A studio group portrait of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, featuring (left to right) Minnie Tate, Greene Evans, Isaac Dickerson, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Benjamin Holmes and Eliza Walker.James Wallace Black
When the Fisk Jubilee Singers set out to travel across the United States, they finally gained public attention with the songs of their faith. From the first notes of Dodge, they had the world’s attention.
Dr. Steven Lewis, curator at the National Museum of African American Music, describes how these songs truly evolved in communities here in the United States, starting in the 19th century. But, as he points out, “there were probably people who sang before them.”
No genre of music has a distinct start or end point, but rather a development through time and circumstances. But the influence of black religious music permeates all genres of vernacular music in the United States, even today. In an interview last April, Dr. Lewis took me on a musical journey through time, drawing a direct line from Spirituals to blues, jazz and gospel music.
Answers are edited for clarity and length.
How, by sound, would you distinguish a Folk Spiritual as you would find in a church service from a Spiritual Concert, like what we hear from the Fisk Jubilee Singers?
Folk spiritualities are characterized by a vocal style characterized by improvisation, expressive use of moans and other types of inflections, ornamentation of the melodic line. [They have] heavy use of call and response between, say, a solo singer and a band. Often times, songs like folk spirituals were performed in conjunction with a ceremony like Ring Shout, which is still performed in places like the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
Their style is very distinct from the style that would develop later in the 1970s, which takes that kind of repertoire, takes certain elements of the distinctive African-American style and puts them into a sort of European choral context.
This is where you get the Jubilee Singers. You take that folklore tradition and then blend into the European tradition of concert singing. And then you have, of course, these great solo singers like Roland Hayes and people like that.
How do spirituals connect with the blues?
I think the best way to understand this development is to have the first blues singers, say at the end of the 19th century, who themselves would have grown up and attended church services. These are people who come to African American communities all over the rural south. They take this distinctive singing style associated with folk spiritualities – i.e. vocal ornamentation, expressive use of moans and other types of devices – and transpose it into a new secular context that is also informed by European traditions like the ballad. singing and things like that, which is also all over the south at the same time because of, say, the Scots, Irish people and other people.
It is this expressive tradition that develops with spirituals in terms of the way you sing, the way you use your voice. And then it’s kind of applied to a new context starting around the 80s and 90s. And so it kind of becomes the foundation of blues singing. And by extension, you know, all the stuff that comes after, like R&B, soul vocals, etc. And so if you go back all this to the late and mid-19th century, you basically find yourself in spiritualities.
And what does this have to do with the evolution of jazz?
It’s a similar process. You have musicians like Buddy Bolden, who was arguably the first leader of the first jazz group. He’s somebody come into the church – there’s records of him, you know, attending Baptist church services in New Orleans. And we know that in his band he not only played pop songs and folk songs of the time, but they were adapting ragtime songs in this new style which has come to be known as jazz. He also performed hymns and spirituals and things like that.
There is a direct connection there because these musicians are in the church. You also have actual directory items that appear in the directory. Early jazz songs like Along the river, for example: it is a traditional spiritual. It’s also a song that continues to be played by New Orleans jazz bands – the traditional ones anyway.
Another important part of this connection is the importance of jazz funerals, where you have bands playing sad songs, walking the body to the cemetery for burial. And on the way back, they were playing some very catchy and festive music. A kind of staging of the idea that we must cry at birth and rejoice in death.
In those kind of traditional ceremonies, which is also one of the important roots of jazz, you have this very important role played by traditional religious songs, you know, these things that come out of this popular spiritual tradition.
There are other musicians: Bunk Johnson was several years younger than Bolden, but he was pretty much a contemporary. He made a lot of recordings in the 1940s in particular. So they picked him up as an elderly man and took him out of retirement.
Down By The Riverside was in the collection of John W. Work II Folk songs of the American Negro, law?
And in fact, Bunk Johnson recorded by the river.
It was one of those songs that became a standard, and this song was a spiritual first. As the spiritual repertoire is reinterpreted and continues to appear and all these different contexts. This is how covers are where jazz comes out of blues.
