A century and a half ago, Fisk University’s acclaimed a capella ensemble, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, officially formed. Now, 150 years later, the group continues to make history. In fact, the Fisk Jubilee Singers recently won “Best Roots Gospel Album” at the 2021 Grammy Awards (their first-ever Grammy!). In honor of this legendary win and the group’s 150th anniversary, we’re taking a stroll down memory lane to honor the past and present of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Officially organized as a choral ensemble in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were created as a fundraising avenue for Fisk University. “The Fisk Jubilee Singers were formed by George L. White, who was a teacher at Fisk University during the beginnings of the school,” says Dr. Paul T. Kwami, D.M.A., who serves as the current musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “He originally came up with the idea of forming the Fisk Jubilee Singers because the university was running out of money … so on October 6, 1871, he and nine students left Nashville. Their goal was to travel around the United States to raise money for Fisk and to prevent the school from closing.”
The original group was made up of nine vocalists — four Black men and five Black women — seven of whom were former slaves. As they set out on tour, the singers introduced ‘slave songs’ to listeners around the world, and they are credited for helping preserve the tradition of ‘Negro spirituals’ — a musical genre that was created through generations of African Americans. At the end of the group’s first tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers gained national recognition and raised enough money to keep Fisk University open. “By the end of the first tour, [the Fisk Jubilee Singers] were able to raise enough money — around $20,000 — which was used in purchasing the current land where Fisk University stands,” explains Dr. Kwami.
During their first four years of touring, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed for prominent figures like Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, and President Ulysses S. Grant. They are also known for popularizing songs like “Go Down, Moses,” “My Lord Says There’s Room Enough,” “Singing for Jesus,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Below is a video of the oldest known recording of the group as they perform “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in 1909.
“[The 150th anniversary] is very significant because not many choral ensembles exist for this long. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers consisted of students who chose to give up their education and travel to raise money to save their school from closing,” says Dr. Kwami. “They have brought us knowledge about a unique form of American music that’s performed not only in the United States but in many places globally.”
In anticipation of the 150th anniversary, the group released its Grammy Award-winning album Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album) last summer. Comprised of 12 songs, the compilation was recorded at the legendary Ryman Auditorium and includes appearances by singers like Ruby Amanfu, Keb’ Mo’, Lee Ann Womack, The Fairfield Four, Rod McGaha, Derek Minor, Shannon Sanders, Rodney Atkins, Jimmy Hall, and CeCe Winans. “Everyone was and is still very, very excited about [the Grammy Award]. Personally, it put me in a position where I realized we still have a responsibility to preserve the legacy, culture, and music,” Dr. Kwami tells us.
Below is the official music video for “Glory / Stranger” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (featuring Derek Minor and Shannon Sanders). It’s featured on Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album).
In addition to the album, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have also announced a schedule for its “Year of Jubilee,” which includes lectures, virtual reunions, concerts, and more. The celebrations began in March and are scheduled to continue through November. Today, on the group’s official anniversary, the singers are slated to host a Jubilee Day 2021 Convocation at 10 a.m. The live stream presentation takes place on the group’s YouTube channel and will include poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni as a keynote speaker as well as musical performances from the Fisk Jubilee Singers themselves. Today also marks the official reveal of the group’s new exhibit at the National Museum of African American Music. The festivities conclude on Thursday, November 11, with a special live performance at the Ryman Auditorium. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are on sale now at ryman.com and begin at $46.50.
A PBS film was also released earlier this month in honor of the group’s anniversary. Produced by the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Walk Together Children: The 150th Anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers features Dr. Kwami and current vocalists from the group as they explore the history of the ensemble and honor its nine original members.
The group is also scheduled to release a commemorative book titled Heritage & Honor: 150 Year Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers®. The first of its kind, the book takes readers on a journey through the group’s history. Available in two formats — a limited edition hardcover and a Jubilee collectors edition — the book is currently available for pre-order for $75 through Sunday, October 31. It is scheduled for its official release later this fall.
To learn more about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their anniversary celebrations, visit theyearofjubilee.org.
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