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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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Lessons and Legacies

Lessons and Legacies

(p.249) Conclusion Lessons and Legacies
Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Sandra Jean Graham

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

The earliest literary recognitions of black music set up an artificial dichotomy between “white” and “black” traditions, suggesting for each of these two categories an essence and a stability that didn’t exist. Concert spirituals, commercial spirituals, and indeed the entire black entertainment industry of the nineteenth century were shaped by a common dynamic. Music, dance, comedy, performance practice, and other expressive strategies that had emerged among black Americans—and that were closely bound up with their social and religious lives—were made to conform to the preferences and expectations of white audiences. This conclusion looks at why the spiritual became the common denominator among the different genres in this new entertainment industry, as well as the shift to black managers, arrangers, impresarios, and the role of women entertainers at this time.

Keywords:   Spirituals, blackface minstrelsy, early black entertainment, Fisk Jubilee Singers, jubilee singers, Donavin’s Original Tennesseans (jubilee singers), Nashville Students (jubilee singers), Uncle Tom’s Cabin onstage (postwar), environmental spectacles featuring plantation themes, black instrumentalists, Hyers Sisters, Stewart-Wilberforce Concert Company, James O. Crosswhite, Robert Hamilton (Hampton Student singer), Charles “Barney” Hicks, Frederick Loudin, Georgie Allen, payment of black jubilee entertainers, commercial spirituals, white singers of jubilee songs, canon formation of spirituals, spirituals and folklore research, Hampton Folk-Lore Society, preservation of spirituals

The earliest literary recognitions of black music, outlined in the introduction, set up an artificial dichotomy between “white” and “black” traditions, suggesting for each of these two categories an essence and a stability that didn’t exist. Concert spirituals, commercial spirituals, and indeed the entire black entertainment industry of the nineteenth century were shaped by a common dynamic. Music, dance, comedy, performance practice, and other expressive strategies that had emerged among black Americans—and that were closely bound up with their social and religious lives—were made to conform to the preferences and expectations of white audiences. The earliest jubilee singers sang spirituals molded by white arrangers. Black minstrels performed caricatures of slave culture that had been imagined by white performers. As black performers discovered, the commercial sphere was ruled by white taste, and success rested on maintaining the fiction that they were offering up an authentic slice of black culture. The earnestness of the student jubilee singers, the seeming willingness of black commercial entertainers to enact slave caricatures, and the occasional collaborations between white and black performers obscured the coercion that drove their performances. Mel Watkins has argued that in order to carve out more autonomy, black performers had to maintain a delicate balance, satirizing white notions about black people without reinforcing negative stereotypes.1 But as the foregoing chapters have shown, they had other options as well, even though the chance for success was limited: create their own plays and songs and sketches, manage their own performing troupes, even pursue entertainment genres that didn’t center on racial identity.

Why did the spiritual become the signature song for this emerging, complicatedly racialized entertainment industry? The answer lies in the spiritual’s emotive power, which allowed it to serve as a potent mediator between concert jubilee singers and their white audiences. Nineteenth-century audiences were (p.250) easily moved to tears, and there was a plethora of sentimental parlor songs to tug at their heartstrings. White men and women who heard the Fisks and other student jubilee groups were therefore predisposed to react emotionally, and to do so openly. Fisk’s “services of song” further primed audiences with messages of missionary zeal followed by “strangely” beautiful music, which, thanks to the strategic blending of musical elements, audiences could perceive as at once familiar and exotic. The inclusion on early jubilee programs of popular songs from the white tradition—especially Civil War songs and plantation songs such as “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” by Stephen Foster—“sharpened the image of the Jubilee Singers as former slaves by providing images of locales and a way of life that the spirituals did not provide,” as William Austin observed.2 The slave’s sentimental attachment to the plantation in Foster songs, the jubilant abolitionist message of “John Brown’s Body” (a favorite of Fisk audiences), and the spirit of the spirituals—defiant, sorrowful, joyful, faith-filled—served up a concoction of mixed messages, each of which was consistent with the romantic racialism of the time period.

Student jubilee concerts served as a forum in which whites with no previous experience of plantation slavery could imagine that they suddenly understood the pain of the freedmen. In so doing they became what Saidiya Hartman calls a “proxy” for the formerly enslaved singers. Such empathy led some whites to a more enlightened understanding of black Americans, but as Hartman elaborates, there was also a danger that this “too-easy intimacy,” this “consideration of the self,” occurred at the expense of the singers, who might disappear under the sympathetic white gaze.3 That this indeed happened is evident in reactions that designated the Fisk students as “children of bondage,” for example, even though some had been born free and none were children. The singers were seen as a symbol rather than as individuals, and their spirituals represented an imaginary Other that encompassed essentialized notions of blackness, slavery, and ultimately Africa.

