Opinion | These Young Singers Still Carry the Torch of Black Freedom

NASHVILLE — In an account of her years as assistant director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ella Sheppard, a gifted musician who had been enslaved as a child, recalled one of the student ensemble’s earliest excursions outside Nashville, only a handful of years after the Civil War. The singers were all students at Fisk University, a school for emancipated former slaves. They were stranded at a rural train station with Ms. Sheppard and their director, a white abolitionist named George White, when an angry mob arrived. In the face of the white men’s fury, the students began to sing.

“One by one, the riotous crowd left off their jeering and swearing and slunk back until only the leader stood near Mr. White and finally took off his hat,” Ms. Sheppard wrote. “The leader begged us, with tears falling, to sing the hymn again.”

When I stepped into Jubilee Hall on the campus of Fisk University last week, 150 years after the original Fisk Jubilee Singers sang a racist mob into silence, the lobby of the historic building was under renovation and covered in drop cloths. There was no sign directing me to the rehearsal space of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, whom I had come to hear, but a student soon appeared to lead me through the halls. “I’m Hezekiah,” he said. “One of the tenors.”

Hezekiah Robinson, a junior, may look like an ordinary college student at this historically Black university, but he sings like an angel. In fact, the Fisk Jubilee Singers is an entire ensemble of angels occupying the bodies of undergraduates. They have been bringing audiences to tears for the last 150 years with their renditions of the spirituals first sung by enslaved Americans before the Civil War.

This year has been extraordinary for the group. In March their new album, “Celebrating Fisk!” received a Grammy Award for the Best Roots Gospel album. In September, an anonymous donor gave $1.5 million to establish a permanent endowment to support the ensemble. At the 20th annual Americana Music Awards, also in September, the Fisk Jubilee Singers received the Legacy of Americana Award. This week it will celebrate its sesquicentennial, an anniversary that Nashville Public Television has commemorated with a new performance film called “Walk Together Children.”

Fisk University opened its doors in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was run by white abolitionist missionaries and operated in the barracks of an abandoned military hospital in Nashville. The school’s treasurer, George White, happened to love music and formed a student chorus, quickly tapping Ella Sheppard to serve as his assistant director.

From its founding, Fisk faced immense financial difficulties, and each year its prospects for survival were worse than the year before. During the fall of 1871, with the school on the verge of collapse, George White struck on the idea of forming a traveling company of his best singers. He felt sure that abolition-minded audiences along the route of the old Underground Railroad could hardly help reaching into their pockets to support the school, once they heard his students sing.

The company left Nashville on Oct. 6, a date now celebrated each year as Jubilee Day at Fisk, but the fund-raising tour did not go as George White had hoped. After weeks of performances, the tour wasn’t even breaking even, much less clearing the kind of profit that might save Fisk. The students, who owned no coats, were always cold and completely exhausted. Too often the local boardinghouses turned them away because they were Black.

Their performances had always included a few spirituals, generally used as encores. But the group’s fortunes finally improved when Mr. White persuaded Ella Sheppard and the students to add much more of the music of their youth to their traditional choral repertoire. It was not an easy sell.

These songs had been created by enslaved people and passed down through generations. For captives longing for freedom and safety and peace, they had been a source of solace and community, an expression of artistry and originality. For their children, cold and hungry and far from family, the songs were a reminder of home. But they were also a reminder of the very institution they had been working so hard to escape: The songs “were associated with slavery and the dark past, and represented the things to be forgotten,” wrote Ms. Sheppard. Nevertheless, they agreed.

Audiences were spellbound. “All of a sudden, there was no talking,” the musicologist Horace Boyer noted of a performance in 1871, the year the ensemble was formed. “They said you could hear the soft weeping.”

The current group of singers carries on their legacy. “This is not an ordinary choral ensemble,” music director Paul Kwami said in an interview after the rehearsal I visited. “If we are the ones to continue carrying this torch, then there has to be humility and not pride.”

