It was late December of 1871, and Henry Ward Beecher, the minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, had invited a group of young men and women from Fisk University in Nashville to travel to New York to perform for his congregation. “There is a band of singers here,” Beecher announced to the audience, “every one of whom has been baptized in slavery … they are coming to the East to see if they can raise some little funds for their education and elevation.” The group of performers—five women and four men between the ages of 14 and 25—looked out of place among the well-heeled throng of white church attendees; one observer later described the girls as “dressed in water-proofs, and clothed about the neck with long woolen comforters to protect their throats.” But when the nine young African Americans began to sing, the Plymouth parishioners found themselves charmed and moved, even transported, by the spirituals, which told stories of bondage and emancipation. “The first hymn they sang was ‘O, how I love Jesus!’,” the observer wrote. “I shall never forget the rich tones as they mingled their voices in a melody so beautiful and touching I scarcely knew whether I was ‘in body or out of body.’”
The rich tones of these “plantation melodies,” “slave hymns,” or, as they later came to be known, “songs of jubilee” were a product of generations of endured trauma and hard-won resilience, assertions of the humanity and creative genius of enslaved African Americans. Established in the early 19th century, the folk songs—which usually featured religious themes, strong use of metaphor and imagery, and erratic rhyme schemes—were used as multipurpose tools for worship and survival. The song “Wade in the Water,” for example, contained lyrics that, folklore holds, delivered coded advice for escapees by describing a strategy for evading pursuing, scent-hungry bloodhounds. (Harriet Tubman would rely on “map songs” as a method of giving directions to African Americans fleeing north.)
“Songs of jubilee” were also used to manipulate and coerce: As historian Katrina Dyonne Thompson details in her 2014 book Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery, during nearly two centuries of chattel slavery, enslaved people were regularly expected to perform on demand and in public by slave traders, who wished for them to appear carefree and cheerful to potential buyers; in his autobiography, one formerly enslaved man, the pastor and abolitionist John Sella Martin, recalled that his traders made slaves sing to “prevent any expression of sorrow for those who are being torn away from them.” In addition, owners of slaves with skills in the performing arts would often pit them against other enslaved performers and place bets on the outcome, in a kind of inter-plantation talent contest. “Slaves,” as Frederick Douglass explained in his 1855 autobiography, “are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”
“He would keep us singing them all day until he was satisfied that we had every soft or loud passage to suit his fastidious taste.”
The story of the Jubilee Singers—who, less than a decade before their appearance at Plymouth Church, had been transported from slavery to emancipation to higher education and to fame—thrilled audiences, first in America and eventually in Europe. But it was the Singers’ white producers—the abolitionists and educators who encouraged them to perform these songs for the public, and eventually the tour managers who would underpay and overwork them—who developed their act and controlled their image, foreshadowing the familiar story of recording-industry exploitation that later affected the careers and fortunes of black musicians in the United States, to often devastating effect.
Ella Sheppard was born into slavery on Andrew Jackson’s Nashville-area plantation, The Hermitage, in 1851. Her father, Simon Sheppard, who had been allowed to hire his time from his master and keep the proceeds, eventually raised $1,800 to purchase his freedom; but when he tried to buy freedom for Ella and her mother, Sarah Hannah Sheppard, their mistress refused the latter request, leaving Ella, then three, motherless. Although she was a serious and studious child and wanted to learn, Ella’s education, like that of many free African American youths, was spotty at best. At one point, when she was living in Cincinnati, a white teacher agreed to give her music lessons, but only if she’d creep up the teacher’s back stairs at night so nobody would see.
In 1868, after saving $6 by teaching at a black subscription school in Gallatin, Tennessee, 17-year-old Ella enrolled at Fisk University. Today a private, historically black college, Fisk was established on January 9, 1866, as the Fisk Free Colored School and was incorporated as a university the following year. Founded and paid for by the Union general Clinton B. Fisk, who provided $30,000 up front for the school, and the American Missionary Association (AMA), a group of evangelical abolitionists, the school had 900 students by May of 1866. Like Ella, some of these students were formerly enslaved, while others had been living as free black residents of Nashville, or had gravitated to the area from other parts of the United States during the tumult of emancipation.
