followed them into 1874. In June they won rave reviews for a concert of art and jubilee songs in Vermont, the reviewer proclaiming the first vocal piece, from the cultivated tradition, “an elocutionary as well as vocal triumph.” In praising the jubilee singing he wrote:

No one can wonder any longer at the unexampled success which has attended the jubilee singers in this country and in Europe. Steal Away, Judgment Day, Nobody knows what trouble I see, Lord; I’m a rolling, Mary and Martha, and Swing low, sweet chariot, cannot be described. The jubilee singing must be heard to be appreciated.65

“Jubilee singers” was now an established category of performers, and spirituals had become popular music.

The “Jubilee Singers” appearing with the Hyers sisters were tenor Wallace King, baritone John Luca, and pianist Alexander C. Taylor, all three of whom had been performing with the sisters since late 1871.66 Exactly which spirituals the sisters sang remains unknown; the few existing reviews name the art music selections but refer only generically to the “jubilee songs” and the sisters’ vocal excellence.

In order to sustain their careers, the Hyers sisters became occasional jubilee singers, imitating the groups who were drawing the larger crowds in the East. Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, they had begun by performing cultivated music, but gained financial success only when they sang “the music of their race.” By refusing to endorse the Hyers sisters’ programming of art song, white America “forced them back upon the resources of their folk tradition,” as Berndt Ostendorf has written—a move that assumed all black people shared one tradition.67 The sisters went on to play an important role as popularizers of the spiritual, upholding the highest musical standards in all their repertory. In addition to their concerts, in the late 1870s they incorporated spirituals into their popular music dramas with social and political themes rooted in black experience (see chap. 7).

(p.110) Other Imitators

Many of the jubilee troupes that materialized in 1873–1874 received little press coverage; at best a stray program or poster survives in archives. It was one thing to sing on behalf of a black school sponsored by a powerful missionary organization; it was quite another to sing on behalf of a little-known organization in a far-away southern town. Whereas the management of the Fisks, Hamptons, Tennesseans, and Hyers sisters worked tirelessly to promote their enterprises, smaller troupes, lacking such resources, often couldn’t even pay for a two-line concert announcement in the local paper or for printed programs. The lack of coverage by black newspapers also contributed to the invisibility of the poorer troupes, for black newspapers weren’t a significant source of information about entertainers until the late 1870s, once freed slaves had become literate in large numbers. Even then, many black newspapers were victims of short life spans and poor preservation. The richest surviving sources regarding entertainment cover the period 1887 and beyond, just as the jubilee phenomenon was fading—for example the New York Age (1887), Indianapolis Freeman (1883), and Chicago Defender (1905).

Consequently, little is known about many of the rival troupes, a good number of which foundered after short careers. Some were legitimate, others were con artists. The Freedmen from the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, for example, traded on a superficial similarity to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to attract audiences. Conducted by a Mr. C. H. Osborn, their program at Boston’s Tremont Temple in June 1873 featured about fifteen men and women singing some “Southern merits,” although apparently jubilee songs were in scarce evidence. The Boston Daily Globe was not impressed, noting that there were “few of the pieces in which the colored people excel, the programme being made up of anthems and concerted pieces familiar to all church choirs ‘up North.’”68 The reviewer’s comment suggests that the singers didn’t know their “musical place”—a criticism that had dogged the Hyers sisters when they first came east.

The following overview briefly introduces the legitimate jubilee groups that are known to have emerged in 1873 and 1874.

Shaw Jubilee Singers

Shaw Collegiate Institute (Raleigh, North Carolina) was a Baptist institution for the education of freedmen founded by the Reverend Henry Martin Tupper (white), who served as its president from 1865 until his death in 1893. The school began in temporary quarters; the institute was formalized in 1870, and in 1875 it was renamed Shaw University, with a curriculum similar to that of Fisk.69 The Shaw Jubilee Singers, sometimes (p.111) referred to as the North Carolina Colored Vocalists, were short-lived, touring the Northeast and Canada from August to December of 1873. The troupe consisted of thirteen male and female students who were preparing to become teachers in the South, and were accompanied by Tupper as well an unidentified music teacher. Two puff items from Vermont compared them favorably with the Fisk Jubilee Singers.70

Wilmington Jubilee Singers

“Hamptons Eclipsed,” claimed the ad. “The Jubilee Singers, under the leadership of Prof. Payne, of Howard University, Washington, D.C., will give a grand concert for the benefit of the 2d M. E. Church” at the Music Hall on 25 March 1874. “Native Warblers from the banks of the Suwanee, Santee and Pearl, in their glorious soul-stirring Melodies, rendered with all the native pathos peculiar to this music loving and gifted race.”71 The Wilmington Jubilee Singers, who numbered between ten and twelve, were an independent troupe purportedly from the “Normal School” in Wilmington, North Carolina; they seem to have organized at the beginning of 1874.72 (“Prof. Payne” isn’t mentioned in any other notices and remains unidentified.) Until 1876 their concerts consisted of jubilee songs and costumed tableaus of slave life that were in no way caricatures, as their publicity took care to point out. Henry Ward Beecher, who had given a helping hand to several jubilee groups, did the same for the Wilmingtons.73 Although jubilee singing remained a mainstay, in 1876 some of their entertainments took on the flavor of a variety show, the likely influence of having toured with a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (see chap. 8, and web table 4.4).