Concerts by groups like Donavin’s Original Tennesseans, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, and the Nashville Students heightened audience identification with slavery through costumes and sketches, offering a presumably ethnographic portrayal of slave life. Minstrel shows (already well established, and even tired, cultural institutions by the mid-1870s) and stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin renewed themselves by appropriating jubilee songs and singers. The minstrels parodied jubilee groups, then competed with them by performing commercial spirituals and Hamtown acts in the parallel sphere of popular entertainment. The incorporation of jubilee singers conferred on Tom shows a new credibility in the mid-1870s; it not only drove a new marketing strategy (p.251) centered on “authenticity,” but it gave audiences a reason to keep attending once the cause of emancipation had been won. Spectacles like Black America offered immersive experiences by expanding the illusory ethnographic reach. Spectators became participants as they wandered through elaborate outdoor sets with cotton fields, cabins, animals, and field hands. Sounds, smells, tactility, and weather left little to the patrons’ imagination and certainly transformed the experience of listening to jubilee singers.

Over a twenty-year span in the 1870s and 1880s, then, spirituals went from being an innovation—a means by which young blacks could achieve an education while in turn educating others in some degree about black culture—to a commodity that was appropriated and transformed according to context. In the first instance the concert spiritual allowed white audiences to indulge in “the spectacular nature of black suffering.” In the second, the commercial spiritual facilitated “the dissimulation of suffering through spectacle”4—a kind of “ideological repair” that served to reassure white northerners in particular that slavery, with its camp meeting jubilees and corn husking songs and nimble dances, had not been all suffering all of the time.5 The spiritual worked in these wildly divergent performance contexts because it was malleable and ubiquitous. The properties of slave spirituals were recognizable even in commercial permutations, such was the success of jubilee troupes in winning over their audiences until spirituals had become a pervasive cultural presence.

Certainly there were other types of music derived from black culture that appeared in mass entertainments at the time, notably instrumental music, which usually accompanied jigs, reels, buck and wing, and other dances onstage. In the rural South during slavery, “musicianers” (folk instrumentalists) had provided the backbone to frolics, “the secular counterpart of the Sunday prayer meeting,” in the words of Paul Cimbala. But “musicianers did not respond to the political challenge of Reconstruction.”6 Whereas spirituals underwent stylistic development and prompted public discourse about racial uplift, in the public imagination instrumental music remained rooted in the antebellum past until the early 1890s;7 when performed onstage it was in the context of minstrelsy, variety, Tom shows, or the circus. (The many black brass bands at the time didn’t play folk music, although they played commercial spirituals. The early twentieth century witnessed the first band arrangements of traditional spirituals, by N. Clark Smith for the Tuskegee Institute Band.)8 Because of its association with an antiquated past, instrumental folk music didn’t figure into discussions of race development, regardless of how esteemed a performer might be. Jubilee troupes in the Fisk mold called upon instruments of the middle class when accompaniment was needed—piano, pump organ, and guitar.

(p.252) Although most jubilee troupes were initially under white management, black directors, composers, and arrangers became increasingly common in the mid-1870s and 1880s. There was Leroy Pickett, who arranged spirituals and sang for Donavin’s Original Tennesseans, and who by the early 1880s was their manager. Samuel B. Hyers initially managed his famous daughters. Thomas J. Gatewood managed the early career of the Centennial Jubilee Singers. There was Frank A. Stewart, a tenor with Donavin’s Original Tennesseans (1874) for eight years before he organized the Stewart-Wilberforce Concert Company in 1881. That troupe toured for two years as an organ of the nation’s oldest historically black university, Wilberforce University (1856, Xenia, Ohio), before becoming a private venture in 1884, with Stewart as proprietor and manager. There was James O. Crosswhite, who assumed management of the Boston Ideal Colored Troubadours and Jubilee Singers in 1883 after being a featured soloist with Al Holden’s Louisiana Jubilees, a Tom jubilee troupe. Robert Hamilton, a singer with the 1872 original Hampton students, managed a traveling group of jubilee singers in connection with Norfolk Mission College in 1886 and 1887 before teaching at Tuskegee. P. T. Wright managed a variety troupe known as the Nashville Students starting in 1888 (to be distinguished from Thearle’s Nashville Students, a more conventional jubilee troupe on the Fisk model).9 Mr. and Mrs. William Carter, who sang with Thearle’s Nashville Students in 1890, went on to become managers and proprietors of the Canadian Jubilee Singers. And then there was the forerunner of them all: Charles “Barney” Hicks (d. 1902), who organized the first successful black minstrel troupe, Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, and went on to associate himself with every significant black minstrel troupe for the rest of the century. His career illustrates the challenges of being a black impresario at the time: not only was it difficult for black managers to get bookings in white-owned theaters, but Hicks’s relentless entrepreneurial spirit was effectively throttled by his white competitors. As Ike Simond recalled, “Hicks was a very dangerous man to all outside managers and they all were afraid of him; when he was at the head of a company he was a cross-roader [grifter] for a man’s life; the Frohmans kept him in their employ for years, in order to keep him from starting out for himself.”10 (See web table 4.4, Biographical Dictionary of Jubilee Concert Troupes, for more on these individuals and jubilee troupes.)

