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Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on
Audience Reaction to the Music

Horace Clarence Boyer Talk about the audience reaction to the spirituals, and why.

Boyer : Now, remember that if you did not live in the South, and even if you lived in the South, and you didn’t have 15, 25, or 100 slaves on your plantation, you didn’t know black folk. You didn’t know their way of cooking, you didn’t know their dancing, and you didn’t know their singing. When we talk about 1871, we’re not talking about the benefit of Fisk University and its fine music department today. They didn’t have the benefit of the Julliard School of Music. They didn’t get the kind of training that Leontyne Price got. They didn’t go to Curtis. These were people with natural, beautiful voices who would stand up and sing, but in so doing that, they would bring the collard greens that they ate into their voices. They would bring the pork chops. I mean, you know, they would bring the fried green tomatoes in there. And that folk element provided a tinge of earthiness that had never been heard in the United States. Now, remember that we’re talking about Jenny Lind and all of the great European classical artists, who set the musical taste. And here we find these black folk with encumbered voices. Oh, to be sure, some of them sounded like Ray Charles. Some sounded like Aretha Franklin. These are not new voice types in the African American culture. These are inherited voice types. And to hear them sing "Swing low, sweet chariot" with the grit and grime and yet the passion, was absolutely unheard of. And this is what the people heard.

The first time I heard Bessie Smith, I was in undergraduate school. I was a junior. And when I heard that lady with the gorgeous voice, but with a tinge of what I thought of as sadness, I stopped dead in my tracks and said, "What is that sound?" If I, as an African American, got that reaction from hearing Bessie Smith sing for the first time, can you imagine what they must have heard – white people, non-southerners, white people who’d never seen black people before. When they saw the Fisk Jubilee Singers, some of them were seeing black people for the first time, and heard this gorgeous voice, but one that was so different from what the choir director sang.

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