The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Scotland

A picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is available from the Library of Congress: no restrictions on reproduction.

Scotland’s historic connections with Caribbean and North American sugar, cotton and tobacco have receive intense scrutiny recently, prompting re-consideration of Scottish entanglements in slavery and its legacies.  Soundyngs has been reading Ross Cole’s study on the ‘double edged sword’ presented by “folk” music (Ross Coles, 2021), which intersects with some recent independent research by Rosa Michaelson on the reception of the Fisk Jubilee singers in Scotland in the 1870s.

Cole’s book argues that interest in ‘folk’ music from later 19th century to the present day reflects European and North American discontents with modernity. ‘Folk’ culture is capable of reflecting both leftist and right-wing ideologies: in both sides of the debate, Cole finds that the call on tradition (‘folk’) often reflects utopian dreams of escape from the incoherence of modern life.  In this context, 19th and 20th century descriptions of ‘black’ music were often shaped by racialised assumptions that ‘primitive’ people might be found whose music was closer to “nature” than modernist European art music.

Cole describes the “romantic racial framework” (Cole, p.114) of white reception of Black performances, that even while appreciative, reinscribed ideas of “wildness” and “nature” in ways that generated and reinscribed stereotypes, and which underestimated the extent to which Black performance was carefully crafted and artful.  Cole’s chapter on the historic reception of performances of the Fisk Jubilee singers is relevant to some recent research by independent scholar Rosa Michaelson into the Scottish performances, and reception, of this group in Scotland in the 1870s.  Michaelson’s reading in the newspaper archives suggests that for Scottish audiences, these stereotypes of “natural” Black performance were also co-opted into contemporary discussions of appropriate performance styles for Scottish ‘folk’ music.

Rosa Michaelson’s research combines a reading of B.T. Marsh’s account of the Fisk Singers’ visits and repertoire with reading from contemporary newspapers.  Fisk University was founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1866 to provide newly emancipated slaves with educational opportunities, but quickly ran in to financial difficulties. In 1873, the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University toured Europe, to raise money for their alma mater by singing gospel songs in churches and halls. The choir consisted of 7 women and 4 men, many of whom had personally experienced enslavement, and they were warmly received in Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK. This was the first time that Black American “spirituals” had been performed to European audiences.   George L. White, the University treasurer and musical director travelled with the group, but the music was also shaped by its women. For example, Ella Sheppard, a soprano with the group who also played piano, organ and guitar, was one of the musical arrangers and clearly multi-talented. Material by her and others comprised songs associated with the Black American experience, mostly sung unaccompanied, using four-part harmonies.

The first performance in Scotland at Castle Wemyss on the Firth of Clyde was in front of 400 people and was reported favourably in Scottish newspapers, paving the way for further engagements. The North British Daily Mail review on 18 August 1873 shows the writer beginning to grapple with the novel idea that music performed by African American singers could reveal a human affective commonality linking performers and audience:

“There was nothing in the appearance of the singers, in their dress or deportment to mark them out as “minstrels,” [or] distinguish them from an ordinary group of Christians of the African race. On rising to sing, they stood close to each other, without music and without any instrumental accompaniment, and with head erect and sometimes thrown back, gave utterance, in voices marvellously sweet, rich, and round, their native songs, somewhat quaint at times, but mostly full of pathos, and rendered with an artless expressiveness that frequently made the eyes moisten.”

Ross Cole’s research finds that this clear distinction between overtly racist and vulgar “minstrel” performances in contemporary Music Halls was common in British reactions to this group: “African American singers were positioned as saviours of human decency, reformist antidotes to the decadent excesses of Victorian society and its scandalous preoccupation with minstrelsy” (Cole, p.119).  These Scottish audiences took from the emotional content of these visitors fresh material to inspire their own moral reform.  Narratives of Black experience were co-opted as white psychodrama.