The most celebrated among black managers and proprietors was former original Jubilee Singer Frederick J. Loudin, who reorganized a troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers after George White was incapacitated in an accident. Loudin never attended Fisk but was devoted to the university; older than the other original troupe members, he had long played a leadership role among the singers. Like White, Loudin used the Fisk name even though the university didn’t sponsor (p.253) his troupe. Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the United States for two years starting in 1882. Confronted with racism and poor financial receipts at home, they embarked on an ambitious six-year world tour, disbanding upon their return. (In Liverpool they sang spirituals in a venue uncharacteristic for Fisk groups—Hengler’s Circus. The crowd of some seven thousand was reportedly the largest paid-admission audience for any incarnation of the Fisk singers.)11 At the tour’s conclusion, and after a fifteen-year career in the jubilee business, Loudin returned to his hometown of Ravenna, Ohio, where he became the largest stockholder of what would become the F. J. Loudin Shoe Manufacturing Company. He couldn’t ignore the lure of jubilee singing, however, and he mingled touring with shoe manufacturing until 1902, when he collapsed while performing in Scotland; he died in 1904.

The jubilee entertainment industry also opened doors for black women, more often in vocal and instrumental performance than in management. In the jubilee realm the Hyers sisters were the best known, although Pauline Hopkins had local repute in Boston as a playwright and singer. Several former Fisk Jubilee Singers managed and performed in jubilee troupes later in their careers, including Jennie Jackson (Jennie Jackson DeHart’s Jubilee Singers) and Maggie Porter Cole, although before long her troupe was taken over by white manager Charles Mumford and became known as Mumford’s Fisk Jubilee Singers. Most female performers were recognized for singular achievement as part of a larger group rather than as solo acts. Georgia (Georgie) Allen was one exception. She sang with Slavin’s Georgia Jubilee Singers in the Howards’ production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (see her two solos on the concert program in figure 7.3). In 1877 she was promoted from jubilee singer to cast member in the role of Emmeline—a slave who is sold, along with Tom, to Legree in act 5 of Aiken’s play as revised by G. C. Howard—becoming one of the earliest African Americans to have a speaking role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin onstage. Invoking the memories of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Jenny Lind, the publicity machine proclaimed her “far superior to the Black Swan” and dubbed her the “Southern Nightingale.”12 She tried her hand at leading her own jubilee band, the Georgie Allen Colored Jubilee Singers. In February 1878 they closed the afternoon variety bill at Gilmore’s Garden in New York with “good, old-fashioned songs and plantation melodies,” probably when the Howard production was on hiatus, but the group seemed to disappear after that.13

Such breakout moments for women performers were few in number, however. It was more common for them to meet their future husbands while performing together; notable examples include Sarah Miles of Slavin’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin jubilees (married to Alexander Taylor), Ida Washington of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers (married to Charles Washington), Jennie Robinson of Donavin’s (p.254) Tennesseans and later Stewart-Wilberforce Concert Company (married to Frank Stewart), and Cordelia McClain (married to Billy McClain). Women also served as pianists for troupes, as did Carrie Alden with Pauline Hopkins’s groups circa 1880 (among other jubilee groups). Several women combined accompaniment and directing duties, as did Ella Sheppard with the Fisks. Mrs. William Carter, who had performed with her husband in Thearle’s Nashville Students, later shared management and proprietorship duties with her husband for the Canadian Jubilee Singers (ca. 1895–1990). Like Frederick Loudin, three women of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers had afterlives in the profession by organizing and touring with their own troupes: Maggie Porter, who with her husband, Daniel Cole, founded the Original Jubilee Singers in 1882 (also known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, creating confusion with Loudin’s troupe); Mabel Lewis, who settled in Cleveland with her husband, Martin Imes, and organized a local choir there; and Jennie Jackson, who created the Jennie Jackson DeHart Jubilee Club (ca. 1884), also known as the Jennie Jackson Concert Company. Thanks to the pioneers of the first black entertainment industry, the greatest late nineteenth-century black women performers were able to make their reputations primarily outside of the jubilee business. These included vocalists Nellie Brown Mitchell, Marie Selika Williams, and Matilda Sissieretta Jones.14

Remuneration of black entertainers varied according to economic vicissitudes, geographical region, the scale of the organization, time of year, and demand. The one constant was that blacks almost always made less than their white counterparts. An exception in the jubilee realm was the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who received $500 annually in 1873–1874—far more than white teachers at Fisk received—and between $700 and $1,000 annually from 1876—enough to buy a plot of land or a house.15 The pay of minstrel and variety performers depended not only on market forces but on the performer’s role within the organization as well. For example, in 1873 the unknown Sam Lucas was invited to join Callender’s Georgia Minstrels for a salary of $4 per week (including travel and lodging); when he was promoted to endman he received a raise to $10 per week, and by 1874 he was making $20 per week—by which time he had reached Callender’s limit.16 Thanks to jubilee fever, black minstrels enjoyed a short period of being in greater demand than whites—the public clamored for genuine rather than corked-up performers. As Robert Toll notes, between 1865 and 1890 over half of the want ads for “colored entertainers” in the New York Clipper appeared during four years, between 1880 and 1884. As a result of this demand the salary of comic Billy Kersands jumped from $15 per week in 1879 to $80 per week in 1882.17 Such surges in pay were temporary, however. (By way of comparison, the white song and dance team of Booker and Canfield joined (p.255) J. H. Haverly’s minstrels in 1873 at a salary of $300 per week, or $150 each—one of the highest salaries for such an act at the time.)18

