The Fisk Jubilee Singers: The Choral That Brought Gospel Music To Britain

Roy Francis explains how 150 years ago the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced gospel music to Britain when they toured the country to raise money for their school in the US

June 22nd was the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury Docks in the East End of London.  Many people believed it marked the arrival of Black people to Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Black people have been resident in Britain as far back as Roman times, and have, in the past, lived here in the UK in large numbers; one source even suggests there were 20,000 Black people living in London during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Many came here as enslaved Africans, brought into the country by plantation owners, and worked as household servants, cooks, maids, pages, footmen and porters. Some were even trumpeters at the royal courts. After the American War of Independence in the 18th century, Black people arrived in Britain en masse again, but this time as formerly enslaved soldiers and sailors who had fought in the war and, in return, were allowed to travel to England and freedom. Abandoned to their own fate, they were left to eke out a living on the miserable streets of London and around English ports.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1873, another group of Black people predated the arrival of Windrush. They were a group of singers who were touring England to raise funds for their newly established ‘Fisk Free Coloured School’, formed by the American Missionary Association.

The school had run into financial difficulties as soon as it started and was in danger of closing. In an attempt to save the school by raising £20,000, George Leonard White, its treasurer and musical director, formed a singing group of four men and five women and took them on a tour of America. White named the group after the school but crucially included in the name ‘Jubilee’ — a time in the Old Testament when enslaved people were set free, and anyone who owed a debt could make a fresh start.

At first, the tour didn’t go too well, as White audiences reacted adversely to the group. They didn’t like the anthems, sentimental songs and ballads they sang. They also didn’t like that the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang in a European style, dressed up like White people, and thought they were getting ‘above themselves’. It was only when they decided to include the ‘spirituals’ — or ‘enslaved work songs’ — that things began to change.

Audiences in America knew very little of slavery, although it was a feature of life in the Southern states. They were shocked at what they heard. Publicly endorsed by Mark Twain, the famous American writer who was born in the South and whose father kept enslaved, and Henry Ward Beecherthe most famous preacher of the age and brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, American audiences began to warm to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and started to give generously to their cause.

In Britain in 1873, it was the first time the public had heard the ‘spirituals’, the songs that had begun to open American eyes to the story of slavery of how millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly taken from their homeland, transported to America and the West Indies, and brutally broken into the plantation system. Hearing ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ told UK audiences of the cruelty of the enslaved experiences and how it was only by singing — as they worked, planting crops, cutting sugar cane, and later, when they worked on the railroads — could they find the strength for another day.

Many of the spirituals came from the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which told of a time ‘when God’s people in bondage were set free’. This idea of freedom spurred them on and gave them hope that they too, one day would be free. Cynically, enslavers quickly realised what singing did and encouraged it, for the more the enslaved sang, the better they worked and the more productive they became.

One of the most requested and popular songs on the Fisk Jubilee tour was ‘Steal Away’. Like many spirituals, it operates on two levels and contains coded messages of resistance and escape plans. On one level, the song informs that the escape plan in the making could proceed. On the other level, it meant that if an enslaved could not be free in this life, they would prefer to ‘steal away to Jesus’; in other words, they would rather die. Other well-known spirituals include ‘Go Down Moses’, which explains that an escape plan is imminent, and ‘The Gospel Train (is coming)’, which tells the way was clear to escape. In America, enslaved Christians were thought to be the first to use songs this way.

Today in Britain, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is the best-known spiritual, although when English rugby fans sing it so enthusiastically at their matches, I wonder if they know its origin or the coded message it contains. The song is thought to have been written around 1865 by a formerly enslaved Wallis Willis, telling escapees of the ‘Underground Railway’ — a network of safe houses where they would find people who would help them escape to the northern states of America or Canada where they would be free.

Receiving rapturous applause and praises wherever they went, thousands of people flocked to churches, civic halls and outdoor events to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They were also feted by the British aristocracy, who invited them to perform at their private parties. Performing for the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, and Queen Victoria no less, the Singers brought their message to the heart of the British Establishment. Queen Victoria was so impressed by their performance of ‘Steal Away’ when they went to Windsor Castle that she commissioned a painting of them that hangs in Jubilee Hall at the Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Thrilling audiences wherever they went and receiving enthusiastic reviews in the press, though complimentary, were not universal. The Birmingham Daily Mail, for example, viewed the Singers’ songs as “exceedingly primitive” and “childishly simple”, merely revealing the prevailing attitudes and stereotypes about Black people at the time. However, despite this, the tour was successful, and the group attracted vast audiences wherever they went.

On July 30th, Charles Spurgeon, one of the great Victorian Baptist preachers, invited the Singers to perform at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Elephant and Castle, which was the largest protestant church in London. More than 6,000 people turned up to hear them, with hundreds more turned away. The Singers collected £220 towards their school, and Spurgeon is quoted in the South London Press as saying: Our friends seem to sing from their hearts. They seem to preach in their singing, and this gives a force to the music such as no other thing could. They have touched my heart… This is a real mystery and a deep theology in this singing that we can hardly understand.”

From London, the group went on to tour the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, delighting audiences wherever they went. In Scotland, their visits coincided with a tour by American evangelists, Sankey and Moody, who invited them to sing at their evangelistic services. For the next four years, the Singers toured Britain, Europe, and went as far afield as Australia. By the time the original group ceased touring, exhausted by being on the road for so long, they had raised more than $150,000 for their school, more than $3 million in today’s money. However, one of the singers, Thomas Rutling, decided to remain in Britain, settling in Harrogate, where he taught singing and languages for many years and gave many successful solo recitals.

Today in Britain, Ken Burton and his two choirs, The London Adventist Chorale and the Croydon Adventist Choir continue the tradition of the spirituals. They are by far the most accomplished Black gospel choir in Britain, with numerous awards and accolades.

They are the recipient of the coveted BBC2 Sainsbury Choir of the Year and the 1995 Choir of the Year Award. Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, they introduce the spirituals to their audiences in their performances, bringing home to many people gospel, the music that has developed from the spirituals. For Ken, this music is “characterised by hymn-like melodies and harmonies, and a range of expressions derived from African music-making and spirituality”. For him, the sounds include the subtle hush and gentle hum, the sad moan, surging phrases, and loud tones. This is what 19th century America, Britain and Europe had heard for the first time, and been mesmerised ever since. Imagine what would have happened if the Fisk Jubilee Singers hadn’t decided to ditch singing like Europeans and choose their own songs, performed in their own way. It would have been a great loss, for the spirituals are the forerunner of some of the most fantastic music the world has ever known — gospel, blues, jazz, country and rock. What a tragedy it would have been.

Roy Francis is a former BBC TV producer, founder of Roy Francis Productions and is the author of Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain.  Visit www.royfrancis.co.uk

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