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How a Reconstruction-era singing tour changed popular music

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The year was 1871, and Fisk University was struggling. Fisk was just a few years old then - one of the institutions founded in the South to educate Black people after the Civil War. The school's choir went on tour to raise money. It was a decision that changed the course of American popular music according to Vann Newkirk. His article in The Atlantic is called "The Years of Jubilee" and it's part of a new issue centered around the unfinished legacy of the Reconstruction Era. Vann Newkirk is a senior editor at the magazine, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

VANN NEWKIRK: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So let's start with the idea behind this issue. Why did this feel like the right time to focus on Reconstruction?

NEWKIRK: Well, I love history, and a lot of people at The Atlantic love history, but we don't do this because we love history. We do journalism because we are looking at ways to understand what's happening in the present. And I think that there's so much to learn from this era right after the Civil War, when so many things are put into place that we take for granted now. And I think that era - the imagination of that era, the bravery of people in that era, and the strong commitment from the federal government to the advancement of the people who were at the lowest rungs of society - I think those are things that actually are important for us as we sit and look at a country and a world where we have so many crises and problems that both stem from the unfinished business there and also are pretty difficult things to tackle.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk about your article. It's about the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Why did this group start, and why did they go on tour?

NEWKIRK: Fisk University was one of several HBCUs that was founded right after the Civil War by missionary groups. And as such, they - like many other schools, they had a choir. At first, this choir was pretty standard business. They were organized under director George L. White. And his goal was to show that this group of Black singers, many of whom had been born into slavery, could sing and be the equal of all of these white performers going around, which would help serve the larger project of showing that Black folks were equals to white folks. And he decided in 1871, when the school was in pretty bad shape financially, to take them on a tour to show what they could do and hopefully raise money to save the school.

RASCOE: And they did, right? Like, they saved the school with their singing.

NEWKIRK: Yes. So they set out to raise about $20,000, which is a lot of money in today's money, and they ended up raising around $100,000. And a lot of that was because of the spiritual. These were songs that their parents, or even them - they had performed in the fields or in religious rituals as enslaved folks. And they considered those songs to be sacred and not for popular consumption. Although this choir practiced these songs, it wasn't something that they started out to say this is the majority of our repertoire, this is what we do. But in the middle of that tour, they made the decision to start making the spiritual the center of their identity.

RASCOE: You write about a very important performance in Oberlin, Ohio. Tell us about what happened there.

NEWKIRK: So this performance in Oberlin is one of the turning points for them. They chose to make the spiritual the center of their performance. And they performed the song "Steal Away," and that song completely just held that audience captive.

RASCOE: And, Vann, we have a recording of the modern Fisk Jubilee Singers singing "Steal Away."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAL AWAY")

FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Steal away. Steal away. Steal away to Jesus.

RASCOE: I mean, just beautiful. And what was the reaction to that?

NEWKIRK: Oh, people were crying. People were standing in applause, demanding that they sing it again. There are newspaper clippings from that performance where they said there was not a dry eye in the house, where people were passing around baskets of money, and they were overflowing with donations to these singers. So this is when they knew they had something.

RASCOE: Well, tell us about what the singers experienced on the tour. You do have this great story in the beginning of your article where there were white people about to attack them, and they sing, and they all stop and that, like, the leader of the mob is, like, crying and just begging for another hymn.

NEWKIRK: Yeah, that story was one of my favorites that I found in the archive. And the archive is full of these little stories that just seem like people slaying giants. And actually, the school's own history refers to them sort of as Jason and the Argonauts, this level of just mythological, legendary endeavor. So you have to keep in mind the - Fisk University is in Nashville, Tenn., and the Klan was founded right around the same time. And even outside of the South, you had a lot of white folks, who even might have been liberal in their minds, who had never encountered a Black person, who believed that what Black culture was was minstrelsy.

So when they saw this co-ed group of college-educated folks traveling around in trains, they got some pretty awful reactions. So they were denied boarding. They were obviously called slurs. They had audiences come up and demand that they stop singing the songs they were singing and sing minstrel songs instead. And that happened so often that one of the members of the choir was trained to do a sort of half-minstrel song to appease audiences.

RASCOE: We talked about Reconstruction as a period, as an era that, you know, it ended in 1877. I am, obviously, an HBCU graduate - Howard University. Can you talk to me about how the Fisk Jubilee Singers are kind of a microcosm of how HBCUs have continued the legacy of Reconstruction way past 1877 into today?

NEWKIRK: Well, I'm an HBCU grad myself - Morehouse. So that history of preserving and keeping alive the tradition of Reconstruction - I think it's actually the primary thing that gives the allure and the aura to HBCUs because this era, it is one where, obviously, you have the - for the first time, civil and legal rights for Black folks. But it was so much more than that. It was people going out and trying to build a world that honored this promise to Black Americans. The thing that makes them most powerful is they keep that imagination of what an America might look like if we actually honor these promises to Black folks. I think the reservoir for that is HBCU libraries.

RASCOE: Vann Newkirk is senior editor at The Atlantic. His new article in the December issue of the magazine is called "The Years Of Jubilee." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

NEWKIRK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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