The AMA was more radical than other missionary organizations devoted to abolition, refusing donations from slaveholders and actively incorporating black people into its leadership structure. During Reconstruction, the AMA declared that the education of freedpeople was the most important Christian mission of its time and vowed to open schools across the South to accomplish it. The white teachers and administrators at Fisk structured the students’ days so that they unfolded much like a white student’s at a boarding school in the North. Before the start of classes every morning—courses were offered in subjects like science and geography—chapel services were held. Study hours were strictly enforced, during which students were prohibited from socializing. Male and female students could not visit one another’s rooms and required the presence of a chaperone to even speak with one another on campus. All vices—gambling, tobacco, alcohol—were completely forbidden.
As more freedpeople sought education and Fisk’s enrollment numbers swelled, Fisk and AMA administrators struggled to stay financially afloat: tuition cost between $9 and $12 a year (between $190 and $250 today), which many students couldn’t afford to pay, and the fees that were paid hardly covered the cost of running the school. (The AMA had also received money from the Freedmen’s Bureau—set up by Congress in 1865 to provide aid to freed slaves and also woefully underfunded—but it was never enough to fulfill the need the AMA was trying to serve.)
Both the educators and the educated suffered. Teachers, many of whom were white Northerners, were rarely compensated on time. The students themselves lived in old Union Army hospital barracks donated by General Fisk, where they would freeze during the winters and sweat through the warmer seasons; the university needed to raise money to establish permanent buildings. Basic sustenance was also an issue. As Ella explained it in a 1911 historical sketch of the Jubilee Singers, published in a Fisk University newsletter: “Our privations and limited food began to tell on the vitality of the students, and some of our best pupils were sacrificed. There was no money even for food, much less for repairs. Many a time a special prayer was offered for the next meal.”
“Money we must have,” lamented Adam Spence, Fisk’s first principal, in an 1871 letter to his mother. “When is it to be got? Will it come to us without going for it or must we go for it? If so, who must go and when? … We need a permanent site and permanent buildings. We need an endowment. We need everything.” The answer to these problems, Spence would soon discover, would be the Jubilee Singers.
In the summer of 1871, five years after Fisk University was founded, George White, a teacher and choir director from New York State who also served as Fisk’s treasurer, led a group of four students who had sung in the school’s choir, including Ella Sheppard, into Adam Spence’s office and drew the curtains. Some students sat in chairs, but most sat on the floor, where they began to sing the songs their families and ancestors had taught them.
They practiced “softly,” wrote Ella about the afternoon, “learning from each other the songs of our fathers.” At the time, she would later explain, “we did not dream of ever using them in public.”
Over the next few months, at George White’s request, Ella would begin to help transcribe the songs they’d sung for principal Spence, as well as others that the singers had picked up from their parents, which included “Before I’d Be a Slave” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” White, who arranged the melodies on sheet music, began to hold evening group sings in his apartment, where he established a unique performance style for many of the songs, instructing the choir to sing quietly, pianissimo, as they had the first time he heard them sing in Spence’s hushed office. As one singer recalled, “He would keep us singing them all day until he was satisfied that we had every soft or loud passage to suit his fastidious taste.”
White was set on convincing the singers to share their songs with the world; but as members of the school’s choir they preferred to perform sentimental and patriotic songs and held their parents’ songs of religious worship close, believing they should only be sung in private. (As Ella would later explain, “They represented the things to be forgotten.”) But the students were determined to show how much black musicians could achieve, and their white patrons—abolitionists and educators who hoped that such songs of slavery would educate audiences about black culture and the need to financially support projects of racial uplift—were eventually able to coax them to sing the songs in public. “It was only after many months,” Ella wrote in her 1911 history of the Jubilee Singers, “that gradually our hearts were opened to the influence of these friends”—the teachers and administrators at the school—“and we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.”
