The Negro spiritual

The combination of enthusiasm for sacred song and for blackface minstrel song prepared the ground for the visit to Britain of the Jubilee Singers, also in 1873. Although the early camp meetings showed the influence of black religious practice, an interest in publishing and disseminating the religious music of Southern slaves only awakened with their emancipation, the first collection being Slave Songs of the United States (1867). The Jubilee Singers were students of Fisk University, Nashville, an institution founded in the late 1860s with funds mainly from the American Missionary Association. The idea behind its inception was that emancipated slaves should be given access to a Christian education, 'or the nation must suffer far more in the future than in the past from the curse of slavery'.16 George White, who was indeed white, organized the Jubilee Singers, who were all black, to raise funds for the University in 1871. Lord Shaftesbury, in his capacity as President of the Freedmen's Mission Aid Society (the English sister organization of the American Missionary Association) arranged their first concert in Britain, in London, in 1873. The following day they were invited to perform in the drawing room of the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. There they received a visit from Queen Victoria, to whom they sang the nowadays well-known spirituals 'Steal Away' and 'Go Down, Moses'. They went on to perform in other drawing rooms, including that of the Prime Minister, Gladstone. Yet, like Moody and Sankey, they saw their audience as encompassing the whole of society. Hence they not only performed in the drawing rooms of the rich and in chapels but also had the idea while in Hull on their tour north of giving concerts in the open air. Rather than charge for their concerts, they took collections; all money raised was to help pay for the completion of Jubilee Hall at Fisk University. In Newcastle upon Tyne they encountered Moody and Sankey and immediately joined their efforts to the 'great work'. Whether in England or Scotland, the Jubilee Singers were warmly welcomed wherever they toured, and it is noteworthy that they met with very little racial prejudice:

In no way were they ever offensively reminded, through look or word — unless by some rude American who was lugging his caste conceit through a European tour, or by a vagrant Englishman who had lived long enough in America to 'catch' its color prejudices — that they were black.' [Marsh 73]

On their second visit to Britain, ten strong, in May 1875, they again gave some joint performances with Moody and Sankey in various halls, or in tabernacles erected specially for Moody's meetings. Sunday School parties would be taken to these meetings; in Liverpool, 12,000 children from ninety different schools turned up (Marsh 84). After the Jubilee Singers returned from a European tour in 1878, Fisk University disbanded them, and the following year they set themselves up as a joint stock company. In 1882 they reorganized and embarked upon a six-year world tour, this time under a black musical director, Frederick J. Loudin. [116/117]

The songs they sang, which came to be known as 'Negro Spirituals', make much of the contrast between unison and harmony, usually in order to underline a 'call and response'. Like the Moody and Sankey repertoire, a favourite structure is eight-bar verse and eight-bar refrain, except that the song commonly begins with the refrain rather than the verse. They are also distinguished melodically in their use of pentatonicism, syncopation, and cell structure. Nevertheless, there are some songs with solo verse and choral refrain which show a close relationship to the Sankey gospel style, for example, 'The Gospel Train' and 'In the River of Jordan'. Some are harmonized throughout, and others, for example, 'I've Been Redeemed' and 'He Rose from the Dead', have the typical gospel feature of'echo voices'. The Jubilee Singers sometimes supplemented their Afro-American repertoire with blackface minstrelsy ('Old Folks at Home'), patriotic Unionism ('John Brown's Body'), and white gospel (Bliss's 'Grace Before Meat'). Even in their own songs, the influence of nonconformist preaching is obvious and is pointed to directly in verse 24 of 'Go Down, Moses':

I'll tell you what I likes de best,
Let my people go;
It is the shouting Methodist,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, etc.

Only a few of the Jubilee Singers' songs were published in separate sheet-music versions with piano accompaniment. Like a lot of Afro-American music, it was difficult to capture on paper what was so thrilling in performance. Even though they were self-consciously refined, and sometimes used a piano themselves, the harmonies they used would have looked very plain in a drawing room of the 1870s. With the development of impressionistic and 'jazzy' harmonics, the Negro Spiritual gained access to the twentieth-century drawing room.19 Those chosen last century for publication by John Church & Co. of Cincinnati either resemble an early minstrel song (though dialect is little used), as does 'Reign, Master Jesus', or resemble a gospel hymn, as does 'I'm Going To Sing All the Way'.

Without an understanding of the importance of religion, and particularly nonconformist religion, in the middle-class home, a full appreciation of the meaning of drawing-room ballads of the second half of the nineteenth century is often impossible. Take Michael Watson's ballad 'Anchored' (words by S. K. Cowan [performance by the author]), for example; it can easily be read as a conventional tale of a shipwreck, with a clever twist at the end when the father's home the sailor thought he was heading for turns out to be the Heavenly Father's home. However, the very title of the ballad would have called to mind the promise of salvation, 'Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast' (Hebrews 6:19), or perhaps the gospel hymn 'The Anchored Soul' (words by W. O. Gushing, music by R. Lowry). The carved anchor and the quotation from Hebrews was often placed on the tombstone of a wealthy seaman in a church graveyard or private cemetery. One of Bliss's best-known sacred songs, 'The Life Boat', makes metaphorical use of the sailor's life: here a shipwrecked sailor jumps into a life-boat, determined to 'pull for the shore'. Bliss has no need to explain the metaphor which extends [117/118] throughout his song, that the wrecked ship is the body, that the life-boat is Christ, and that the shore is heaven. The Rev. E. S. Ufford's 'Throw Out the Life-Line!' [performance by the present author] plays upon the same theme.20 Given the close relationship between gospel hymns and sailors, it was perhaps fitting that the band of the Titanic should have chosen to play a Moody and Sankey favourite, 'Nearer, My God, to Thee', as she went down.


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Last modified 13 June 2012