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March 2, 2011

At Fisk University, A Tradition Of Spirituals

NPR Weekend Edition:

The Fisk University Jubilee Quartet in 1909, from left: Alfred G. King (first bass), James A. Myers (second tenor), Noah W. Ryder (second bass) and John W. Work II (first tenor).

For nearly 150 years, a largely black private university in Nashville has prided itself on its liberal arts studies and its music. Vocal ensembles at Fisk University have been there about as long as the campus itself. But the songs performed there today could have sounded very different if it hadn't been for the efforts of one of the school's first music directors.

A new collection from Archeophone Records, an Illinois label that revives old recordings, not only preserves that effort but also reopens the debate on whether so-called Negro spirituals are simply cruel reminders of slavery. The collection is titled There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and His Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916.

Between 1909 and 1916, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet recorded more than 40 songs. John Work II was a scholar, musician and anthropologist who collected these songs from the days of slavery, had them published and recorded many of them with the quartet.

When Work came to Fisk University in 1891, the institution had already used music as a way to save the school from insolvency. The first Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world, performing for Queen Victoria, among others. And what they were performing was just as significant: They switched from operatic arias to religious songs like "There Is a Balm in Gilead." But by the time Work came to Fisk, the choir had disbanded and was all but forgotten, in part because of those very songs. Listen here.

Posted by acapnews at March 2, 2011 12:00 AM

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