In the fall of 1871, White came up with the idea to take the Jubilee Singers north to try to earn the money Fisk needed to stay afloat. The administrator faced resistance from the AMA’s leadership, which worried about distracting the students from their studies and wasn’t sure how a group of traveling African American singers would be received by a public that expected black entertainers to perform in a lively, minstrel-like manner, not with the solemnity of a spiritual. White also had some difficulty persuading the parents of the young singers to allow them to go on the trip, but he was eventually able to secure their permission. Along with conducting rehearsals, White also assumed the heavy logistical burden of borrowing money for touring expenses, planning the singers’ travel, and securing their venues. (Hoping to attract sympathetic abolitionist audiences, White planned on taking the Jubilees along the same route as the Underground Railroad, from Ohio to Pennsylvania, and then to New York.) He telegraphed the board of the AMA: “I’m depending on God, not you.”
In addition to Ella Sheppard, who served as the de facto assistant director of the group, the nine Jubilees included Maggie Porter, 18, a soprano who would become one of the Jubilee Singers’ stars and who had been born into slavery, the daughter of a housekeeper enslaved by a planter from Lebanon, Tennessee. There was bass singer Isaac Dickerson, 17, who was born enslaved in Virginia and whose earliest memory involved seeing his father sold to a slave trader; Thomas Rutling, 17, a tenor, who was born enslaved in Tennessee and separated from his mother; and bass singer Greene Evans, 23, who was born into slavery in Tennessee sometime around 1848 and who worked as a groundskeeper to pay his way through Fisk. Benjamin Holmes, 25, tenor, had been born enslaved around Charleston, South Carolina, in 1846 and had survived emancipation and its chaotic aftermath by working a patchwork of gigs, including teaching fellow freedpeople at country schools. Eliza Walker, a contralto, was one of the youngest of the Jubilee Singers; just 14 years old, she had been born enslaved near Nashville. Two of the Jubilees had grown up free: Jennie Jackson, 19, soprano, whose grandfather had worked as Andrew Jackson’s enslaved body servant, and Minnie Tate, 14, contralto.
On the morning of October 6, 1871, White and the newly christened Fisk Jubilee Singers set off from the Nashville train station on a tour of the Midwest and New England, leaving behind a railroad platform of tearful parents afraid of what their children might face in the North.
They practiced “softly,” wrote Ella, “learning from each other the songs of our fathers.” At the time, “we did not dream of ever using them in public.”
For the first month of what would become a nearly year-long tour, the Jubilee Singers sang the popular songs they were most comfortable performing in public, like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Old Folks from Home,” and just a few of the spirituals they had shared with White and Spence in the parlor. Their reticence at performing the spirituals was fueled by more than anxiety about protecting the work of their ancestors; for one thing, the songs were difficult to rehearse, and the group wasn’t sure how audiences, whose financial support was necessary to help pay the group’s way to the next town, might react to these sorts of “slave songs.” (In between songs, the ward of one of the troupe’s white chaperones, an eight-year-old formerly enslaved boy named Georgie Wells, performed the kind of comedic capers more often seen in minstrel shows.) For the first month of the tour, in fact, the singers had to use all of the proceeds from one concert to pay for travel to the next one; they often found themselves stranded in train stations late at night when their promised accommodations fell through after hotel proprietors found out that they were black.
The Jubilee Singers’ big break came in mid-November 1871, a little over a month into the tour, when they sang for an audience in Oberlin, Ohio, with Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher in attendance. When the tour began, Ella Sheppard remembered, the ratio of secular music to “slave songs” on the Jubilees’ performance programs was 17 to 2; about six weeks in, as the group realized how interested audiences were in the spirituals they sang, they flipped the program in the opposite direction. The reception was overwhelmingly positive: in Oberlin, a local newspaper reported, the Jubilees sang “several of their religious songs in the characteristic style and weird cadence of their nation, and with remarkable effect.” And Oberlin seminarian George Stanley Pope, who was in attendance, soon offered his services as the group’s “advance man,” arranging accommodations and venues ahead of time. Beecher, for his part, was so impressed he recommended the group to his brother, Henry Ward; by the time the Jubilees arrived in New York a few weeks later, the enthusiastic, tearful crowd at Beecher’s Plymouth Church made it clear that the early uncertainty of their venture vanished in a wave of acclaim. Churches were now clamoring to host the singers; just a few weeks after that first performance at Plymouth, Beecher had the troupe back for a paying concert, which raised $600 for the university. “I trust the crisis is past with the school,” wrote White to Spence in January 1872, “and that we shall begin to rise again.”