New Orleans Jubilee Singers

Confusingly, the New Orleans Jubilee Singers were named not for their place of origin—Petersburg, Virginia—but rather for the object of their charity. Most of what is known about them is contained in Lynn Abbott’s article on the New Orleans University Singers (a different, later group that actually was from New Orleans).74 The New Orleans Jubilee Singers toured from 1873 through 1877, singing in churches from Virginia to southern Michigan, throughout New England, in eastern Canada, and by 1877 throughout the Deep South. Their leader was the Reverend Joseph Pollard, an African American, who was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and sang bass with the troupe. They numbered six members at most, and the women sometimes appeared alone as a quartet. Pollard intended to donate the troupe’s earnings to various charitable enterprises benefitting the freedmen of New Orleans, but it isn’t clear whether this actually happened. They did donate to charitable causes, however, principally the churches in (p.112) which they sang. They published a booklet of spirituals in 1876 consisting of lyrics only; about two-thirds of the songs were in the Fisk repertory, although over time their repertory of spirituals seemed to diversify (see web table 4.4, Biographical Dictionary of Jubilee Troupes). Pollard may have been the first black leader of a group of jubilee singers, and his troupe was the earliest, or one of the earliest, troupes to tour without institutional sponsorship. Their concerts followed the Fisk model of mostly spirituals, with a hymn and parlor song or two in each part.

Jackson Jubilee Singers

In 1874 a group of five men and five women billing themselves the “the Famous Colored Jubilee Singers” from Jackson University, Jackson, Tennessee, appeared on the scene. Apparently the school never existed and the singers were from New York, although they seemingly staged a legitimate entertainment. Of their performance at a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn on 15 December 1874 the Brooklyn Eagle wrote, “the staging elicited loud plaudits from the numerous audience, and the lengthy programme was thoroughly enjoyed by all present.”75

The troupe clearly meant to confuse concertgoers in their advertisements, which promised the “famous colored jubilee singers” without further identification, as the Hyers sisters had done. The inclusion of a program for the Jackson Jubilee Singers in the AMA Archives dated only Tuesday, 17 November [1874] shows that the parent organization was keeping an eye on Fisk’s competitors.76 The program’s description of the Jacksons’ concert was probably more elaborate than what was delivered: the staging consisted of tableaux that recreated “southern scenes and incidents of days gone by,” such as “the glorious old-time Colored camp Meetings in the far South in former years” and the “magnolia groves and cotton fields of the Sunny South.” The singers were described as “Native Warblers! From the banks of the Suwanee, Santee and Pearl [identical to the wording in the Wilmington Jubilee Singers’ ad]. … Formerly Slaves, they give the best and truest picture of Slave Life on the Plantations of the Far South.” Their claim to “authenticity” emulated that of the Tennesseans.

The Jacksons’ program was unusual in having three parts rather than two (which explains the Eagle describing it as “lengthy”):




    3. 3— SHINE ALONG, (de Spirit is de Ingineer.)


    5. (p.113) 5— GWINE TO RIDE UP IN DE CHARIOT. [Seward 1872a]

    6. 6— BEEN LISTENING ALL DE NIGHT LONG. [Seward 1872a]




    1. 9— WAY DOWN UPON THE SUWANEE RIVER, (by request) [Stephen Foster, 1851]

    2. 10— I’LL HEAR DE TRUMPET SOUND IN DE MORNIN’. [Seward 1872a]

    3. 11— PETER, GO RING DEM BELLS. [Fenner 1874]

    4. 12— BRETHREN DON’T GET WEARY. [Fenner 1874]

    5. 13— ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL. [Seward 1872a]

    6. 14— SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT. [Seward 1872a; Fenner 1874]


    1. 15— TURN BACK PHARAOH’S ARMY. [Seward 1872a]

    2. 16— MARY AND MARTHA HAVE JUST GONE ALONG. [Seward 1872b]

    3. 17— THE LITTLE OCTOROON. [George Frederick Root, 1866]

    4. 18— GO DOWN MOSES. [Seward 1872a]


    6. 20— ALL I WANT IS A LITTLE MORE FAITH. [Seward 1872a]

Of these eighteen spirituals (two of the pieces being prewar parlor songs), seven may have been new to the public. The remainder had already been performed by the Fisk and Hampton troupes and printed in their song books (as indicated by the sources in brackets).