Even though both whites and blacks sang and wrote commercial spirituals, only blacks formed legitimate jubilee troupes to sing traditional spirituals. Spirituals were black creations, despite any borrowings from white hymns and tunes, and despite initial transcriptions and arrangements by whites. There is nevertheless an irony in calling an entertainment realm dominated by white management and white performers a “black entertainment industry,” especially because the violence experienced by black performers in the United States prompted so many of them to tour abroad—from jubilee troupes to minstrel troupes to individual performers like Fisk Singer Thomas Rutling or minstrel James Bland, who spent the height of his career in England (1881–1901). Nevertheless, the phrase points to an important truth at a historical turning point in American entertainment: the emergence of jubilee groups and the developments in black minstrelsy depended on the lived experience of black artists, their recent history as enslaved people, their creativity, their labor, and their talent. Even though both whites and blacks sang and wrote commercial spirituals, only black jubilee troupes sang traditional spirituals.

Although there were no known white jubilee troupes in the United States—the Hutchinson Family’s concert spirituals to the contrary—whites did sing spirituals in American Sunday schools and homes, influenced largely by the original Fisk Jubilee Singers and later incarnations. In Scotland, however, the practice of singing spirituals in worship seems to have led to the formation of white jubilee groups in the 1890s. The Reverend McInnes Neilson, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Ravenna, Ohio, heard Frederick Loudin’s Fisk troupe sing many times in Britain. He observed that even though “it needs the Negro to do the dialect justice, yet that did not prevent the white people, usually a quartet or a quintet of consecrated men and women, from adopting the name ‘The Jubilee Singers,’ and establishing themselves in their own towns to sing these weird and fascinating melodies.” He noted that there was such a quintet in his hometown, ten miles from Glasgow, and found similar groups in “a great many towns in Scotland” who performed for religious services, without remuneration.19

Spirituals in the Popular Sphere: Canon Formation

One musical consequence of the jubilee industry was the establishment of a canon of spirituals. Their popularity was measured not just by frequency of performance by concert jubilee groups but by repeated parody (e.g., “Go Down, (p.256) Moses”––Sam Lucas’s “Carve Dat Possum”; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”–– Delehanty and Hengler’s “Sing Low”; “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight”–– Pete Devonear’s commercial spiritual of the same name). The publishing industry further reflected and boosted popularity by issuing different versions of the most beloved spirituals (e.g., solo piano arrangements, often as a medley; guitar or banjo accompaniments), as well as by anthologizing them in collections of American songs and even college songs.20 Table 9.1 presents a canon of spirituals whose numerous public performances, reinforced by music publication, can be documented from 1872 to the turn of the century. The list could well be extended as programs, playbills, and newspaper reports become readily available.

Given that some long-lived jubilee troupes advertised over a hundred songs in their repertory, the list may seem relatively short. It should be noted that at any one time, however, a troupe’s active repertory was likely to be half the size advertised. Lack of rehearsal time due to rigorous touring schedules, illness, and inadequate facilities on the road discouraged the addition of too many new songs in a given season. At the same time, consecutive performances at the same venue required a change of program. The challenge in identifying the most canonical spirituals lies in determining whether a troupe actually performed the songs that their publicity advertised. Newspaper reviews didn’t always list song titles—especially once the novelty of jubilee concerts had diminished. In addition, jubilee troupes often economized by printing a generic program that could be used throughout a season, implying a limited repertory that may in fact have been broader. Finally, printed programs often had a slot for “Selections” that could be announced from the stage—an opportunity for managers to retain some flexibility and for audiences to play an active role in programming by making requests. There was no doubt, however, that certain spirituals were universally acclaimed. It was for this reason that the Fisk Jubilee Singers developed a formula that several rival groups adopted, opening every one of their concerts with “Steal Away,” followed immediately by the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer.

The End of One Era and Beginning of Another

The jubilee industry was largely worn out by 1890. The Brooklyn Eagle hinted at its demise when it noted in 1888 that the public was moving on to new fads: “Lady fencers are appearing all around the country. They promise to be as thick as the … Jubilee Singers used to be” (1 July). Despite some exceptional forays into plantation nostalgia in the 1890s, such as Black America and South before the War, popular music had largely moved on to coon songs, the cakewalk, ethnic (p.257)

Table 9.1. Late nineteenth-century canon of spirituals, listed alphabetically

Been a Listening

Bright Sparkles in the Church-Yard

Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?

