The Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled from Nashville, Tennessee, unpacked a long history of excellence and a tradition no other choir can match, and wowed a sold-out Duke Performances audience at Duke's newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium. What began as a fund raising effort in 1871, introducing the world to the ingenious music created by a people in bondage and captivity, has become a triumphant tour featuring concert arrangements of Negro Spirituals performed by a sixteen-voice choir with precision and polish. Under the direction of the winsome Paul T. Kwami, D.M.A., each selection was sung completely from memory, unaccompanied and undirected - in other words, Kwami stood aside during the performances.
The music, identified on the first tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as "slave songs," was filled with longing, courage, hope, anger, religious faith, and more. Those who created this music took stories from the Bible, Christian hymns, field songs, and material from older songs, infused them with their daily hardships, what joys they could muster, and their deep-rooted African culture, and produced a distinctly African-American genre. The Negro spirituals that sustained them through several hundred years of cruel slavery and have inspired and enriched the whole world, in significant part through the efforts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their wide-ranging concert tours.
The selections on the program included many of the familiar and best-loved: "Ain'a That Good News," "Swing Low; Sweet Chariot," "Cert'nly Lawd," "Old Time Religion," and "The Battle of Jericho." The rhythmic precision, the flawless intonation, and the appealing and expressive young faces were impressive throughout the concert.
Some of the selections were clearly double entendre messages: "Done Made My Vow" with its refrain – "see what the end will be" – is surely a slave expressing his awful fear/hope of an impending escape plan. Performing "When I Was Sinking Down," the singers moved closer together; an expression of the comfort of the song. The challenge of "Honor! Honor!" was followed by the confessional, "Talk about a child who do love Jesus – here's one." The very moving "I've been in the storm so long, Oh give me a little time to pray" brought us to "Cert'nly Lawd," which concluded the first half of the program.
The second half of the concert included the nearly eighty-voice Durham School of the Arts Choir, which is co-directed by Amy Davis and Sean Grier. The women of both groups sang a stunning arrangement of "Poor Man Laz'rus." This was followed by the men of both groups doing "Let the Church Roll On" and "Jubilee! Jubilee!" The full mixed chorus sang "Swing Low; Sweet Chariot" and "Ain't Got Time to Die." Each of these was done in the Fisk style, from memory. It was striking what a difference the large aggregate of voices made, just as excellent in precision and harmonic blending, but a glorious rich musical sound that could be achieved in no other way.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers continued the program with a spiritual that must have been from the soul of one the Black soldiers of the Civil War. It is a simple refrain repeating the words "Lord, I'm out here on your word, If I die on the battlefield, Glad I got my religion on time, Lord, I'm out here on your word." Or it was a slave seeking his freedom – "Lord, I'm out here on your word." This was followed by the powerful song of perseverance and an anthem of the civil rights movement "Hold On."
DSA returned to the stage again for "Ride the Chariot," and the Jubilee Singers responded to the standing ovation with an encore; "Who'll Be a Witness?"
There were a number of soloists, all of them impressive artists. The Fisk Jubilee Singers presented a professional-level, magnificent concert, refined in every regard and moving to all present.
As a music writer I must address with honest hesitancy the issue I left the concert with – that something was missing. From its inception, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have rightly insisted on avoiding the offensive minstrel style of singing and its African-American characterizations. Over time, the style of performance has become more refined, more polished, and more professional. Kwami made this perfectly clear in his introduction to "Cert'nly Lawd". He invited the audience to sing along with the caution that we would certainly get lost since they were singing a concert arrangement that would be more complex than what we were used to. If I understand it at all, this is not what the African-American Spiritual is about. These spirituals were not the product of educated people looking for refinement or clever innovations. They were the product of a people who, living in a hellish situation, sought to survive with some sense of integrity and intrinsic dignity.
As early as 1881 an anonymous reviewer in Peoria, Illinois, wrote of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbaric melody, the passion…." The African-American anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston, in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church, criticized the Fisk singers and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals and urged readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.
Over the past decades, the field of classical music has promoted more and more the approach to music performance as "period instrument practice" or "historically informed." It is a tribute to the creators of the music to perform the music as it was conceived. It is my conviction that the music we identify as Negro Spirituals contains the blood and the deep emotions of those who created it, and we should honor them by seeking out performances that honestly reflect what they experienced and what they were expressing in their music.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers deserve all the honors and awards they have been given. Their heritage is proud and their achievements are worthy. Who can say what the future will hold?