Henry Ward Beecher’s support for the singers, which was so essential to their success, gives something of a sense of what white Northern liberals enjoyed about the Jubilees’ performances: the opportunity to believe they understood the pain and grief of slavery, and to offer, and perform, their sympathies. (Nineteenth-century audiences loved the catharsis of a good cry, and African Americans telling stories and singing songs about their lives under slavery provided emotionally raw entertainment.) Georgia Gordon Taylor, a singer who joined the Jubilees in 1872, recalled of those early performances that “every night some of [the singers] would tell the story of having Mother sold away” and then sing songs like “No More Auction Block for Me”—a series of spare references to the hunger and violence that accompanied slavery—“Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” which visualizes heaven as an escape from daily degradations and pain.
“They are full of that uncultivated emotion which, because it is real, touches on every heart. They are weird, and wild, original in style, but touching, and at times grand.”
White people’s empathy, of course, was not without its limits. Though audiences often responded emotionally to the songs, they still sometimes regarded them as mere curiosities—evidence of black people’s “natural” connection to religion, emotion, and musicality, rather than a reflection of their hard work. (The introduction to Gustavus Pike’s detailed 1873 history of the group claimed that the Jubilees’ songs “come from no musical cultivation whatever, but are the simple, ecstatic utterances of wholly untutored minds.”) Press reviews during the tour echoed this sentiment. “They are full of that uncultivated emotion which, because it is real, touches on every heart,” announced one reviewer. “They are weird, and wild, original in style, but touching, and at times grand.” In a 1873 letter recommending the Jubilees to a British colleague, Henry Ward Beecher described the group’s music as “the wild slave songs, some of which seem like the inarticulate wails of breaking hearts made dumb by slavery; the Revival Melodies, the plantation songs, in short, the inner life of slave hearts, expressed in music.” The preacher later remembered, incorrectly and probably conveniently, his first encounter with the Jubilees: “There was not a mixed blood among them; they were as black as midnight, every one of them.”
George White, for his part, believed that the Jubilees were unique because, as he explained to a friend in November of 1871, they stood “on the border between ‘the old and the new’” and “looked forward with hope to a future full of promise.” But journalists reviewing concerts during that first tour of the United States dwelled on the “old”—their descriptions of the singers’ style included adjectives like “real plantation twang” and declarations that the songs were sung as “only they can sing who know how to keep time to a master’s whip.” A critic in Newark, New Jersey, in a review of a January 1872 show, went so far as to create a cast list meant to parody the advertisements that antebellum slave dealers had placed in newspapers before auctions, describing Minnie Tate as “Lot 7.—a charming little quadroon of about 15 years of age, with Straight hair” and another singer as “Negro man, very black, six feet high, worth in old times, $2,000 under the hammer.—Basso.”
By February 1872, the singers had been on tour for four straight months, traveling across the Midwest and up through New England, performing nearly every night for no money. (Not money they could keep, that is.) The relentlessness of the schedule had begun to take a toll: though they were young and relatively healthy, some of the Jubilees were beginning to wilt from the demands of the constant travel and the pressure to perform. On February 12, Ella wrote Adam Spence, the Fisk principal, that she was “now really suffering for want of rest” but was heartened by the reaction of the audiences. “I wish I could have you visit just one evening a city where we are to sing … Our concerts are so well attended that many are doomed to stand and want more leave for want of room,” she wrote.
The Jubilees would perform straight through to the end of 1872, with only a weeklong break to return to Nashville in May, where they visited their families. In winter of 1872 and spring of 1873, after giving hundreds of performances in cities across the Midwest and the Northeast, the Jubilees launched a “Farewell Tour” to fund a new and perhaps more ambitious venture: taking their act across the Atlantic on a tour of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland.