In the years immediately after the Civil War, concert promotion was in a state of transition. Before the war, artists achieved success through a combination of luck and endorsements by well-chosen patrons. After the war artists began to hire managers to arrange their tours and publicity, although patron endorsements still played a vital role.77 The Jacksons’ attempt to pass themselves off as the Fisk Jubilee Singers extended to their cooptation of Fisk testimonials as well, which selectively quoted Henry Ward Beecher’s 1872 letter to James Redpath (“The Jubilee Singers will charm any audience, they make their mark by giving the plantation hymns as only they can sing them”).78 Such deception frustrated George White and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as it did Beecher, who announced an appearance by the Fisk singers at his church in early 1875 with these words: “We have coming to us the Jubilee Singers. A spurious band stole their name and their recommendations, among others mine, and went around the country swindling the people. This is not the bogus: this is the genuine gold.”79 Imitators forced the Jubilee Singers to doubly assert their authenticity: first as genuine ex-slaves, and second as the original Jubilee Singers.

(p.114) The Jacksons also tried to ride the coattails of the Tennesseans, prompting a “Caution to the Public” from manager J. W. Donavin, who warned of a singing band using the Tennesseans’ name and claiming to be from Jackson, Tennessee. “This same band,” wrote Donavin, “was organized in New York, and assumed the name of Famous Jubilee Singers, converting to their use complimentary notices from Henry W. Beecher, President Grant, and others.”80

The Jackson Jubilee Singers seems to have lasted only a year, although their chameleonlike identity makes them hard to track. Their program claims it is their “last season”—but “first and last” was perhaps more accurate. Around the turn of the century a new Jackson Jubilee troupe, founded by Robert G. Jackson (1880–1929), toured the Chautauqua circuit, but it had no connection to its 1870s namesake.81

The Old Original North Carolinians

The North Carolinians toured from at least 1874 to May 1877 and perhaps later; the only notices located are from midwestern newspapers. A review dated 19 August 1874 claimed that they “will not compare with the Tennesseans in culture and training,” although which “Tennesseans” isn’t clear. “With one or two exceptions” the singers were “elderly persons, and taken right from the plantations,” giving “a more accurate representation of the musical negro race than if they had been more thoroughly trained.”82 Another writer confirmed that the voices were uncultivated but pointed out that their earnestness won them “frequent and hearty applause” from full houses over two nights.83 A year of touring (and perhaps an infusion of new singers) apparently improved them, for in September 1875 a reviewer claimed, “Mr. Johnson, as a basso, has few superiors anywhere, while the lady next to him … had as sweet a soprano voice as we ever heard.”84

The troupe was managed by Professor T. H. Brand (white), a sometime composer of parlor songs and the principal of the Madison (Wisconsin) Vocal Academy and Music Institute from at least 1868 to 1874. According to the U.S. Census he was born about 1837 and from at least 1870 to 1880 listed Dane, Wisconsin (just outside of Madison), as his home, with the occupation of “music leader.”85 Brand may not have been with the troupe at its outset. As a program from the second half of 1876 or early 1877 claims, the troupe of “five gentlemen and five ladies” was founded “over three years ago” (around 1874) by “the far-famed revival singer, Aunty Chloe, of Wilmington, N.C., since which time they have been traveling in the Western States” (see figure 4.2). This program for their “third annual tour” acknowledges the troupe’s debt to “Aunt Chloe” for many of the songs they sing. Its announcement that “Prof. T. H. Brand” is engaged to manage them suggests a recently established relationship, although (p.115)

Innovators, Imitators, and a Jubilee Industry

Figure 4.2. The first two pages of a four-page program for an 1876 entertainment by the North Carolinians. The troupe sang dignified renditions of spirituals as well as parlor songs; the jaw bones, plantation costumes, and sketches were the influence of minstrelsy.

Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, New York.

there’s evidence he was with them as early as 1875.86 Interestingly, the second page of their program gives notice that “the name THE NORTH CAROLINIANS is copyrighted.”

The third annual tour also featured the engagement of two jubilee singers with former connections to the Hampton Institute Singers: Carrie L. Thomas, billed as the prima donna soprano (a former student in Philadelphia of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield), and James M. Waddy, the Hamptons’ basso profundo. The troupe also celebrated the powerful voice of their singer Lizzie Smiley, who appeared in sketches and sang solos. Although the program shown in figure 4.2 resembles that of a minstrel show more than a jubilee concert, it does note (p.116) that “while they sing any and all of the religious songs sung by other Colored Companies, they intersperse each programme with an excellent variety of the humorous.”

The troupe sang for many charities but had a rocky road while traveling, dogged by the Ku Klux Klan. They apparently dissolved in late 1877; by the 1880s manager Brand had moved on to other musical pursuits.

Sheppard’s Colored Jubilee Singers

Sheppard’s Jubilee Singers formed in 1874, according to an 1883 program announcing that the group had been in existence for nine years.87 The director, Andrew Sheppard, was said to have been thirty years a slave, “formerly the property of Gen. Robert E. Lee, at Arlington, Va., emancipated by Abraham Lincoln’s Great Proclamation of Freedom.” His troupe, also former slaves, “make no pretentions as to musical abilities, they being unable to read or write”—a claim that exploits their “authenticity.”88 Sheppard joined Pollard as a pioneer black director of a jubilee troupe. The troupe maintained its existence by walking the line between jubilee concertizing and variety performance (see chap. 8 for more on their later performances).

