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The following review appeared 26 August 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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On 10 March 1873 in a letter to Tom Hood, Sam Clemens wrote, "I do not know when anything has so moved me as did the plaintive melodies of the Jubilee Singers" (Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 5: 1872-1873, p. 315). The musical influence of the Jubilee Singers can be found in many studies of Mark Twain's life; but who were these singers who left their imprint upon American history less than a decade after the Civil War?
Andrew Ward's Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America is a life and times saga that is crowded with characters and events that, while not always bearing directly on the subject, help us to understand the milieu in which the Singers moved. A truly epic work, rich with scholarship and detail, the book provides a definitive history on the subject which was long overdue. Ward gathered his primary source material from the Fisk University Special Collections and the American Missionary Association archives of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. References to the eight archives and many publications that were consulted for the twenty-eight chapters are thoroughly documented with 1,328 notes. Scholars who want to pursue individual leads will be able to trace them easily.
A companion video documentary The Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory provides a tip of the iceberg view which the book expands upon at length. In his acknowledgments Ward, who was creative consultant and co-writer of the documentary, pays tribute to Llewelyn Smith of WGBH Boston who co-wrote and produced the film for helping him "think this story through and sharing his many leads, finds, insights and resources."
The Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory includes tasteful and believable recreations of the Jubilees' experiences. Eighty-nine year old Tennessee church deacon Sam McClain provides a goose bumpy overture to the film with his singing of "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" which seems to resonate from the 1860's. The 1998/99 Fisk Jubilee Singers attired in authentic period costumes perform portions of the spirituals and provide an idea of how the Jubilees looked and sounded in performance. The latter day group consists of five men and five women under the direction of Paul Kwami. The use of archival images including photographs, paintings, and broadsides provide strong visuals to bring the era back to life. The five guests who provide insights into the singers and their music are Horace Clarence Boyer, musicologist; Toni Anderson and Katherine Preston musical historians; and John Hope Franklin and Reavis L. Mitchell historians. Dion Graham narrates with a dignity and subtlety that complements the subject very well. An encore program containing complete versions of the Jubilee's songs would be a most welcome supplement.
The history of the Jubilee Singers revolves around the hub of a southern city beginning with the Civil War. In February of 1862, Nashville, Tennessee, Cumberland River port and a railroad and industrial hub of the south, was the first Confederate city to be captured and occupied by the Union army. Soon the city was inundated with thousands of refugee slaves pouring in from farms and plantations in the country and crowding the ghetto known as "Smoky Row." At the end of the Civil War Brevet General Clinton Bowen Fisk was assigned to the position of assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Fisk was charged with the zeal of the former abolitionist group called the American Missionary Society (AMA) to educate the illiterate former slaves that congested Nashville. Late in 1865 a complex of twenty abandoned Union army hospital barracks were chosen to house "The Fisk Free Colored School" which was officially opened in January 1866 and incorporated as Fisk University in August 1867.
The first song of faith mentioned in Ward's saga is "We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" with its repeated refrain "every rung goes higher, higher." Sung by the students of the Fisk school, it was their anthem of aspiration to climb out of their enforced state of ignorance and to rise up to be learned men and women. Opposition to teaching the former slaves was pervasive among white southerners in occupied Nashville. Acts of terrorism, violence and arson against the Fisk school and the outlying country schools began soon after they were established and escalated in the decades to follow.
A key figure in the development of the Jubilee Singers was George Leonard White. As a First Sergeant in the Civil War, White had served at Gettysburg as well as in the campaign to take the Confederate stronghold on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. In 1867 White was given the position of Treasurer of Fisk. His true vocation was to be choir master and select outstanding vocalists from the student population to create what would become the Jubilee Singers. White trained his students to sing European popular vocal pieces but became intrigued by the spirituals which had been composed in slavery that the young people sang when they were at leisure. White soon began to include some of these spirituals in their concerts.
A second key figure in the conception of the Singers was Samuella "Ella" Sheppard. Born into slavery in 1851, Ella was rocked to sleep by her mother Sarah singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" which the Jubilees would popularize. Ella had a very close call when she was about three years old when her mother learned that their owner was training little Ella to spy on her. Disheartened by this betrayal, Sarah elected to drown herself and her daughter in the Cumberland River to escape their nightmare existence. According to Ward, Sarah was dissuaded from the murder-suicide by Mammy Viney who said in part "The Lord has got need of this child" (5).
[It is possible that Samuel Clemens heard the story of Ella Sheppard's precarious childhood because an uncannily similar circumstance occurs in his Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). In chapter three, Roxy, the woman with just enough Negro blood to be a slave, decides to drown herself and her infant son Chambers in the Mississippi River.]
