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Toni Anderson, Music Historian, on
The choir's repertoire

Toni Anderson Talk about the students and what they’re performing. These are former slaves, young people.

Anderson : When George White pulled these selected voices to form his choir, they ranged in age. You had students as young as 13, 14, 15, up into the twenties, that gave up their time to form this choir. And he began by teaching generally "white man’s music". They performed or they learned opera choruses, ballads, popular tunes of the day, choral literature that was very popular for other choirs to be singing during this time. What was interesting, though, is that the students would often spontaneously use that time to sing some of the old spirituals. And White listened. He heard this. And he loved the music. And he encouraged them to sing this. In their early concerts, spirituals were not featured on the programs.

The students have mixed feelings about why?

Anderson : Singing of the spirituals was encouraged by White, but the students did have mixed feelings about whether or not they should even perform these works. And there’s a variety of reasons for that. Ella Sheppard remarks at one point that initially the spirituals represented to them the dark days of slavery, the shameful days of slavery. And at the same time, they were sacred because they were the songs that their parents and their ancestors had sung in their religious meetings. And so there was this tension between the song– the spirituals being sacred and religious–but also representing a time that they wanted to leave behind. So they were not keen on the idea of singing spirituals in public. George White had to sort of pull that out of them and encourage them.

Singing the spirituals in public became easier for the Fisk Jubilee Singers after they saw the way audiences responded to them. Especially the spirituals would bring about the deepest emotional reactions from their audiences. People were moved to tears. And that held meaning for the Jubilee Singers.

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