Gideon’s Band/Band of Gideon

Give Me Jesus

Go, Chain the Lion Down

Go Down, Moses

Good News, de Chariot’s Comin’

Gospel Train/Get on Board

Great Camp-Meetin’ in de Promised Land

Gwine to Ride up in the Chariot

Gwine Up

Hard Trials

He Arose/He Rose from the Dead/Dust and Ashes

He’s the Lily of the Valley

Humble Yourself (The Bell Done Ring)

I’ll Hear the Trumpet Sound

I’m a-Rolling

Inching Along

In Dat Great Gittin-up Mornin’

Judgment Day Is Rolling Round/How I Long to Go

Keep Me from Sinking Down

Mary and Martha

My Brethren, Don’t Get Weary/Don’t Get Weary

My Lord, What a Mourning/Morning

My Lord’s Writing All the Time

My Way’s Cloudy

Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, Lord

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had/Seen

Oh, Wasn’t That a Wide River?

Old Ark’s a Movering

Old Sheep Done Know de Road

Peter, Go Ring Them Bells

Reign, Master Jesus

Ride on, King Jesus

Rise and Shine/Rise! Shine! And Give God the Glory

Rocks and the Mountains

Roll, Jordan, Roll

Room Enough/O Brothers, Don’t Stay Away

Steal Away

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Coming for to carry me home)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Don’t you leave me behind)

There’s a Meeting Here Tonight

This Old Time Religion/Give Me This Old Time Religion

Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army

View the Land/Way Over Jordan

We’ll Die in the Field/I Will Die in the Field/What Do You Say, Seeker

What Kind of Shoes Are You Going to Wear?

Wrestling Jacob

Note: Given that titles weren’t standardized, two commonly used titles sometimes appear in this list, indicated by a slash. Similar titles on separate lines indicate unique words and tune.

(p.258) novelty songs, and ragtime. There were still concert jubilee groups, but with a few exceptions—including Thearle’s Nashville Students, which petered out in the 1890s—they relied on the Chautauqua circuit for their subsistence, or else represented local churches and communities, foregoing a national profile. By the late 1890s the foundation of a new, less homogeneous black entertainment industry was being laid—by black artists singing art songs and opera; black instrumentalists playing art, dance, and marching band music; solo concert artists singing spirituals; and composers/dancers/singers/actors revitalizing musical comedy.

The descendants of the first generation of black minstrels came of age during the 1880s and 1890s, as Jim Crow legislation was being enacted. They included Bob Cole, Will Marion Cook, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ernest Hogan, James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Ada Overton, Will Vodery, George Walker, and Bert Williams. Although still bound in many ways by minstrel convention, this new generation changed the conversation in their musical comedies, moving locales of plays to Africa (e.g., Williams and Walker), writing large-scale songs that loosened the straitjacket of the verse-chorus formula (e.g., Cook), and injecting subversive wit into characters and plots. Nevertheless, as Karen Sotiropoulos notes, although “black performers enacted fictive types onstage to debunk racial mythologies offstage,” they underestimated white determination to control and own black culture.21 As a result, they still were subject to the demands visited by white impresarios and advertisers, the constraints of white audience expectations, and the eager appropriation by white songwriters, performers, and publishers of their songs, dances, and performance practices.

With this second wave of black entertainers cresting around the turn of the century, the South became a lucrative field for black performers. Ernest Hogan and Billy McClain’s Smart Set became the first big black musical comedy troupe to tour the South successfully; in addition the South was crowded with large black minstrel companies that played outdoors in tents. Indeed this period marked the first time in which black minstrels outnumbered whites. These shows introduced ragtime, blues, and early blueswomen such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.22

If spirituals were no longer the currency of popular entertainment by the 1890s, neither were they central to the black church. The praise houses, camp meetings, and churches that had been important environments for the creation and performance of folk spirituals had moved from the center to the periphery as African American religion and worship diversified after the Civil War.23 As slavery receded from the personal experience of new generations, and as education erased black folk culture as a rung on the ladder to success, there (p.259) was a backlash in urban communities against rural religious practice. One leader of the backlash was Daniel Alexander Payne (1811–1893), who as bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1852–1893) raised funds to purchase Wilberforce University, over which he presided as president from 1865 to 1876. He was one of the most influential African Americans of the nineteenth century. On a trip east in 1878 he attended a bush meeting, where the worshippers performed a ring shout “in a most ridiculous and heathenish way,” as he phrased it in his autobiography, before piling on additional pejoratives such as “rude,” “extravagant,” “stupid,” “headstrong,” and “disgrace.”24 A similarly negative stance was still evident among upwardly mobile blacks at the turn of the century, as evidenced by an article in a black newspaper warning participants at a camp meeting, especially ladies, to exercise restraint—apparently on account of white guests, who wouldn’t approve of demonstrative behavior: “Our modern ladies cannot afford to use the familiarity with white guests in Minnesota, as our old foreparents did in the South 32 years ago. … Every Afro-American who attends this camp meeting should be as reserved as when attending a church.”25 Educated urban blacks favored European anthems and hymns in their church services, and they offered church concerts featuring classical music, recitations, and orations.26 Rather than anticipate the afterlife—the message of so many spirituals—they were ready to embrace the contemporary world, as revealed in this comment from a black newspaper in 1891 regarding the canonical spiritual “Give Me Jesus”: “Brothers please quit singing that song, ‘Take all the world and give me Jesus.’ That talk used to go, but it don’t go now.”27

