Fisk Jubilee Singers
Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)
Curb (release date: August 10, 2020)

By Bob Marovich

On the eve of the sesquicentennial of its founding, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have released an album more musically and culturally diverse than any of its other recordings, going back more than a century.

Founded in 1871 to raise funds for a young and financially-struggling Fisk University, the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the U.S. and Europe, ultimately raising the needed funds but also triggering a jubilee-singing phenomenon emulated by other HBCUs as well as by commercial troupes. Jubilee singers also gave post-bellum African American artists an opportunity to perform on stages with dignity, no longer limited to black minstrelsy, with its grotesque caricatures and stereotypes. Further, the work of Fisk and subsequent jubilee ensembles ensured the survival of the folk spiritual tradition, often called America’s first indigenous music.

Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album) captures the singers at a live performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. While the opener, “Wade in the Water,” is the kind of concert spiritual that has been in the Singers’ repertory since 1871, other selections are new gospels and popular inspirational songs. Of the latter, “Glory,” from the film Selma, gets a vocal assist from Derek Minor and co-music director Shannon Sanders.

Taking things full circle, Ruby Amanfu leads the plaintive “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Amanfu, based in Nashville, was born in Ghana, where enslaved Africans—possibly ancient generations of her own family—were boarded onto ships headed for chattel servitude. These individuals would write the folk spirituals that, after provided Western arrangements, the Fisk Jubilee Singers would take with them around the world.

Nashville’s CeCe Winans gives the camp meeting hymn “Blessed Assurance” a double helping of gospel vocalizing, and local quartet the Fairfield Four provides the pumping rhythm for an a cappella “Rock My Soul.” Nashville Jazz Workshop trumpeter Rod McGaha leads the second line on “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Keb’ Mo’s sassy slide work imbues the antiphonal “I Believe” with a touch of the blues. The classical choral composition “Way Over in Egypt’s Land” gives the Jubilee Singers a chance to demonstrate their harmonic and dynamic prowess.

Local country stars join in support. Lee Ann Womack features on “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” and Rodney Atkins leads a rousing “Working on a Building.” Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall leads the Hank Williams hymn, “I Saw the Light,” which ends with a quartet-style vamp courtesy of the jubileers.

Unlike the original ensemble, the current iteration of Fisk Jubilee Singers, directed by Dr. Paul Kwami, didn’t have to drop out of university to participate in the group. The current group’s official photo, incidentally, is done in the style of the portrait of the original ensemble, which hangs on campus in Jubilee Hall.

In many respects, the mélange of music styles and instrumentation found on Celebrating Fisk! evokes the prewar jubilee ensembles that toured Australasia. Though called Fisk Jubilee Singers, these groups had no formal affiliation with the university and little, if any, connection to the original singers. Not tethered to any formal strictures, these “Fisk” groups  incorporated additional instruments, covered popular songs of the day, and even recruited Caucasian members.

A clever touch is the album cover. Its gold-embossed cloth appearance approximates the cover of J. B. T. Marsh’s 1883 history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Celebrating Fisk! is a soul-satisfying blend of gospel, spirituals, and Americana roots music. It is also a prescient release, communicating as it does in music the struggles as well as the hopes for a better day. It is a beautiful tribute to a pioneering university and an enduring musical tradition. I hope a DVD of the live performance will be forthcoming.

Five of Five Stars

Picks: “Rock My Soul,” “I Saw the Light”

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Written by : Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.