(p.117) Concluding Thoughts

By 1873 a jubilee entertainment industry was taking shape, with the Fisks, Hamptons, and Tennesseans as its pillars. Innovative groups like the Hamptons and Tennesseans, who adopted the Fisks’ business model but forged their own distinctive sounds and repertories, were essential to this new industry’s prosperity and eventual maturation. So too were the imitators, whose ever-increasing presence helped establish new norms, especially in the adoption of minstrel elements in their entertainments, veering away from the Fisks’ and the Hamptons’ service-of-song model. Jubilee groups continued to multiply like sparrows, as the New York Clipper phrased it, for the rest of the decade and into the early 1880s.89 Table 4.1 lists in rough chronological order groups that formed between 1871 and 1890 according to best evidence; further details about these groups can be found in the “Biographical Dictionary of Jubilee Groups” (see website table 4.4). Inconsistent spellings, name changes, and deliberate attempts to confuse the public complicate their identification as well as description of their career trajectories.

Religion greased the machinery of the earliest jubilee troupes. Missionary organizations sponsored them, ministers promoted them, and as a result white audiences largely accepted them. In 1873 the Methodists broke the American Missionary Association’s initial stranglehold on jubilee singing. Before long

Table 4.1. Jubilee groups in rough chronological order of formation


Fisk Jubilee Singers (original), representing Fisk University, Nashville, TN, and the American Missionary Association


Canaan Jubilee Singers, independent


Carolina Singers

(Donavin’s) Tennesseans, representing Central Tennessee College, Nashville, TN; independent from 1876

Hampton Institute Singers, representing Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA

Hyers Sisters (various troupes), independent

Jubilee Singers, representing Shaw Collegiate Institute, Raleigh, NC

National Jubilee Singers, independent?

New Orleans Jubilee Singers, independent


Jackson Jubilee Singers, independent

Jubilee Singers of Virginia, independent?

Old Original North Carolinians, independent

Sheppard’s Jubilee Singers, independent

Wayland Seminary Jubilee Singers (also known briefly as Jubilee Singers of Virginia); representing Wayland Seminary (Baptist), Washington, DC

Wilmington Jubilee Singers, independent


Centennial Jubilee Singers, representing Storer College, WV (also known as Gatewood’s Jubilees and Harper’s Ferry Jubilee Singers)

Juvenile Jubilee Singers (a generic name)

Nashville Jubilee Singers (a generic name used by several troupes)

Tennessee Jubilee Singers (a generic name used by several troupes)


Alabama Jubilee Singers, independent

Arlington Jubilee Singers, independent

Centennialites, independent

(Coleman’s) Louisiana Jubilee Singers, independent

Duncan’s Old Dominion Slave Troupe, independent

Georgia Jubilee Singers, independent

Louisiana Jubilee Singers, independent

New Orleans University Singers (or University Singers of New Orleans, New Orleans Jubilee Singers, New Orleans Centennial Singers), representing La Teche Orphans’ Home, New Orleans, LA (p.118)

North Carolina Jubilee Singers, independent

Richmond Jubilee Singers, independent (possibly same as Louisiana Jubilee Singers)

Slavin’s (Georgia) Jubilee Singers, independent

Southern Jubilee Singers, independent

Virginia Choristers (also used the names National Sable Quintet of Jubilee Singers; Sable Quintette Club), independent offshoot of Hampton Institute Singers

Virginia Jubilee Singers (likely a generic name), independent


Great Sable Quartet, with Slave Troupe, independent

Hopkins Colored Troubadours (also used the name Savannah Jubilee Singers), independent

Kentucky Jubilee Singers, independent

Maryland Jubilee Singers, independent

Old Tennessee Jubilee Singers, independent

Southern Jubilee Singers, began with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, became independent

Southern Warblers, independent?

Virginia Choristers, independent


Crescent Jubilee Singers, independent

Troubadour Negro Quartette, independent


Canadian Jubilee Singers, independent

Charleston Jubilee Serenaders, independent

Fisk Jubilee Singers (George White director), independent

Home Jubilee Singers


Ideal Colored Troubadours (also Ideal Jubilee Singers, Ideal Colored Company), independent

Indianians, independent


Memphis University Students/Singers, independent

Norfolk Jubilee Singers, independent

Slayton’s Jubilee Singers, independent, sponsored by Slayton Lyceum Bureau

Stewart-Wilberforce Concert Company (p.119)


Fisk Jubilee Singers (Frederick Loudin, director), independent

Fisk Jubilee Singers (initially Maggie Porter Cole, then Charles Mumford, director), independent

Olympian Colored Male Quartette, independent

Pine Jubilee Singers, Hampton College, Hampton, VA

(Thearle’s) Original Nashville Students, independent


Glazier’s Jubilee Singers/Glazier’s Carolinians, independent

Walker Quintet, independent


Canadian Jubilee Singers, independent

Texas Jubilee Singers, independent

Tuskegee Institute Quartet, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, AL

Virginia and Texas Jubilee Singers, independent (consolidation of the two troupes)

Zion Jubilee Singers (also known as Rossville Jubilee Singers), representing Zion Church, Rossville, Staten Island, NY


Excelsior Jubilee Singers, representing Christian Bible College, New Castle, KY

Note: Groups are alphabetized by year for convenience. Some of these groups were short-lived, but many had careers of a decade or even three decades (in various incarnations), as did, for example, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Hamptons, Tennesseans, Nashville Students, New Orleans Jubilee Singers, and Sheppard’s Jubilee Singers. Some groups toured mainly abroad (e.g., White’s as well as Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee Singers). See web table 4.4, Biographical Dictionary of Jubilee Concert Troupes, for more on these and other troupes through the turn of the century.

singers who had belonged to institutional groups struck out on their own, and unaffiliated troupes sang for their own profit, led by such entrepreneurs as Samuel Hyers, Joseph Pollard, and Andrew Sheppard.