As a result of these cultural shifts, black folk culture was at risk of being forgotten. Although some jubilee troupes and writers had been sounding the alarm about vanishing folk music for years (“This is one of the last—the last and only chance to many,” wrote one journalist in 1872 of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, “that will ever be afforded for hearing the quaint and wild strains in which the Southern negroes give vent to their pent up feelings”),28 preservation efforts were slow to materialize. It wasn’t until 1893 that Alice Bacon, a white teacher at the Hampton Normal School, implored students, graduates, and friends of Hampton University to collect and preserve black folklore: “Even now the children are growing up with little knowledge of what their ancestors have thought or felt or suffered.” Ironically, she noted, it was institutions like Hampton, “eradicating the old, and planting the seeds of the new,” that were pivotal agents in this crisis.29 Bacon’s Hampton Folk-Lore Society was an important early platform for African Americans to speak and write about black folk culture, although its contributions to the study of spirituals were slight, owing to the lack of a trained musician among the researchers and the difficulty (p.260) of capturing a live performance without a recording device.30 This wasn’t to say that folk spirituals were a dead tradition. They were still vital in rural regions of the South especially. As Zora Neale Hurston noted decades later, “Contrary to popular belief their creation is not confined to the slavery period. Like the folk-tales, the spirituals are being made and forgotten every day.”31

At the turn of the century a number of whites began publishing folkloric research on spirituals and even performing them in public. William Eleazar Barton (1861–1930), a cousin of Red Cross founder Clara Barton, was a prominent clergyman, seasoned musician, and gifted writer whose deep experience among the black mountain people of Kentucky and Tennessee informed his fascinating articles on Old Plantation Hymns (1899).32 Barton’s voice was one of a growing chorus of critics who found the arranged jubilee songs deficient in conveying folk practice, and his transcriptions from live performances contain remarkable detail. In the same year Jeannette Robinson Murphy (1865–1946), a white southerner, published her first article on black folklore. Murphy gained quite a following by singing, teaching, and lecturing on African American folktales and folksongs for white northerners, using dialect and even dressing up as a black domestic servant, trafficking in the “mammy” figure that remained a staple of stage and screen in the twentieth century.33 Catherine Smiley (“Kitty”) Cheatham of Nashville (1864–1946), like Murphy, grew up after the war hearing spirituals sung by ex-slaves. Her relationship to spirituals was unique in that Ella Sheppard’s mother had been a servant to Cheatham’s maternal grandmother, and at Ella Sheppard Moore’s invitation Cheatham visited Fisk University in 1914 to tell students about her work and plead the cause of preserving the spirituals. The beneficiary of Harry T. Burleigh’s tutelage, Cheatham sang the composer’s concert spirituals in many of her concerts in New York, often accompanied by Burleigh himself, as well as in Europe.34 John Wesley Work, professor of Latin and history at Fisk University, named Cheatham among a handful of people whom he regarded as agents of preservation in his 1915 book Folk Song of the American Negro. The others in his exclusive group included George White, Adam Spence, E. M. Cravath, Ella Sheppard Moore, Harry T. Burleigh, W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry Krehbiel, Antonin Dvor˘ák, C. J. Ryder, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.35 Lucy McKim, Thomas Fenner, and many others also deserve to be recognized in that company. Although beyond the scope of this study, the twentieth century brought a large contingent of black researchers in addition to those already named, among them James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, John Wesley Work II, John Wesley Work III, and Nicholas Ballanta-Taylor.36

(p.261) Even after the jubilee entertainment industry had wound down, one corner remained and even thrived: the Chautauqua, an outgrowth of the lyceum movement. Its first incarnation was the New York Chautauqua Institute, founded in 1874 by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent as an adult education program with a primarily religious focus. By 1880 the summer programs at the institute’s scenic retreat on Lake Chautauqua near Lake Erie had become more ecumenical and well known, and as usual, the Fisk Jubilee Singers (the independent troupe led by George White) were first on the scene. Other communities followed suit with their own Chautauquas, leading in 1904 to the circuit Chautauqua: a sophisticated entertainment package comprising lectures, music, dramatic arts, comic entertainment, and children’s activities that traveled throughout the country.37 Most jubilee troupes in the 1890s and after 1900 made their living primarily on the Chautauqua circuit, singing arranged spirituals and popular songs, although by the mid- to late 1890s the arrangements had been modernized to barbershop-style harmonies. Examples of well established groups include Glazier’s Jubilee Singers, Slayton’s Jubilee Singers (reorganized in 1891), the Brockway Jubilee Singers, and the Camp Nelson Jubilee Singers—who were organized by the Salvation Army (see web table 4.1, Biographical Dictionary of Jubilee Concert Troupes).

