Nashville Black Music History and the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Feb 25, 2021
For more than 200 years, Nashville has been a hub for musicians, songwriters, and producers to create and share diverse styles of music.
Indeed, Nashville has a storied history of Black artists who created an eclectic R&B scene in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
Etta James recorded a live album at the New Era Club, which used to live on Charlotte Avenue. Both Little Richard and Jimmy Hendrix paid their dues on the collection of smoky stages that once populated Jefferson Street. Tragically, all that remains today is the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, which commemorates the artists and venues of this bygone community.
But even before the R&B movement took the spotlight, Nashville’s vibrant music scene had its roots in the 1800s. Musical groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers took to the stage and performed for national and international audiences.
In fact, Nashville’s reputation as a global music center has been traced back to the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ first U.K. performance.
The ongoing legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is a foundational part of Nashville’s music history. From the original ensemble to the current ensemble, let’s explore this group’s impact on both Music City and Black history.
It’s important to recognize the historical context of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ beginnings.
Fisk University, where the group originated and is still based today, was founded not even a full year after the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The then-coined Fisk School opened its doors to Black individuals, many of whom had grown up in slavery.
By 1871, the recently incorporated university was in the middle of a worsening financial crisis. In a last-ditch effort to save the school, the university’s music teacher and treasurer George L. White assembled nine singers for a fundraising tour.
This original ensemble became known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
These young singers have been praised for their powerful performances of spirituals such as "Steal Away" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But modern discourse about this ensemble tends to gloss over the fact that segregation laws were in full effect during this time.
Despite ongoing inequality and mistreatment, the Fisk Jubilee Singers held memorable performances at the World Peace Festival in Boston and throughout the U.S. In 1873, the group travelled internationally and performed for Queen Victoria.
And in 1881, the ensemble became the first African American choir to perform at the White House.
As noted in the YouTube video below, the Fisk Jubilee Singers represented “the lyrical voice of black Reconstruction.”
Many audience members of the group’s early performances had only seen the harmful and stereotypical depictions of the black experience in “minstrel shows.”
By performing traditional spirituals for these crowds, the Fisk Jubilee Singers imparted a much different, authentic representation of Black culture and music to local and global audiences.
In the years since 1871, many generations of singers have enrolled and graduated from Fisk University. And each new member shapes the ensemble’s legacy.
Largely because of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, the university raised the money needed to come out on the other side of financial ruin. To commemorate this group, Jubilee Hall was given their namesake once it was constructed in 1876.
Of the nine original singers, seven were former slaves.
If you want to know more about the original ensemble, this article by the Smithsonian offers a brief biography on four founding members: Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Maggie Porter, and Benjamin M. Holmes.
Less than two decades after Jubilee Hall was built, Nashville constructed the Ryman Auditorium which has since been nicknamed the “Carnegie of the South.”
Since 1892, legendary musicians and singers such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline have performed at this location.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the first performers to hold a concert there. And generations later, they returned to the Ryman Auditorium to commemorate Fisk University’s 150th anniversary in 2016.
Fisk’s musical director Dr. Paul Kwami worked alongside Shannon Sanders to arrange this event and produce the 150th anniversary album. In the video above, Kwami and Sanders talk about the significance of that moment in the university’s history and the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
To further involve the Nashville community, the student ensemble performed alongside guest artists like Sam Moore, Ruby Amanfu, and Cece Winans.
The current class of Fisk Jubilee Singers has an active YouTube presence where they share new performances and music videos.
Black musicians deserve to be recognized and celebrated as an integral part of Nashville’s music history. But even as we remember the triumphs of these creators, it’s important to keep historical context in mind.
Segregation wasn’t outlawed until 93 years after the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ first tour. And Black Americans weren’t granted the right to vote — courtesy of the 15th Amendment — until a year later.
This timeline adds yet another layer to the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ remarkable legacy.
As we celebrate their most notable performances, we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that these talented students started performing in a post-Civil War and Jim Crow era.
In spite of this, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continued to perform for audiences near and far.
While they have certainly made a mark on Music City, the impact of their music has been felt internationally as well.
Richard Hawley, Town Hall Birmingham’s Head of Artistic Programming, had this to say about the Fisk Jubilee Singers before the group started their 2015 tour in England:
“They are without doubt responsible for introducing the Black Oral Tradition to the U.K., and are therefore responsible, certainly in part, for the enormous diversity of music we now have in this country.”
The next generations of Fisk Jubilee Singers will contribute and shape Nashville’s music scene much like the generations before them.
As of 2021, Nashville is now home to the National Museum of African American Music — a museum that was reportedly 20 years in the making.
By creating a space to honor Black artists, the Nashville community is taking intentional strides to celebrate the diverse history of Music City and the music industry as a whole.