The term “jubilee song” gradually became a convention, so that by 1873–1874 the public understood “jubilee singer” as a category of performer signifying young adult black performers of spirituals. Spirituals became the first mass market music to have originated in black experience. With the Fisks having so thoroughly covered Ohio and the northeast on their tours, succeeding troupes toured the west: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and even Iowa. The Tennessee Jubilee Singers under Lew Johnson had successful tours of California in 1876 and 1877, appearing in Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (p.120) Jubilee song was transmitted far and wide. Although groups from Tennessee or Virginia might perform in their hometowns, the southern limit for most touring groups in the 1870s was Maryland or Washington, DC. By the 1880s, however, troupes were expanding their routes to Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and points west, largely thanks to lyceum bureaus.

The lyceum movement began in New England in the 1820s offering lectures as a means of adult education, and it quickly spread throughout the nation. In the late 1860s centralized bureaus were formed to market performers to local lyceum committees, which might include YMCAs, local lecture courses, women’s clubs, church clubs, and the like. By “leasing” performers to local committees, the central bureaus encouraged them to embrace new marketing strategies and new categories of performers.90 In 1875 lyceum bureaus started including jubilee troupes on their rosters, as lyceums devoted greater shares of their programming to entertainment.

James Redpath, whose Boston Lyceum Bureau (est. 1868) was one of the most preeminent, organized a Musical Department in 1872, and in 1875 the Redpath Lyceum Bureau became the first lyceum to include African American entertainers in its annual series when it signed the Hyers sisters. They were the only black presence on the season’s slate. They weren’t a main attraction but rather sang their ballads and jubilee songs either after the lecturer had spoken or as the third part of an evening of vocal music by white companies. Other musical offerings included European opera singer Teresa Titiens supported by the Strakosch Concert Company and Patrick Gilmore’s Grand Military Band.91

Before long other bureaus followed suit. Henry L. Slayton’s Lyceum Bureau, founded in Chicago in 1874, presented the Louisiana Jubilee Singers in its 1877–1878 season, as well as the Hutchinson Family Singers. In 1881 Slayton even founded his own black concert company: Slayton’s Colored Ideals. Redpath’s Lyceum Bureau signed the Original Nashville Students, another jubilee company, in the 1880s. The Nashville Students was the first music troupe to appear in Wood River, Idaho, in 1884 under the bureau’s auspices, and it was hoped that if successful, then other “first-class organizations” would follow.92 George White used Williams’ Lecture and Musical Bureau (founded 1869, Boston) to manage his reconstituted troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1880.93

Lyceum bureaus expanded the reach of jubilee troupes while lightening the load of their managers. At the same time they conferred status on the jubilee troupes, who appeared in series that also featured the leading European and American luminaries of the time. Patrick Gilmore’s National Peace Jubilee had provided an opportunity for ordinary Americans to perform next to top European talent, and in a sense, as Sara Lampert notes, Redpath continued Gilmore’s (p.121) project, “establishing a longstanding corporate structure to solicit and facilitate the professional careers of rising native talent alongside those of established celebrities.”94 It was, in effect, an assault on America’s longstanding sense of artistic inferiority in relation to Europe.

Chautauquas, also like Gilmore’s jubilees, juxtaposed celebrities with local talent. The Chautauqua movement began as a training school for Sunday school teachers at Lake Chautauqua, New York, in August 1874. Over time it expanded beyond Sunday school to a general education enterprise, much in the manner of a lyceum, and many jubilee groups appeared under Chautauqua auspices. In fact in August 1880 George White’s independent Fisk Jubilee Singers sang at the National Sunday School Assembly at Chautauqua with a chorus of three hundred, an orchestra, and various soloists, one of whom was the famous gospel hymnodist Philip Phillips, whose service of song was a model for the original Fisk students’ musical programs.95 By late century and into the early twentieth, Chautauquas were one of the major venues for the presentation of jubilee song.

The jubilee industry had all of the competitive pressures of the broader entertainment marketplace. Managers competed with each other for singers and for audiences. Troupes exploited each other, appropriating repertory and even endorsements, so that managers felt compelled to protect their brand. Private groups were formed. Entrepreneurial blacks became troupe managers and arrangers. “Jubilee singer” became a new, viable career. As the jubilee marketplace grew, it splintered, with some groups stressing their cultivation (performing with lyceums and Chautauquas) and others exploiting the white public’s fascination with slave life (in slave cabin concerts). Regardless of which route a troupe took—and many troupes took both—“authenticity” and “preservation” became their watchwords.

