News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers perform free show at UMW’s Dodd Auditorium
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Like the blues? Jazz? Rock ’n’ roll?
All those musical forms trace their roots to the phenomenal sound of a group coming to Fredericksburg on Saturday, April 14.
That evening, the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers will take the stage of the University of Mary Washington’s Dodd Auditorium for a free, public concert. Their performance—led by musical director Paul T. Kwami—will be hosted by UMW, the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, and the National Park Service, as part of the area’s Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration.
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the first post-war African–American artists to gain traction with, and notice from, white audiences,” said John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
“For more than 140 years, they have been the keepers of both a spirit and music that speaks to generations’ hopes, their faith and their freedom. They are among the most popular enduring musical groups in American history.”
Not long after Appomattox, the singers became the first group to publicly perform the songs of slaves, sharing them with the world. The music was an overnight sensation, associate professor Gary Stanton, chair of UMW’s Department of Historic Preservation, said.
Ever since, the group has been instrumental in preserving the tradition of Negro spirituals.
In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were awarded the National Medal of Arts by former President George W. Bush at the White House.
The singers first performed there at the invitation of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, the year they also sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston, to international acclaim.
The ensemble hails from Fisk University in Nashville, which opened in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal-arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.”
Fisk treasurer George L. White, a music professor, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on the road to earn money for the university—which had fallen into dire financial straits by 1871. Their first concerts were in small towns in the North.
“Surprise, curiosity and some hostility were the early audience responses to these young black singers, who did not perform in traditional ‘minstrel fashion,’” the Fredericksburg concert’s hosts said.
“One of the unspoken goals was to demonstrate the clear advantages of African–American education to bring these students into the successful ability of European-trained arts,” Stanton said.
Their first performances were received with “polite but subdued appreciation,” he said. So, in Columbus, Ohio, White let a smaller group—dressed in concert finery—perform what they’d called “chapel songs.”
Their harmonies were “soothing to the ears of European-oriented audiences, and their songs were a great hit—and immediately characterized by promoters as the ‘true spirit of the Negro’ in emancipation,” Stanton said.
Changing the group’s name to Fisk Jubilee Singers, “they played to ever-growing audiences as they journeyed East—the classic disjunction between what the musicians intend, and the audience hears,” he said.
The term “jubilee” refers to liberation from chattel slavery, noted Stanton, a folklorist. Musically, it came to mean the four-part harmony singing that was so popular in the beginning of recorded music.
Sara Poore, director of education and public programs at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, expressed her institution’s delight in welcoming the group to the region.
“On the museum’s behalf, we are thrilled to be able to offer programming that speaks not only to the history of our area, but to the use of cultural art forms—music, for example—in expanding on this story,” she said.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers has received two Grammy nominations, been inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and been featured in PBS’ “American Roots Music” TV series and at Carnegie Hall (video: bit.ly/fiskcarnegie).
“The quality of their work has led them across the world, before royalty and presidents, in some of the great venues on earth,” Hennessy said of the group. “That they are coming here is a great moment in the history of music hereabouts, and a great time for reflection on the roots from whence their music comes.”
The Fisk concert and an April 21 program at Fredericksburg Baptist Church, “Years of Anguish 3: Emancipation and Freedom,” with historians David Blight and Thavolia Glymph, will lead up to May 4–6 events—“To Freedom”—celebrating the 1862 crossing of 10,000 Virginia slaves into liberty.
Free tickets for the Fisk concert may be picked up at the museum, the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, Fredericksburg Visitor Center and UMW’s special events office in George Washington Hall, Room 111.
What: “An Evening With the Fisk Jubilee Singers”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 14
Where: Dodd Auditorium, George Washington Hall, on the UMW campus
Cost: Free, but tickets required; four per person
Group reservations: Email Sara Poore, email@example.com, or Lura Hill, firstname.lastname@example.org
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029