The Fisk Singers’ first visit coincided with the famous and hugely successful 1873-74 tour by American Methodist evangelists Moody and Sankey, accompanied by a portable organ, and distributing collections of sacred songs that contributed to evangelical revivalism across central Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Clearly, Scottish audiences heard something new and appealing in these American religious songs of the 1870s: linking white evangelical and Black American performance, Scottish audiences heard a “natural” American expression of emotionally charged personal witness in music. This is a time when the more austere Scottish presbyterian churches were still grappling with the issue of whether organs had any place in parish church worship.  The welcome given to Moody and Sankey runs in parallel to the reactions of Scottish audiences who praised the Fisk’s “natural” sound, finding in that a kind of moral simplicity that connected faith with a neo-pastoral search for purity of soul.

The Fisk Singers’ Scottish tour continued from August through December, with engagements across Scotland. In Greenock, the Fisk Singers performed in the Town Hall for a crowd of a 1000; in Glasgow’s Town Hall, the Lord Provost, magistrates and clergymen were in attendance, important “social influencers” in this period. In Edinburgh, the Fisk choir was directly involved with revivalist prayer meetings and missions; at one such meeting, after a sermon from Mr. Moody, the evangelist, they sang to an enormous working-class crowd of between 6,000 and 7,000  (Edinburgh Daily Review, 31 December 1873; and March, 1880, p. 68).

The Scottish press noted the occasions, although reviews of actual musical content were slight. Colin Brown, the Ewing Lecturer on Music at the Andersonian Institute, Glasgow, noticed this lacuna, but rather than dig deeper into why British reviewers were so reluctant to notice the “art” in Black American performance, he suggested that the “natural simplicity” of the Fisk performance shone a light on the failings in the singing of Scottish native songs at that time.  Brown’s letter to the editor of the North British Daily Mail (Friday 10th October 1873) highlights aspects of the visitors’ singing which he hoped might inspire improved performance style for Scottish national song:

“All our singers – professional, public, and private would do well, in this respect, to take a lesson from them, for the indistinct, incorrect, false, and affected style of pronunciation which our vocalists have stumbled into, perhaps from carelessness, perhaps from fashion, has become an acknowledged scandal. ….

Their music is beautifully simple. So also were the Swedish melodies of Jenny Lind. So also are all the gems of national melody —”Ar-byd-y-nos,” “Robin Adair,” “Tutti tutti,” “Katherine Ogie,” and “Gramachree;” but surely such music is not beyond criticism, and when Wilson sung his Scottish songs, or Jenny Lind her Swedish melodies, surely their singing was not the less worthy of notice because they laid aside all professionalism, and sung with the most perfect simplicity and naturalness the songs of their homes. ….

We forget that the highest triumph of art is to be natural. The singing of these strangers is so natural that it does not at once strike us how much of true art is in it, and how careful and discriminating has been the training bestowed upon them by their accomplished instructor and leader, who, though retiring from public notice, deserves all praise. He has shown us how to call forth the true genius and power of natural song, and made us feel how ‘one touch of nature makes the world akin’. Would that someone would arise to do equal justice to the songs of our native land.”

Elsewhere in his letter, Brown called for a “heartfelt and authentic” treatment of national song, one in which refutes the hierarchy of “high art” and contemporary “classical” renditions.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the songs of this choir were untrained and “artless”.  The repertoire sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, although based on the singing of American slave workers on the plantations, had been chosen and re-written by classically trained musicians because the first tour of the Fisk singers in the US did not go well; audiences did not want a classical repertoire sung by Black musicians and the choir did not want to sing “minstrelsy” songs which reduced Black American musicians to reductive racial stereotypes.   There is evidence to suggest that the Fisk Singers themselves sought to craft a performance that would counter the Music Hall stereotypes. According to one contemporary north American account of the choir:

“And last, but by no means least, in accounting for their success, they furnished a refined and wholesome entertainment, which Christian people who did not care to visit the theatre and kindred places of amusement could attend and enjoy. There was need of, and a wide demand for, just such healthful and elevating diversion as these concerts afforded.” (Marsh, 1880, p. 55)

The music for what emerged from this re-arranging of tradition – many of the choir’s spirituals or ‘jubilee songs’ – was available in printed format in the USA through J. B. T. Marsh’s anthology The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1876 and many reprints thereafter).  Marsh’s introduction suggests that the white audiences who so appreciated this music saw in it performances that tamed the potentially alarming reality of historical Black trauma into civilised “art”: what the Fisk choir sang, and how they sang, was not so much an “authentic” sound as one that was carefully modulated both to the aspirational identity the choir wanted to project, and the identity their audiences might understand and be comfortable to receive.  More research could useful be done on Marsh – if any reader of Soundyngs knows of a good biography, please comment!