White listeners uncritically equated authenticity with lack of formal training and the lived experience of slavery. As Jon Cruz points out, this was partly a reaction to a central tenet of Transcendentalist thought: that “nature harbored truth and that social conventions tended to obscure rather than reveal” it. The “romantic response to modernity enabled some to detach authenticity from its older moorings in traditional religious thought,” leading to such concepts as the “noble Savage.”96 Jubilee singers represented one such formulation in the idealized slave, who as a “child of nature” was a fount of religious and emotional inspiration, and whose music offered a direct line to the heart, bypassing the brain and to a certain degree social convention. Jubilee troupes like the Hamptons communicated “authenticity” in a musical style that adopted aspects of folk performance. Troupes like the Tennesseans and North Carolinians, however, marketed “authenticity” in ethnographic renderings of the slave cabin and plantation, (p.122) with costumes, props, and instruments like the bones—appropriating the tools of minstrelsy in an attempt to prove their own genuineness.

Even the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who began their career trying to avoid associations with slavery by singing white repertory, were forced to trade in the imagery of slavery to succeed, as were the Hyers sisters. The public embrace of spirituals had the unfortunate consequence of constraining black performers who wanted to perform classical music from the white tradition, forcing them to conform to white Americans’ newly emerging understanding of what black music was.

The idea that blacks were natural musicians, and that music was the only “art” that they came by naturally, had long been received opinion among whites. Jubilee singing became a primary signifier of slavery in the public consciousness, and the racialization of spirituals became more deeply entrenched. As jubilee troupes marketed their authenticity, the purported representation of black life by white minstrels in blackface came to be seen as counterfeit, and audiences expressed a preference for minstrels who were genuinely black. Two primary associations attached to spirituals as a result of jubilee groups’ marketing and programming: the southern plantation and the camp meeting. Just as these powerful songs were being released for all to enjoy, they became another vehicle of containment for the African Americans who performed them onstage.


(1.) Moore, “Historical Sketch,” 49, 50; Marsh, Story of the Jubilee Singers (1886), 40–42; “World’s Peace Jubilee. Saturday’s Concert,” Boston Globe, 24 June 1872.

(2.) “World’s Peace Jubilee. The Music Yesterday,” Boston Globe, 24 June 1872. The Jubilees’ last appearance at the festival was on June 25.

(3.) White to G. D. Pike, 21 Oct. 1872, AMA Archives.

(5.) This history of Hampton is based on Engs, Freedom’s First Generation, 5–16; and Foner, Reconstruction, 5.

(7.) Engs, Freedom’s First Generation, 118. See also Talbot, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, 160. The school was funded with $9,000 from the AMA and $10,000 from the Honorable Josiah King of Pittsburgh, executor of the Avery estate, which included a legacy of $250,000 for “Negro” education.

(8.) Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute 1874–1875, in Harlan, ed., Booker T. Washington Papers, 2: 34.

(9.) Arthur P. Davis, “William Roscoe Davis and His Descendants,” Negro History Bulletin 13 (1950): 80–81, cited in Engs, Freedom’s First Generation, 118.

(13.) Ludlow, “The Hampton Student Singers,” Southern Workman, May 1894, 73. Although Armstrong and Ludlow say that Fenner came to Hampton in June 1872 (Hampton and Its Students, 128), this would have been an introductory visit only. Tourjée recommended Fenner to Armstrong for the job of choir director. For biographical details on Fenner see the Fenner Family Tree, Thomas P. Fenner and Sabra Dyer, http://www.fennertree.com/thomas-fenner-1829-1912/.

(14.) Article by Sallie Davis Thoroughgood in Southern Workman (March 1928); cited in Smith, “Hampton Institute Choir,” 33.

(15.) “Concerts of the Hampton Students,” New York Times, 7 March 1873.

(17.) Ibid., 89.

(18.) Ibid., 40, 56.

(19.) “The Ideal Colored Company, Tonight,” Boston Daily Globe, 28 Nov. 1880; Boston Daily Globe, 4 Jan. 1885; Simond, Old Slack’s Reminiscence, 22. Sam Lucas was the first African American to play Uncle Tom; other blacks who played him were Harry Singleton and Dick Hunter.

(20.) Boston Daily Globe, 14 Oct. 1876; untitled paragraph, American Missionary 20, no. 11 (Nov. 1876): 246.

(23.) Salaries varied by experience, but $500 per year was typical for the 1873–1874 season (see Graham, “On the Road to Freedom”).

(24.) Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro), 16 Oct. 1874.

(25.) Ads for “The Jubilee Singers,” Brooklyn Eagle, 13 Jan. 1873 and 6 Feb. 1873; Brooklyn Eagle, 18 Jan. 1873.

(27.) Pike to AMA secretary George Whipple, 16 Jan. 1874, AMA Archives, cited in Ward, Dark Midnight, 250–51.

(28.) “The Hampton Colored Students,” New York Times, 24 March 1873.