The choice was a shrewd one. Britain had become an established destination for free African Americans looking for political allies and financial support after the Somerset Case of 1772—which established that no person could be removed from British soil and sent back to slavery—and especially after the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended slavery in the British colonies and official British support of the transatlantic slave trade. As historian James W. Cook explains in his 2014 Raritan article “Finding Otira: The Geopolitics of Black Celebrity,” more than 80 black American abolitionists traveled to the island nation between 1830 and 1865, taking advantage of European sympathy to build support for their cause. Artists went, too. “Virtually every black celebrity of the 19th century was global by necessity,” writes Cook. “When U.S. gatekeepers blocked their access to domestic markets, they turned to more welcoming foreign publics.”
On May 7, 1873, a month after they arrived in Great Britain for a year-long tour, the Jubilees visited the Duke of Argyll’s country house in Scotland, where they sang for the 53-year-old Queen Victoria, who requested a performance of “John Brown’s Body.” On another day, they went to breakfast at Prime Minister William Gladstone’s home and came away impressed by how pleasantly the Gladstones had spoken with them and how uncondescending they were. (According to American journalist Andrew Ward’s comprehensive 2000 history of the Jubilees, Dark Midnight When I Rise, Gladstone later described the encounter as a “negro breakfast”—a sign that his outward respect for the group may have been colored by some inward delight in the novelty of the Jubilees’ race.)
The unfamiliar appearance of the singers was not lost on other audiences, nor the British public at large. The following month, in June, the Jubilees performed for an audience of London’s poor at Scottish novelist George MacDonald’s Georgian mansion in Hammersmith, an experience about which MacDonald’s wife would later say, “I was alternately and at the same time convulsed with laughter and choking tears—their chanting of the Lord’s Prayer was equal to any cathedral music I ever heard. Yet how odd they looked!” In London, Jubilee tenor Benjamin Holmes later reported, the singers were stared at and followed by “idle boys and girls on the streets.” Mabel Lewis, a Jubilee singer who was of lighter complexion than some of her peers, remembered that Britons were especially fascinated by the darker skin of singer Jennie Jackson: plagued by gawkers while trying to walk down the street, Mabel later said, Jennie would “take her umbrella and beat her way along with it.”
Fisk University’s profits from the Jubilees’ British tour were substantial. Over the course of the 13-month trip, which stretched from April 1873 to May 1874 and often involved two to three concerts a day, the singers earned 10,000 pounds in donations for the building of Fisk’s Jubilee Hall; 400 pounds for furnishings of the hall; 250 pounds toward the building of a library; and many additional donations of books and paintings—in all, more than $1 million today.
Despite—or because of—these significant successes, the relationship between the Jubilees and their managers from Fisk and the AMA began to become more acrimonious. The singers were concerned about the circumstances of their employment: how much vacation time they should get, how many concerts they should be expected to perform per day and per week, and whether they would be allowed to put on other performances solely for their own financial benefit. “In certain respects,” historian James W. Cook points out in “Finding Otira,” “this conflict, which played out as a racially divided battle over salaries and working conditions, mirrored the central fault lines of Reconstruction.” Just what were white people willing to pay black people for their work?
Though some might argue that the Fisk students were in it for the education, not profit, only one of the Jubilees ever earned a degree from Fisk in her lifetime, so consumed were the singers by the demands of touring. And though the Jubilees did eventually make $500 a year apiece in 1874 (about $11,000 today), the working conditions were, by all accounts, strenuous. Because the group was committed to combining free concerts for Sunday schools and churches with paying work, they sometimes sang two or three times per day, as they had when traveling abroad. Plus, the singers were more than just weary. Often, they were sick—some with chronic ailments like tuberculosis, which killed Benjamin Holmes in 1875 at the age of 29; others with acute illnesses, like Julia Jackson, who suffered a paralytic stroke in 1876; and some with the kinds of ambiguously described “exhaustions” and “strains” that pepper the pages of 19th-century history. Moreover, any medical expenses incurred to treat ailments that touring induced or exacerbated were contractually considered to be the Jubilees’ sole responsibility.
As the troupe got more popular, with their American appearances netting more money on the strength of their overseas fame, it became clear to the Jubilee Singers that their managers were more invested in short-term profit-making than in taking care of their own: while traveling in Britain, the Jubilees learned that the managers were in the process of training student replacements to fill in for exhausted or sick singers. “In a sense, being a Jubilee Singer meant being enslaved all over again, with [the white management] acting as overseers,” writes historian Sandra Graham in her 2006 academic paper “On the Road to Freedom: The Contracts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” summing up the disaffected singers’ sentiments.
