The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ amazing story, from slavery to stardom

They introduced Black spirituals to the world—and saved their university from financial ruin.

Founded in 1871 to raise money for their struggling college, the Fisk Jubilee Singers soon became a musical sensation. The current ensemble, here performing at a church in Nashville last June, carries on the legacy.

A hush fell over Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s “Mother Church of Country Music.” On the same stage where Hank Williams wailed “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Patsy Cline wondered if she might be crazy, nine young African American singers entered from the wings, their voices blending in a mesmerizing, almost whispering rendition of the timeless slave song “Steal Away.”

“The trumpet sounds within my soul,” they sang, and you could almost hear that horn, muted and mournful. “I ain’t got long to stay here.”

On that night last fall, the Fisk Jubilee Singers—founded 151 years ago to raise money for the South’s oldest historically Black university—took hold of 2,000 hearts and, almost instantaneously, squeezed them to the point of tears.

Among the tearful was Paul Kwami, the group’s musical director for 28 years. A former Fisk University student himself, he came to Nashville after a childhood in Ghana.

“It happens sometimes,” he told me several months after that concert. “I’m crying, the singers are crying, we’re all crying.”

Now, everyone is crying again: Kwami, a legend in the preservation and performance of African American spiritual music, died unexpectedly September 10, less than a month before the group’s 151st anniversary.

On the day I sat down with Kwami last spring, we were in the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ rehearsal room in Jubilee Hall, a towered Victorian-era edifice at one end of the Fisk University campus in Nashville. The school was founded in 1866, at a time when hopes ran high that Reconstruction would bring a measure of restoration to America’s formerly enslaved people. The initial response was phenomenal: 900 students, virtually all of them recently enslaved, enrolled.

The bad news was that by 1871 the university was strapped for cash and in danger of going under. Desperate to find a new source of revenue, the school’s music professor and treasurer, George L. White, hit on a plan: He would take Fisk’s fledgling choir—then just four men and five women—on tour to raise money.

“At first the choir performed standard Western classical music,” said Kwami. “And it wasn’t going very well.”

That all changed during a church concert in Oberlin, Ohio. Performing from the balcony, the singers were dismayed to see the congregation wasn’t listening. In fact, they were walking around and talking among themselves.

“Finally,” said Kwami, “one of the singers said, ‘If they’re not going to listen to us, then let’s just sing for ourselves.’ And they did. They started singing ‘Steal Away.’”

Almost immediately, the crowd fell silent. A northern audience, it turned out, had never heard anything remotely like this.

“They thought Negro music was what they’d heard in minstrel shows,” Kwami said. “The Negro spiritual was completely new to them.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers soon became a sensation, performing throughout the East and Upper Midwest, roughly tracing the path of the Underground Railroad. Among their most ardent admirers was Mark Twain, who grew up in the south hearing these same songs.

“I do not know when anything has so moved me as did the Jubilee Singers,” he wrote in 1873. “One must have been slave himself in order to feel what that life was and so convey the pathos of it in the music.”

During that first 18-month tour, the group raised about $40,000. But success came at great cost to the original Jubilee Singers. Due to their years traveling the country raising money to save the university, the first nine never earned degrees.

“It’s ironic,” Kwami said. “They sacrificed everything for this school. Only a few years ago were they given posthumous diplomas.”

Among Kwami’s final wishes was to see a cluster of statues outside Jubilee Hall honoring the original nine. Among them was Thomas Rutling, who was born into slavery and never knew his father. His only memory of his mother was kissing her goodbye as she was taken from him when he was just two years old.

“Can you imagine someone living with that?” Kwami asked me, shaking his head. “And yet he gave up his education to prevent the closure of this university.”

"Legacy of music and history"

It was a 90-degree day in Nashville, but Jeffrey Casey and Kemani Iwu arrived to chat with me at Jubilee Hall impeccably dressed in jackets and ties. The pair graduated from Fisk last spring, but respect for their choir and teacher compelled them to dress up for the occasion.

Casey plans to pursue a theater career; Iwu is exploring entertainment law. But even as they leave the school, these two decidedly 21st-century men are still inspired by the Fisk singers who came before them.

“Every time we step on a stage we're enjoying the opportunities those original singers dreamed of,” said Iwu, who is Nigerian American. “We’re branches of a tree, and that tree just keeps on growing.”

So connected are today’s Jubilee singers to those original nine that every October 6—Fisk University calls it Jubilee Day—members of the group travel around Nashville and visit the graves of the four who are buried there.

“All they wanted was to save this university, but they ended up creating this amazing legacy of music and history," said Casey. "It’s our obligation to uphold that legacy.”

The Jubilee Singers’ first Grammy Award—for their 150th Anniversary album “Celebrating Fisk!”—has heightened interest in the group’s history and music. During Kwami’s years as director, first-time concertgoers were often surprised that he didn't conduct the group, choosing instead to rely on their mutual feel for rhythm and dynamics.

“I don’t want to come between the singers and the audience,” he told me. “The communication is all between them.”

That leads to a unique dynamic that’s impossible to miss. The performers don’t look forward, but instead their eyes move among their fellow singers, catching each other’s glances. They smile and nod like old friends greeting each other.

“We’re watching each other to make sure we’re all on the same page,” says Casey. “But that’s not all. We’re also saying to each other, ‘I’ve got your back.’”

Virtually every stream of American popular music—rock, jazz, blues, soul, hip-hop, gospel—flows back to Africa. And to a large degree, in their earliest days the Fisk Jubilee Singers were a funnel through which much of America got its first taste of the rhythms and call-and-response song structures that informed everything that was to come.

“It was always my dream,” Kwami told me, “to take this group to Africa, to bring the Negro spiritual in its polished form back to its musical roots.” In 2007, the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, he did just that.

“We performed in Accra, the capital, in a full hall,” he recalled, closing his eyes as if to relive the moment. “We sang our songs. We also sang some Ghanian songs—and the audience just joined in. They couldn’t help themselves.”

But the most moving moment came, he said, when the group recorded a selection of Negro spirituals in the courtyard of Ghana’s Elmina Castle, the infamous, 17th-century depot from which enslaved people were shipped to the Americas.

Standing in the castle’s courtyard, their voices echoing against the same walls that once groaned with sobbing and rattling chains, the singers intoned a solemn rendition of “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace,” drawn from Psalm 23. (“Though I walk through the shadow of the Valley of Death, I will fear no evil.”)

Kwami nodded softly.

“This was a circle closing,” he said. There were tears in his eyes.

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