(29.) “Concert This Evening,” Boston Daily Globe, 23 May 1873.

(30.) “Negro Folk Songs. Slave Melodies of the South.—The Jubilee and Hampton Singers,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 32, no. 26 (5 April 1873): 411–12.

(31.) “The Jubilee Singers,” Brooklyn Eagle, 23 Feb. 1875.

(32.) “Our Letter from New York,” Song Journal, 23 April 1873: 488.

(33.) In Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 172. Although there is no evidence that Fenner knew of Allen et al.’s Slave Songs, there are five concordances between Slave Songs and the 1874 edition of the Hampton songs: no. 34 “Stars Begin to Fall”/“My Lord, What a Mornin’”; no. 35 “King Emanuel”/“King Emanuel”; no. 74 “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had”/“Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”; no. 79 “In the Mansions Above”/“In Bright Mansions Above”; and no. 100 “The Golden Altar”/“John Saw.”

(p.278) (34.) Fisk Jubilee Singers, vol. 2; Earliest Negro Vocal Groups, vol. 4.

(35.) Hampton teacher Isabel B. Eustis described an 1875 performance of this song in “Reminiscences,” Southern Workman (May 1894): 77.

(36.) “The Hampton Singers,” New York Times, 21 Nov. 1873.

(37.) The succession of choir directors in Fenner’s wake included most notably singer Robert Hamilton (1880–1888) and Frederic G. Rathbun (1888–1892). For more on the Hampton Music Department’s later history see Miyakawa, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

(38.) Hampton repertory was published in the following: Cabin and Plantation Songs (Fenner 1874, 1877, 1889; Fenner and Rathbun 1891, 1893; Fenner, Rathbun, and Cleaveland); and Dett, Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro.

(39.) Although the group formed in 1873, they began their first tour in January 1874; “Tennesseans! Slave Cabin Concerts,” ad, Decatur (IL) Daily Republican, 4 May 1874.

(40.) Haley, Afro-American Encyclopaedia, 296, 298. The history of CTC is convoluted, but in brief: In 1900 Central Tennessee College was renamed Walden University; in 1915 its Meharry Medical College became an independent institution. Walden University became Walden College in 1922 and operated until 1925, when it closed.

(41.) Latimer, “J. W. Donavin’s Tennesseans,” 42. Latimer’s article has excellent further background on Donavin, Central Tennessee College, and the Tennesseans.

(42.) Advertisement for a series of five concerts at Kingsbury Music Hall in Chicago. “Amusements: The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 Feb. 1874.

(43.) “Amusements: The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 Feb. 1874. “Old-fashioned music” had been a prewar trend most famously exemplified by “Old Folks” concerts, first professionalized in 1856 by “Father” Robert Kemp (1820–1879). Performers in Revolutionary-period costumes singing old-fashioned music became a national enthusiasm, representing an era of lusty, communal singing. After Kemp’s retirement in 1868 various “old folks” troupes continued to perform, updating their repertory to the more recent past. On the history of old folks concerts see Judith T. Steinberg, “Old Folks Concerts and the Revival of New England Psalmody,” Musical Quarterly 59, no. 4 (1973): 602–19.

(45.) Ad, “The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 Feb. 1874; Selections of Plantation Songs (eleventh annual tour); “Amusements: The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 10 Feb. 1874.

(47.) See multiple untitled notices in Columbus (NE) Journal, 14 April 1886.

(48.) “Amusements: The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 Feb. 1874.

(49.) “Amusements: The Tennesseans,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 10 Feb. 1874.

(50.) George L. White to E. M. Cravath, 13 Oct. 1874, Nashville, AMA Archives. Both the Fisks and the Tennesseans performed at the Nashville Exposition in October 1874, which was attended by seven thousand to eight thousand people.

(51.) Frederick A. Chase (Fisk teacher and Spence’s brother-in-law) to E. M. Cravath, 7 Oct. 1874, Nashville, AMA Archives.

(p.279) (52.) Gilbert to Cravath, 9 Jan. 1878, Nashville, AMA Archives.

(53.) J. Braden, “Central Tennessee College,” in A. W. Cummings, The Early Schools of Methodism (New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1886), 3: 400. Rust Hall was dedicated on 7 October 1875.

(54.) Selections of Plantation Songs. The two troupes were Donavin’s Original Tennesseans, J. W. Donavin (proprietor), L. K. Donavin (manager), and George B. Donavin (business manager); and Donavin’s Famous Tennesseans, J. W. Donavin (proprietor and manager) and S. K. Donavin (business manager).

(57.) Advertisement, Wichita (KS) Daily Eagle, 10 Sept. 1895; “The Tennesseans,” People’s Voice (Wellington, KS), 30 Jan. 1896; “Tonight Is the Time,” Wichita Daily Eagle, 5 Feb. 1896.

(58.) “Bellaire Letter, Bellaire, O., April 26, 1875,” Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, OH), 29 April 1875.