It’s such a similar line.
Exactly. They are very close. They are really linked in a very important way. It’s hard to make a firm distinction because you have people like Bessie Smith, who performs as a blues singer, but also sings songs that are not blues and sings them with jazz musicians, that which would also make her a jazz singer.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, the early blues musicians and the early jazz musicians all came from the common roots of folk spirituals. When the Jubilee Singers first toured Europe, such as in the mid-to-late 1870s, the early blues probably made its appearance in southern and southern communities at the same time, including Tennessee. There is so much of this incredible flowering of musical innovation in the decades following the Civil War.
I know we’ll turn to the churches next, but while we’re on the subject of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, what about academia?
Due to the financial success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, you have a lot of strictly commercial groups. But you also have historically black colleges, you have other groups like Hampton who have a group that comes in shortly after. Tuskegee has a great group. Morehouse, of course, the Glee Club.
As you move into the 20th century, these groups become the great groups that retain this element of black musical heritage, where the rest of African-American religious music has developed in other ways.
It’s a good transition to gospel music.
That’s when the gospel sort of moved away from spirituals, starting in the 1920s. You have people like Arizona Dranes, who is probably the first person to record gospel music from the Pentecostal tradition.
Thomas Dorsey, who is extremely important and is known as the father of gospel music. You have artists like them who take up this popular spiritual tradition – which is still very important in black religious worship at the beginning of the 20th century – and introduce elements of more contemporary styles. So introduce elements of jazz, elements of blues.
How would you say it manifested early? Did he add piano and drums?
All the foregoing. It is significant that Arizona Dranes departs from the Pentecostal tradition because churches in these denominations were among the first to adopt musical instruments at a time when many more conservative churches were reluctant to introduce instruments into the sanctuary.
Again, you have this blend of vernacular music with spiritual tradition. And so when you listen to someone like Arizona Dranes, who recorded quite prolifically, you actually sang her religious lyrics, but the way she plays the piano is actually kind of a ragtime piano and early 20th century blues. And so this is the first recorded example of this type of what would become gospel music in the decades that followed.
By the time you’ve recorded Thomas Dorsey, he becomes really important in the thirties and beyond. You have someone who consciously says, “I’m from that kind of blues and jazz background, I bring this stuff into gospel music.
It is still religious music that still fulfills this important ceremonial cultural function, but it also draws inspiration from these other styles that are not religious. And again, that’s largely because before he became a gospel musician he was a blues pianist known as Georgia Tom because he was originally from Georgia. And he played with people like Ma Rainey.
He never really loses that blues and jazz influence. He again transposes elements of this style into a religious context, which we see again and again in African American music history in particular. This sort of fluidity of the sacred and the profane.
Ultimately, Ray Charles does this in the opposite direction. Thomas Dorsey takes the layman and places it in the religious context. Ray Charles creates many more problems, perhaps by placing religious education in a secular context.
Mahalia Jackson is another prime example of this important influence secular music has had on the development of gospel music. Because Mahalia Jackson is probably one of the most important descendants of Bessie Smith. Mahalia Jackson’s singing style comes in large part from her admiration for Bessie Smith’s music. And but she, Mahalia, only wanted to sing for God and in this religious context.
So you have the power of Bessie Smith’s voice, the ability to masterfully use those ornamentation and improvisation techniques, and the ability to engage an audience in a way much like you would see in a religious service. And so if she takes that and then applies it to what will become gospel music. And remember, Bessie Smith, herself a blues singer, also draws inspiration from ancient black religious traditions.
Gospel continues to evolve as a true tradition of American sacred music. Meanwhile, the rhythms and harmonic patterns of jazz and blues permeate popular genres, where ties to R&B, disco and hip-hop lie. Rock, country and even classical music owe a lot to this influence too – with the 12 bars of blues, the sound of a banjo, and orchestras mimicking what composers once heard in jazz clubs. As Dr Lewis said, “it’s circular”.
These connections are on full display at the National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville, less than 3 miles from Fisk University’s Jubilee Hall – the school the spirituals built.