Shortly after her brush with mortality, Ella was purchased out of bondage by her free father Simon. Ella was privileged to become a student of an old black preacher and teacher named Daniel Wadkins. However, six months before the Civil War began, Simon Sheppard ran so deeply into debt that Ella and Simon's second wife could have been confiscated and sold by his creditors to settle his debt. Sheppard fled with his family to Cincinnati, Ohio. While living in the black quarter known as Ragtown, Ella resumed her studies and was tutored to develop her soprano voice. She also mastered the piano keyboard which prepared her to became an accompanist for the Singers.
At the end of the war in 1865 Ella, at age fourteen, returned to Nashville and, after a short stint as a country school teacher, enrolled at Fisk. She would become White's assistant choir master arranging many of the spirituals herself.
Ward's volume provides vivid portraits of many of the Jubilee Singers, but among the twenty-seven vocalists who would emerge over the span of the Jubilee Singers' seven years on the road in America and Europe only two others besides Ella Sheppard would participate in all three of their major tours. The second was freeborn soprano Jennie Jackson, granddaughter of Andrew Jackson's personal servant. Jennie had the darkest complexion in the group which fascinated white audiences and this, together with her great beauty and talent, made her a star.
The third singer to appear in all three tours was powerful soprano Maggie Porter who, as a little girl in Nashville, had sat outside a church listening to the choirs sing until one day the leader invited her in. Maggie remembered that the group always sang in "good English" although it was difficult for them to "shake off the old pronunciations" at first (115-16). [This reviewer found that some of the songs in the appendix of J. B. T. Marsh's Story of the Jubilee Singers (1892) have some grammatical quirks but only three were actually written in dialect: "Love an' Serb de Lord," "Hear de Angels Singin,'" and "Didn't My Lord Deliber Daniel."]
With Fisk University in financial difficulities, George White conceived of taking his fledgling group of singers on a tour to raise funds for their school. With no support for the venture from AMA, White took the initiative and the last $40 left in the treasury to finance it. On October 5, 1871 White departed by rail with nine singers, selecting for their itinerary towns and cities that had been way stations run by abolitionists along the route of the former underground railway along which runaway slaves had fled north before the Civil War. The group was billed as "The Colored Students of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee."
On tour the group faced racial discrimination and had trouble finding hotels which would accommodate them; their clothes turned to rags and they were plagued with health problems. Contralto Mabel Lewis recounted their predicament in language worthy of Sam Clemens: "Shall I tell you about the different times when we were turned out of hotels because God took more pains with the making of our people than of others? Is it because He stopped to paint us and curl our hair that we have to suffer for these extra attentions that have been bestowed upon us?" (197). In a recent C-SPAN2 broadcast promoting his book, Ward told his audience that when he quoted Mabel's words during an appearance at Fisk, the school's present-day Jubilees "stood up and cheered."
Their repertoire started off with European popular vocal music and only a few encores of spirituals. However, they soon discovered the audiences responded most strongly to the old slave songs and gradually their emphasis shifted to the spirituals.
Ward relates how one evening in November in Columbus, Ohio after a prayer meeting George White, instead of sleeping, prayed for guidance. In the morning he announced the new name for the group, "Children, it shall be the Jubilee Singers" (139). The name came from the Bible, chapter twenty-five of Leviticus, which told of the Jewish Year of Jubilee which took place every fifty years and was celebrated with debt relief and the emancipation of slaves.
On December 22, 1871 the group performed in Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. Afterwards, Beecher opened his purse and encouraged his congregation to give by stating, "They cannot live on air. They sing like nightingales but need more to eat than nightingales" (154). With Beecher's support, the group raised $850. As an additional fund raising inducement, White announced plans to build Jubilee Hall at Fisk--a building that would serve as an imperishable stone and brick refuge against southern vigilantes.
Several weeks later in Hartford, Connecticut the Jubilee Singers sang at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church and at Allyn Hall providing Samuel Clemens with his first opportunity to see and hear their performance. In Washington, D. C. the Jubilees met President Grant at the White House and sang "Go down, Moses" for him. Their concerts sold out and excursion trains were chartered to bring in out-of-towners. After they experienced discrimination from conductors on the railroads George Pullman integrated his cars for them.
A tour of the British Isles was launched in April 1873. Queen Victoria was impressed with these "real negroes" and her approval guaranteed their popularity. They presented themselves as refined black Victorians and were even painted as a group by Victoria's own portrait artist.