(59.) Multiple sources give varying birth and death dates. According to an 1867 advertisement, Emma Louise was eight years old and Anna ten, making their birth dates ca. 1857 and 1855, respectively (Sacramento Daily Union, 20 April 1867); this conclusion is reinforced by an 1874 article that gives the sisters’ ages as seventeen and nineteen (“The Hyers Sisters at Castleton,” Rutland [VT] Daily Globe, 16 June 1874). It’s certain that by 1900 Anna Madah was performing alone; Emma Louise seems to have died between 1898 and 1900. The dates given by Buckner, “Spectacular Opacities,” seem accurate.

(60.) Advertisement, Sacramento Daily Union, 20 April 1867.

(61.) Reading (PA) Times, 6 June 1873: 1; New Journal (Wilmington, DE), 3 June 1873: 3; “The Colored Race as Vocalists,” New York Sun, 6 March 1873; “The Hyers Sisters,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 Mar. 1873, regarding a performance at Plymouth Church on 19 March.

(62.) Advertisement, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Sept. 1873.

(63.) “Jubilee Concert—The Hyer Sisters,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 Oct. 1873.

(64.) Advertisement, Brooklyn Eagle, 29 Oct. 1873.

(65.) “The Hyers’ Sisters at Castleton,” Rutland (VT) Daily Globe, 16 June 1874.

(66.) “Amusements,” Boston Daily Globe, 25 Dec. 1874; Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People, 170.

(68.) “Freedmen’s Concert,” Boston Daily Globe, 17 June 1873; see also advertisement in Boston Daily Globe, 21 June 1873.

(69.) Shaw University Bulletin: Diamond Jubilee Souvenir Program 10, no. 2 (Dec. 1940).

(70.) “Jubilee Concert,” Rutland (VT) Daily Globe, 9 Aug. 1873: 1; “Rutland County,” Rutland (VT) Daily Globe, 15 Aug., 1873; untitled notice, Green-Mountain Freeman (Montpelier, VT), 20 Aug. 1873; “Southern Items,” Weekly Caucasian (Lexington, MO), 20 Dec. 1873.

(71.) Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman, 24 Mar. 1874: 3.

(72.) Pittston (PA) Gazette, 21 May 1874: 3.

(p.280) (73.) They sang at Beecher’s Plymouth Church on 4 May 1875 (Odell, Annals, 10: 83).

(75.) “Jubilee Singers,” Brooklyn Eagle, 16 Dec. 1874, which describes their performance at the Reverend Dr. Duryea’s Classon Avenue Presbyterian Church.

(76.) Poster/program dated Tues., 17 Nov. [1874], AMA Archives.

(79.) “Plymouth Church Service,” New York Times, 1 Feb. 1875.

(80.) Programme of the Tennesseans Slave Cabin Concerts, n.d., W. S. Hoole Special Collections, University of Alabama Libraries.

(81.) A brochure describing the twentieth-century Jacksons can be found in the Iowa Digital Libraries collection, Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century: http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/tc/id/51134.

(82.) “Red Wing and Vicinity,” Grange Advance (Red Wing, MN), 19 Aug. 1874.

(83.) Untitled notice, St. Cloud (MN) Journal, 27 Aug. 1874.

(84.) “North Carolinians,” Ottawa (IL) Free Trader, 4 Sept. 1875.

(85.) He is listed as “proprietor” of the “Madison City Directory” (State of Wisconsin, n.d.) during Governor Washburn’s tenure, which was from 1872 to 1874. Census data come from the 1870 and 1880 federal censuses. For examples of Brand’s compositions see “Sounds from the Old Camp Ground” (Chicago: Root and Cady, 1868), LC, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200001228/, and “They’ve Burned My Little Bed” (Boston: White, Smith, 1880), LC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/sm1880.06146.0/?sp=4.

(86.) The Carroll County (Lanark, IL) Gazette reported in 1875 that “a group of Negro performers named the ‘North Carolinians’ organized by the Prof. in his travels were appearing locally” (“Calendar and History 1980: Happy 150th Anniversary Tom Crain,” Lanark Museum, Lanark, IL: http://genealogytrails.com/ill/carroll/carrollcalendar1980.html.

(87.) The earliest located written record of their performances dates from 24 Dec. 1875, when they sang a sacred (Sunday) concert at Tony Pastor’s New Theatre in New York.

(88.) Playbill, Howard Athenaeum [1876], HTC, minstrel playbills.

(89.) “Introductory,” New York Clipper, 21 July 1877: 134.

(91.) The Hyers sisters’ concert took place on 2 Oct. (ad, Boston Daily Globe, 28 Sept. 1875). Although they were the first black entertainers to appear in a lyceum course, they weren’t the first African Americans, as Frederick Douglass was already a popular lecturer on the circuit. In Nov. 1875 Redpath sold his bureau to George Hathaway and Major J. B. Pond. In 1880 Hathaway bought out Pond and became sole owner. The agency retained Redpath’s name (Tapia, Circuit Chautauqua, 15).

(92.) “The Nashville Students,” Wood River Times (Hailey, ID), 17 June 1884: 3.

(93.) Ad for Jubilee Singers, Boston Globe, 5 Oct. 1879.

(95.) “The Chautauqua Assembly,” New York Times, 8 Aug. 1880: 2.