Marsh’s book suggested that there might be musical affinities between the gapped pentatonic scales used in Scottish music and Black American music: that both somehow represented “natural” scales.  Could it be that Black Americans were drawing upon the spiritual capital represented by fashionable European “folk” to reposition their own material?  The relationship between Black American music and the music of the Celtic world is far from uncontroversial.  Alongside a tradition of musicking originating in the continent of Africa, the gospel music of southern plantations also bore traces of music brought by Scots – many of whom were slave-owners and overseers in Southern US and Caribbean plantations – westwards across the Atlantic (see Stuart Hall or Erich Nunn).

Out of great suffering came great beauty.  Scots should be grateful for songs such as Amazing Grace which circled their way back eastward, transformed by the Black experience.   But rather than this being a simple matter of “folkish” “natural” affinity, what may be happening here is a classic instance of sub-altern reconstruction of identity using categories – “natural folk music” – present in the hegemonic white culture.

Black “simplicity” certainly left a mark on the repertoire and performance of Scottish evangelical music.  In the later part of the 1870s, following the visits of the Fisk Singers, “jubilee songs” seem to have appeared in the repertoire of Scottish singers who sang for Christian evangelical events, often including melodies from the evangelists Moody and Sankey.  This “natural” Black American music was often presented as particularly suitable for “children” to sing or listen to, especially at Sunday school meetings. For example, a choir of 30 girls in the sewing class sang jubilee songs at the annual Sabbath School soiree of the Dysart Free Church on 5 March 1881. Reports of occasions like this occur in various newspaper including, amongst others, The Scotsman (13 November 1875); Inverness Advertiser (20 May 1876); Dundee Courier (27 December 1879); Peeblesshire Advertiser (5 February 1881); Carlisle Express and Examiner (11 March 1882).  It is worth looking at the photographs of the Fisk choir to remind ourselves that these were poised and skilled adults, not children!

This and subsequent tours did not, unfortunately result in the waning of interest in “minstrel shows” in Scotland, but “jubilee songs” were now sung in revival meetings throughout the country, while the Jubilee Singers’ style of singing contributed to a debate concerning the performance of Scottish folk song.  When we look for the “natural” in our own, and in other people’s music, it is worth considering how these ideas about “naturalness” may reflect complex historic relationships with other peoples.

Biographical note: Rosa Michaelson is a Fife-based traditional fiddle player and independent scholar with a research focus on 19th century Scottish music and dance. She studied with Tom Anderson in Shetland and played with the Edinburgh Shetland Fiddlers and in several dance bands for many years. Rosa was a founding member of Sprangeen, the first all-female Scottish traditional ensemble.

Further Reading

  • archive of Fisk Jubilee Singers tours of Europe:
  • Ross Cole, The Folk: Music, Modernity and the Political Imagination (University of California Press, 2021)
  • Tom M Devine, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)
  • Stuart Hall, ‘What is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture?’ in Social Justice 20(1/2) ‘Rethinking Race’ (1993), 104-114
  • Robin Hough, ‘Charming Not Alarming: The Fixed Text of the Spirituals and the Oral Traditions of African-Americans’, The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 10 (1990), pp.177-198
  • B. T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers with their Songs (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1880) – see chapter 8 on the Scottish tour
  • Terry Miller, ‘A Myth in the Making: Willie Ruff, Black Gospel and an Imagined Gaelic Scottish Origin’, Ethnomusicology Forum 18(2), (2009), 243-259.
  • Erich Nunn, Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015)
  • Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005)

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