A wild, weird, pathetic wail, 1890

Their singing is like “a sound, good kick, something which can be felt and not described”. That’s what The Times of India suggested after hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform in Bombay on January 8, 1890.

The newspaper was even more delighted with the group’s second concert two days later, heaping special praise on the ensemble’s rendition of Steal Away Jesus. “It is wild wail, pathetic and weird, sung by perfect part singers and it electrified all who heard it,” said the Times. “Some could not sustain the sudden thrill and left the room. On the conclusion of the melody, there was dead silence for some moments, and then there was such applause as has seldom greeted a public performer in this city.”

That response wasn’t surprising. After all, Bombay had never heard – or seen – anything like the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville, Tennessee. They were the first group of African-American musicians to visit India and their performances of Negro spirituals and slave songs left a trail of similar astonishment in their wake, as they travelled through Calcutta, Asansol, Allahabad, Ambala, Delhi, Agra, Calcutta and Madras.
In Calcutta, the correspondent of the Indian Planters’ Gazette declared that their performance “took one’s breath away”.

In Delhi, the Gazette had this to say: “Within the last half century, a cave of harmony has opened which was previously unknown to civilised ears, and there is probably not a home throughout the world boasting of any refinement where nigger melodies are not familiar. The most downtrodden race on earth has presented a gift to mankind that is appreciated in proportion to the refinement of the listeners, for none but those who have studied music seriously can realise at its full significance that the melody of the negro has, as it were, sprung up spontaneously. Like the tea plant in Assam, the precious gift was there growing wild and only required cultivation to make it excel in richness…”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers' first recording in 1909 was the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

To be sure, though these reactions thrilled the group, they weren’t exactly surprised. They’d been greeted with wild applause ever since they’d set out on their first international tour in 1873. The student group had been assembled two years earlier by the treasurer of Fisk University, when the college, which had been set up to educate freed slaves, faced bankruptcy and closure. It began fundraising tours in the northern US states, raising $40,000 in 18 months. They then set off for Europe, where they, in the age before the phonograph was widespread, gave audiences their first taste of Negro spirituals.

It wasn’t always easy. “Our strength was failing under the ill treatment at hotels, on railroads, poorly attended concerts, and ridicule,” wrote one member, Ella Sheppard. But their audiences were enthusiastic (they even sang for Queen Victoria) and the group earned $150,000 for Fisk University.

The tour that brought a second edition of the group to India had started in 1886 in Australia. They arrived in Calcutta in December, 1889, after a rough voyage from Colombo. The Lieutenant Governor Lord Landsdowne was at one of their concerts and in Bombay a few weeks later, the Governor of the province, Lord Reay, was in attendance.
“The Parsees came in large numbers to hear us, and our hall was nightly crowded to its utmost capacity, many persons sitting on the stage behind us,” wrote Frederick Loudin, the leader of the group, whose grandparents had been slaves. The Fisk Singers were as fascinated by their audience as the audience was in them. “Life in the Orient was full of interest – Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Madras were particularly so,” wrote Loudin.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers recording of Roll Jordon Roll, 1912.

They had their most memorable Indian experience in Agra at the Taj Mahal. The Fisk Singers “were overpowered by its indescribable beauty, but we were destined to have an experience of which we had not dreamed”, Loudin wrote. After the group’s first concert in Agra, the custodian of the Taj came up to them offered to show them around the mausoleum. The group jumped at the offer. Then, Loudin made a request. “A thought flashed across my mind that we might have an experience enjoyed by no other Christian people – namely, singing a Christian song in a Mohammedan tomb or temple, and that temple the most beautiful on earth. Thanking the gentleman for his kind offer, I at once asked if it would not be possible for us to sing a song there; he looked a little surprised, hesitated a moment, then answered, ‘Yes.’”

They woke up bright and early. Here’s how Loudin remembered that day:

“We were up bright and early, having been advised by the custodian to be there in the early morning or late afternoon as the best time to see it. Quite a large number of people drove out to be present at this remarkable event.

“As we entered the arched door-way, we met Mohammedans coming out; they had been within to bedeck the tombs of Shah Jehan and his wife with the fresh flowers of the morning, and with shoeless feet had repeated in the (to them) sacred presence their morning prayers. We looked with friendly glances into one another’s dark faces as we met and passed; they inquiringly, while our faces must have been aglow with expectant delight.

“Lightly we tread the rich mosaic floor until the centre of the octagonal temple is reached, where under the snow-white dome, two hundred and sixty-two feet high, are located, exactly above the real tombs in the crypt below, two sarcophagi duplicates of the real ones below, ornamented with texts from the Koran, traced in precious stones – sapphires, rubies, emeralds, garnets, jaspar, malachite, lapis-lazuli, carnelian, agate, and blood-stone.

“We gather around the sarcophagi and soon the great lofty dome echoes the first Christian song it has ever caught up, and that song the cry of a race akin to those whose dust sleeps in the crypt beneath. As the tones of that beautiful slave song, Steal Away to Jesus, which we had sung before emperors, presidents, kings and queens, awoke the stillness of that most wonderful of temples, we were so much overcome by the unique circumstances that it was with the utmost difficulty we could sing at all. I’ve Been Redeemed and We Shall Walk Through the Valley were sung, and thus closed one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”

After about six weeks in India, the group sailed from Madras for Rangoon and eventually made their way to Japan. Groups from Fisk University continue to tour the world, performing their traditional repertoire of slave songs and spirituals.

There much more about the journeys of the group in Patrick D Rasico's online exhibition, The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Travels in the Antipodes and South Asia, 1886-1890.

Here’s a link to a portion of a documentary about the group.

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