On March 10, 1873 Samuel Clemens wrote from Hartford to alert Tom Hood and George Routledge about the Jublilee's upcoming visit to London. Although Ward does not provide his readers with the text of Clemens' letter, a portion of the recommendation read:
I was reared in the South, & my father owned slaves, & I do not know when anything has so moved me as did the plaintive melodies of the Jubilee Singers. It was the first time for twenty-five or thirty years that I had heard such songs, or heard them sung in the genuine old way--it is a way that white people cannot imitate, . . . for one must have been a slave himself in order to feel what life was & so convey it in the music. Do not fail to hear the Jubilee Singers. (Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 5: 1872-1873, p. 315-16)
Clemens' own trip to London coincided with the Jubilee tour and though he was busy with invitations from other literary men, he made time to see the singers. Extracts from his letter to Hood were printed by Hood in his publication Fun on April 26, 1873. Clemens proved to be the best advance man the Jubilees could have ever dreamed of knowing. When he attempted to pay for Jubilee concert tickets at the box office, he was spotted by the theater manager who insisted he take the best seats in the hall free of charge.
According to Ward, Clemens bought the Singers' songbook Jubilee Songs As Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University (1872). It consisted of sixty-two pages, sold for twenty-five cents per copy at the concerts and proved to be another effective fund raiser. After Livy had returned to the states while he remained behind to lecture, Clemens would soothe his homesickness by sitting at pianos in his hotel suites and singing the Jubilees' songs.
The therapeutic value of singing a slave spiritual is extolled by musicologist Horace Clarence Boyer whose remarks in the documentary are also included by Ward in his book: "It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders come back to their natural position . . . you're going through a cleansing process . . . coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are . . . the more you sing it, the more you find relief, the more you believe there is a way out of this" (113).
The Jubilees netted $5,000 from the British tour but returned home to witness Fisk University suffering from the reversals of Reconstruction in the south which included the abolition of the Freedmen's Bureau, segregation codes and the dismissal of Federal troops which had protected them from the Klan and other vigilantes. The AMA had drained the Jubilee Hall fund; that building was still just a hole in the ground.
Erastus Milo Cravath, AMA chief of education missions in the South, sent the Jubilees out for a third tour--beginning in the eastern United States from January to October 1875; then to the British Isles from November 1875 to June 1876; Switzerland and Holland from June 1876 to February 1877; then finally England and Germany from March 1877 to July 1878. Their exhausting schedule reached a record of sixty-eight concerts in forty-one towns in ninety-one days. While the Jubilees were touring the British Isles, Jubilee Hall was officially opened on New Years Day 1876. Ridden hard by Cravath, they were replaced if they burned out or died. White's own health had deteriorated badly; his resignation was accepted several months before the end of the tour and Ella Sheppard had to shoulder his responsibilities. After seven years the Jubilees had reached their saturation point and while returning home they sang together for the last time under the auspices of Fisk University on board the boat just before arriving in New York harbor on July 16, 1878.
Ward's book concludes with an account of an August 1897 performance of a half dozen Jubilee singers in a beer garden in Lucerne, Switzerland. Clemens was in attendance, grieving on the first anniversary of the death of his daughter Susy. In a state of pessimism and despair the singers helped to revive his spirits. He wrote:
Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary--to my surprise--has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning to my mind--their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can (407).
Both the book and the documentary pay tribute to the Jubilee Singers' unique role in bringing a pure folk medium to international attention. They celebrate the faith and self sacrifice of a people who rose out of deprivation and into prominence while introducing the beauty and emotional power of a musical form, born out of bondage, to touch a universal chord in the heart of humanity. Andrew Ward chose a worthy cause to champion and bring to our attention. Thanks to Ward's book and the companion film produced and co-written by Llewelyn Smith we are the richer for having this episode from our heritage fully illuminated for the first time.
Spirituals played a poignant role in the climax of the Clemens' stay at the Villa di Quarto in Florence, Italy on June 5, 1904. Clemens' wife Livy had been dangerously ill but seemed to be rallying. Albert Bigelow Paine's biography recalls that tragic evening when his daughters Clara and Jean and their long time family servant Katy Leary were also present:
At 9 PM Clemens "hopeful and happy . . . went to the piano upstairs
and sang the old jubilee songs that Susy had liked to hear him sing . .
. Jean came in to listen. He sang 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' and 'My Lord
He Calls Me.' [Clara Clemens also recalled her father singing 'Go Chain
the Lion Down'.] Livy, hearing the singing from the distant room told Katy
Leary "He is singing a good-night carol to me." At 9:20 Livy died
in Katy's arms. (Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, pp. 1217-18.)
About the reviewer:
Dave Thomson has been a Mark Twain aficionado since he read Tom Sawyer
at age 12 in 1958. That same year he made his first trip to Hannibal, MO
and has been a frequent visitor ever since. In 1986 he designed the first
of a series of book jackets for the publications of Hannibal historians
Hurley and Roberta Hagood. Thomson's collection encompasses Mark Twain and
the history of steamboat navigation in the Mississippi valley. He spent
25 years at the Walt Disney Studio planning the photography of animated
features. Some of Dave's graphics can be seen on Barbara Schmidt's Mark
Twain Quotes website. This is his second review for the Mark Twain Forum.