The Fisk Jubilee Singers celebrate 150 years of their first tour



NASHVILLE, Tennessee. – The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ first tour was not an immediate success, but their persistence despite financial difficulties to find an audience took them across the world and kept their school afloat.

Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee celebrated the singing group’s 150th anniversary on Wednesday and reflected on a legacy that was built with their performances as slave spirituals, who kept not only the university but also alive. a musical tradition. Poet, author and educator Nikki Giovanni, a former student of Fisk, spoke about this first tour during her keynote address on Jubilee Day, their annual event.

“We are here today to celebrate,” said Giovanni. “But when we look at how we carried these songs, and we carry these songs now, and we still lean on Eternal Arms.”

Opened as a liberal arts school for freed black slaves in 1866, Fisk University was in financial difficulty a few years later. Giovanni explained that one of the students, Ella Sheppard, who was born a slave, offered to help. She was a pianist.

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Nine students, some of these former slaves or descendants of slaves, went on tour on October 6, 1871, singing mostly European songs, like those of Gilbert and Sullivan, in front of a white audience, Giovanni said.

They got few responses and barely made enough money for food, but still managed to donate money to the victims of the deadly Chicago fire in 1871. The turning point was when they did. started singing the songs that their ancestors brought with them to America: the spirituals.

“Everyone was shocked,” Giovanni said. “They had never heard of anything like it.

The songs they performed, such as “Steal Away”, were a musical connection to their ancestors who were brought from African nations.

“We were put on a block and we were bought and we were sold and we were bought and we were sold,” Giovanni said. “And the only language we still had was the music that had been transmitted from Jesus to Mary Magdalene.”

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Soon rumor spread of their performances and they were invited to sing in the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant. Then they went on international tours, singing for Queen Victoria and others. Their work helped Fisk build Jubilee Hall, the oldest building on campus and one of the oldest university buildings permanently devoted to the education of black students.

In addition to their anniversary, they won their first Grammy Award for Best Roots Gospel Album this year and launched a new donation.


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