The Legacy of the Jubilee Entertainment Industry

Commercial spirituals live on today largely in archives of sheet music and in digital repositories; they are understandably problematic compositions that require careful contextualization in order to understand the cultural work they accomplished. One commercial spiritual that has so far managed aural immortality is James Bland’s “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” (1879). A popular inclusion in American songbook anthologies well into the twentieth century, a staple of family and community sings, and an instrumental standard (allowing circumvention of objectionable lyrics) in brass, string, and jazz band repertories, it has been a continuous presence in the history of popular song. In 1905 it was played for the Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade and subsequently gave its name to the Mummer’s Strut—or Golden Slipper—becoming the event’s unofficial anthem to the present day. In the 1880s Bland’s lighthearted commercial spiritual became the basis of a contrafactum hymn written for the Salvation Army, in an ironic reversal of influence; the refrain implored, “Oh! my loving Saviour! oh! my loving Saviour/Sinner won’t you come with me? We’ll walk those golden streets.”38

(p.262) Jubilee choirs, on the other hand, continue to carry on the legacy of the early student groups. After a brief lapse following the demise of the original Jubilee Singers, the university organized a new official troupe, and today the Fisk Jubilee Singers remain firmly embedded in the school’s identity. The contemporary singers concertize nationally and internationally, record, and act as ambassadors for the spiritual at the same time that they perform a wide-ranging repertory of art music. In 2008 they received the National Medal of Arts, the country’s highest recognition of artistic excellence. The choir’s consciousness of the past is ever-present: as of this writing, one of their web pages features an 1872 photograph of the Jubilee Singers with a portrait of original singer Jennie Jackson directly above it; present-day Jubilee Singers are superimposed on her chest so that her head towers above them—a visual symbol that today’s singers stand on the shoulders of the pioneers, whose eyes watch over them, in appreciation, benevolence, and protection.39

There are other distinguished college choirs devoted to preserving and extending the legacy of arranged spirituals. Choirs with roots in the nineteenth century include the Hampton University Concert Choir, Tuskegee Choir, and Wilberforce University Choir. The Howard University Choir, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Concert Choir, Dillard University Concert Choir, and Spelman College Glee Club (for women’s voices) joined them in the twentieth century, as did groups from many other historically black colleges and universities. All of them sing a varied repertory of art, popular, and traditional music, not only from African and African diasporic genres but from around the world. Not surprisingly, the concert spirituals sung by today’s choirs bear no aural resemblance to the arrangements pioneered by George White, reflecting instead a century and a half of new compositional trends, new vocal and choral techniques, and different politics about the presentation of black music. Rather than replicating the past these choirs pay tribute to concert spirituals in contemporary musical language—which was precisely what White did.

In addition to university choirs, there are also independent groups that present spirituals in concert (in addition to other African and African American musics): the Princely Players (Nashville), the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers (Los Angeles), the Georgia Sea Islanders, and the Plantation Singers (Charleston, South Carolina) are a mere few among many. There are church choirs devoted to preserving the legacy of spirituals as well. Some of these groups have sought to incorporate historical performance practices rooted in black folk tradition, with its heterogeneity, cross rhythms, improvisation, and communal participation.40 (p.263)

The earliest concert arrangements of spirituals and commercial spirituals existed in a symbiotic relationship. As the jubilee industry took shape, a continuum emerged in which hundreds of African Americans found a place to engage in folk-oriented, concert, and popular entertainments. If most of the commercial songs generated during this confluence of performance genres were ignoble, they nonetheless played an important role in the social life of African American music at the time, and they provided a livelihood for the first generation of black performers. To remember student jubilee singers at the expense of black minstrel performers and their parodies of camp meetings and spirituals, to valorize one and denigrate the other, imposes a hierarchy on the historical past that obscures the manifold contributions of black entertainers and reifies black folk culture as authentic to the black experience at the expense of fully engaging the diversity and complexity of that experience. Indeed, the very complexity that led black minstrels to engage with spirituals is at the crux of understanding the climate and conditions in which all performers of the era operated.

Historical knowledge is always in flux. During the decade this book was written new digital repositories of images, recordings, newspapers, and primary sources flooded the internet, causing me to veer between elation and despair. Books have to end, but this history does not. Our knowledge of the spiritual, its singers, and its chroniclers will continue to expand, transform, and allow for new interpretations in the future, as new voices add to the old. (p.264)


(3.) Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 19. Hartman’s analysis revolves around a white man named John Rankin, who in a letter to his brother attempted to express the horrors of slavery by putting himself in the place of a slave being whipped and imagining it in excruciating detail.

(4.) Ibid., 22. Although Hartman is discussing the beaten black slave body and the auction block as entertainment, her observation also applies to how the spiritual functioned in postwar entertainment.

(5.) Rydell uses the term “ideological repair” to describe the “ethnological” exhibits of Africans at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (“‘Darkest Africa,’” 135).