In 1876, as the Jubilees battled the university and the AMA in an attempt to protect two months of promised sabbatical, which Fisk’s new president, Erastus Milo Cravath, was determined to curtail in favor of further engagements, Jubilee singer Frederick Loudin wrote a letter to Cravath detailing the toll touring had taken on the group: “You seem determined to drive ahead as if we were superhuman, and in fact, as we are killed you put in a new one.”
In 1878, on a tour of Germany during which the Jubilees hit 41 towns in 98 days, the group was shut down for good. AMA and Fisk administrators, concerned about the group’s exhaustion and worn down by the constant infighting and strife, had concluded the experiment was more trouble than it was worth. Sailing into New York Harbor on their return trip that July, the exhausted remaining members of the Jubilee Singers performed an impromptu concert on the deck of the ship: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “John Brown’s Body.” In all, the returning students had raised more than $150,000 for Fisk University—more than $3 million in today’s dollars—in three grueling tours of duty over the course of seven years, supporting the building of Fisk Hall, a portion of Livingstone Missionary Hall, and the needs of the American Missionary Association.
The work done over the seven years by the original Jubilee Singers endured, in both positive and not so positive ways. Maggie Porter, Mabel Lewis, and Jennie Jackson all started their own choirs, and Ella Sheppard, who would tour in a new troupe with George White until 1882, was able to take her earnings and build a house for her mother and half-sister on a lot in Nashville; she would later become a prominent activist and teacher. (Frederick Loudin, the powerfully charismatic bass who went on the original group’s third tour and advocated for the singers in their dispute with management, took over White’s group under the Jubilee name in 1882, using profits to invest in manufacturing in his hometown of Ravenna, Ohio.) But as historian Sandra Graham writes in her 2018 book, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, the solemnity of the spiritual also proved to be an irresistible target for entertainers who had long represented black people as ridiculous grotesques. In the 1880s and ’90s, the Jubilee style of singing began to appear in minstrel shows as an object of mockery—deeply felt authenticity transmuted into tomfoolery. Writing about the Jubilee Singers in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois, a Fisk alumnus, observed: “Caricature has sought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the air with many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real.”
“You seem determined to drive ahead as if we were superhuman, and in fact, as we are killed you put in a new one.”
It was partially out of this sense that the tradition needed rescuing that, in 1898, a young black Fisk faculty member, John Wesley Work II, launched a new Fisk Jubilee Singers group. Work, the university’s choir director, and his brother Frederick were folklorists, and published the first of several books collecting the songs in 1901, jump-starting a new tradition of jubilee singing at Fisk University that continues to this day, with a group of 22 students who travel around the country, performing the songs that Ella Sheppard and the other members of the troupe recalled from their parents’ lives in slavery. (A Fisk quartet led by Work also recorded for Victor in December 1909, and later for Thomas Edison’s label, Edison Records; it’s currently available in its entirely on YouTube.)
The songs that Ella Sheppard and her fellow students shared together, singing in a hushed pianissimo while sitting on the floor in the dark quiet of Adam Spence’s office at Fisk, would outlive the Jubilee Singers, outlive the parodies and the minstrel shows. As the fight for civil rights progressed in the 20th century, songs that were once considered curiosities now became songs of protest, a way to communicate to audiences that these songs of bondage still rang true, that they must be listened to and understood. When black soprano Marian Anderson was denied use of Constitution Hall for a concert by members of the Daughters of the Revolution in 1939, she sang instead on the steps of the Lincoln Monument to a crowd of 75,000. Anderson began with a standard, “My Country Tis of Thee,” but ended with three spirituals, “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’,” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord,” all songs that would have been sung by the Jubilees. When the audience clamored for an encore, she sang one more: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Nobody knows the trouble I've been through Nobody knows my sorrow Nobody knows the trouble I've seen Glory hallelujah!
Photo illustrations by Yulia Nidbalskaya.