Today’s Fisk Jubilee Singers are as disciplined and cohesive a group as their musical ancestors were, and they clearly adore and revere their director. When Dr. Kwami interrupts them again and again to correct some element of tempo or pitch or elucidation or interpretation, they listen closely and adjust without a murmur of complaint. The night I visited they were practicing Dr. Kwami’s new arrangement of the spiritual “Great Day,” which he composed, with their input, for this year’s anniversary. When he pointed out that a song of triumph surely ought to be accompanied by smiles of jubilation, the students laughed. With the next attempt, their smiles were genuine.

For the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, success eventually followed hardship: Sellout crowds, generous donations, celebrity endorsements from the likes of Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant. A subsequent tour of the British Isles included a performance for Queen Victoria, who was so entranced that she commissioned a portrait of the singers and presented it to Fisk University as a gift.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers accomplished what they had set out to do in 1871, saving their university from financial ruin. But they kept singing, earning enough to buy the land for a permanent Fisk University campus, as well, and then still more to build a stone and brick building strong enough to withstand the arsonists of the Ku Klux Klan. That building, Jubilee Hall, is where the Fisk Jubilee Singers rehearse these days, standing on a small stage that rises before Queen Victoria’s gift portrait of the original company.

Throughout their travels, the artistry and technical skill of these former slaves captivated, and in many cases shamed, white audiences. And the beauty of the “slave songs” themselves made it clear to everyone who heard them that Black Americans had developed their own emotionally rich and creatively diverse culture, despite the unthinkable deprivation, brutality and trauma of slavery.

During their travels in the Union states, the Fisk Jubilee Singers encountered virulent racism — a review in the New York World called them “trained monkeys” — but they were so beloved and so admired by audiences that often the effect of such overtly racist behavior was to shame some of these segregated communities into doing better. The ensemble inspired the integration of hotels and public schools, and George Pullman himself integrated the entire fleet of Pullman cars when the students were denied berths on trains.

In the process, the Fisk Jubilee Singers also built the foundation for what we now think of as American music. If they had not begun to sing the songs of their ancestors in concert halls, this oral tradition, which existed only in the memories of former slaves, would most likely have been lost to history forever. And if it had disappeared, it would have taken with it the DNA of much of the American music that followed: blues, gospel, jazz, country, rock, and more.

The album that recently won the Fisk Jubilee Singers a Grammy Award — the first in the ensemble’s history — was created from live recordings of concerts performed during 2016 and 2017 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. (The group will appear there again on Nov. 11.) The record features spirituals sung by the ensemble, such as “Wade in the Water” and “Way Over in Egypt Land,” as well as songs performed with musicians of other genres.

The blues musician Keb’ Mo’ joins the ensemble for “I Believe.” Other guests include the Christian hip-hop artist Derek Minor, jazz musician Rod McGaha, the rocker Jimmy Hall, gospel artists CeCe Winans and The Fairfield Four, and the country artists Rodney Atkins and Lee Ann Womack. Ruby Amanfu, the Ghana-born artist who defies genre, completely blows away “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.”

This album, in other words, demonstrates the way songs born from the suffering of enslaved people gave birth to the very music that most defines us as Americans.

Perhaps that’s what Dr. Kwami meant when he told me that being the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers “is truly a very humbling position.” It’s not merely that he carries the responsibility for choosing the young members of the ensemble, or for teaching them to sing together so beautifully. It’s that he is a caretaker of a powerful musical tradition.

Dr. Kwami was born and raised in Ghana, but he knew the music of the Fisk Jubilee Singers even before he came to Fisk as a college student in 1983. “Being a Ghanaian — and knowing that the roots of this music are also in West Africa — puts a great responsibility on me. It’s the responsibility to preserve this music and teach younger people to know its value,” he said. “To teach them its history and its legacy.”

Coming to Fisk, where he himself was a Fisk Jubilee Singer, changed Dr. Kwami’s life. “Becoming a member of the ensemble gave me the opportunity to see that music is one of the cultural elements that still connects Africans to African Americans. Being an African, it meant a lot to me. Being a part of the ensemble that introduced this music to the world has been a wonderful journey.”

At the end of the rehearsal, after a concluding prayer, Dr. Kwami released the ensemble back to their lives as college students. They chatted as they gathered their belongings, but nearly all of them had begun to hum again as they were leaving. By the time they reached the door, many were quietly singing outright:

Great day!

Great day, the righteous marching

Great day

God’s gonna build up Zion’s wall

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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