(6.) “Black Musicians from Slavery to Freedom,” 15. Although the frolic can be seen as a sacred counterpart to religious worship, Cimbala argues that the two were complementary rather than oppositional, equally important in creating community.

(7.) Ashby discusses how the banjo assumed new social meanings beyond minstrelsy at that time (With Amusement for All, 90–92).

(9.) Abbott and Seroff, Out of Sight, 172, reprints a notice about Wright from the Indianapolis Freeman of 22 Aug. 1891.

(10.) Simond, Old Slack’s Reminiscence, 13. Charles, Gustave, and Daniel Frohman were among the foremost theatrical managers of the time, with connections to Callender’s Colored Minstrels, Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels (white), and Callender’s Consolidated Spectacular Colored Minstrels.

(p.298) (11.) Loudin’s supplement in Marsh, Story of the Jubilee Singers (1892), 131–32.

(12.) “New Broadway Theatre,” New York Times, 16 Jan. 1877; “Academy of Music,” Brooklyn Eagle, 18 Feb. 1877; ad, Brooklyn Eagle, 17 Feb. 1877.

(13.) Ad, “Amusements,” New York Times, 10 Feb. 1878; the group performed the week of 11 Feb.

(14.) See Sonya R. Gable-Wilson, “Let Freedom Sing! Four African-American Concert Singers in Nineteenth-Century America” (PhD diss., University of Florida, 2005); and J. Wright, “Black Women in Classical Music in Boston.”

(16.) Unsigned biographical sketch, Sam Lucas’ Plantation Songster; “Long Sam Lucas: Artist of Negro Minstrelsy,” New York Sun, 22 Oct. 1911.

(19.) “Loudin’s Singers,” Cleveland Gazette, 19 Nov. 1904: 1–2.

(21.) Sotiropoulos, Staging Race, 258. Her book can function as a sequel to this one.

(22.) Abbott and Seroff, Ragged but Right, gives an excellent overview of these developments.

(23.) For more background on these trends, see Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., eds., African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), especially Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” 435–74.

(24.) Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years (Nashville: AME Sunday School Union, 1888), 253–54, http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/payne70/payne.html#p149.

(25.) “Afro-American Camp Meeting,” Afro-American Advance (Minneapolis), 8 July 1899.

(26.) “Points of View,” Brooklyn Eagle, 15 April 1900, is a helpful retrospective of changes in the preceding twenty-five years; black newspapers are full of articles and advertisements that reflect these changes in African American churches. In his preface to Coleridge-Taylor’s Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Booker T. Washington notes that spirituals in large city churches “are being used but little” (ix).

(27.) Topeka (KS) Weekly Call, 1 Nov. 1891; cited in Abbott and Seroff, Out of Sight, 196.

(28.) New Haven Palladium, quoted in Seward, Jubilee Songs (1872a). The irony was that, at this time, African Americans never gave “vent to their pent up feelings” by singing an arranged concert spiritual.

(29.) Bacon’s letter was originally printed as an undated pamphlet; the text was also published in Southern Workman (Dec. 1893): 180–81. A slightly edited version appeared as “Dear Friends,” Journal of American Folklore 6, no. 23 (1893): 305–9.

(30.) The formal study of folklore was just beginning in the United States. The American Folk-Lore Society was organized in Cambridge, MA, in 1888. Closely intertwined with the development of American anthropology, the discipline was slow to turn its attention to African American culture—not for lack of interest, but because the violent social climate of Jim Crow made federal funding politically sensitive.

(32.) “Old Plantation Hymns,” “Hymns of the Slave and the Freedman,” and “Recent Negro Melodies” were published in the Sept.–Nov. 1899 issues of New England Magazine and later that year in book form (Barton, Old Plantation Hymns).

(34.) Jean Snyder, “Harry T. Burleigh and the Creative Expression of Bi-Musicality: A Study of an African-American Composer and the American Art Song” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1992), 293–97; Brian Moon, “The Inimitable Miss Cheatham,” Society for American Music, Bulletin 32, no. 2 (2006): 25–27; A. W. Kramer, “Kitty Cheatham Urges Fisk University Students to Preserve Old Spiritual,” Musical America, 30 May 1914: 9.

(35.) J. W. Work, Folk Song, 97–98.

(37.) In offering standardized programs to rural towns and large cities alike, “chautauqua gradually broke down the barrier between agrarian and urban attitudes, beliefs, and values, thereby fostering a melting pot ideology for the country,” according to historian John Tapia, Circuit Chautauqua, 47.

(38.) Salvation Soldier’s Song Book (New York: Army Headquarters, 1880), HTC. Bland’s original song was published by John F. Perry, Boston, LC, https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1879.01966/.

(39.) See Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Our History,” http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/about.html, accessed 7 July 2017.

(40.) Listen, for example, to the Plantation Singers’ rendition of “Wade in the Water,” which streams on their website: http://www.plantationsingers.com. Reagon, Wade in the Water, has excellent recordings featuring both concert and folk styles. (p.300)