Culture  /  Narrative

They Introduced the World to Songs of Slavery. It Almost Broke Them.

The Jubilee Singers were a global sensation. But an aggressive touring schedule would harm the young performers drastically.

Henry Ward Beecher’s support for the singers, which was so essential to their success, gives something of a sense of what white Northern liberals enjoyed about the Jubilees’ performances: the opportunity to believe they understood the pain and grief of slavery, and to offer, and perform, their sympathies. (Nineteenth-century audiences loved the catharsis of a good cry, and African Americans telling stories and singing songs about their lives under slavery provided emotionally raw entertainment.) Georgia Gordon Taylor, a singer who joined the Jubilees in 1872, recalled of those early performances that “every night some of [the singers] would tell the story of having Mother sold away” and then sing songs like “No More Auction Block for Me”—a series of spare references to the hunger and violence that accompanied slavery—“Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” which visualizes heaven as an escape from daily degradations and pain.
White people’s empathy, of course, was not without its limits. Though audiences often responded emotionally to the songs, they still sometimes regarded them as mere curiosities—evidence of black people’s “natural” connection to religion, emotion, and musicality, rather than a reflection of their hard work. (The introduction to Gustavus Pike’s detailed 1873 history of the group claimed that the Jubilees’ songs “come from no musical cultivation whatever, but are the simple, ecstatic utterances of wholly untutored minds.”) Press reviews during the tour echoed this sentiment. “They are full of that uncultivated emotion which, because it is real, touches on every heart,” announced one reviewer. “They are weird, and wild, original in style, but touching, and at times grand.” In a 1873 letter recommending the Jubilees to a British colleague, Henry Ward Beecher described the group’s music as “the wild slave songs, some of which seem like the inarticulate wails of breaking hearts made dumb by slavery; the Revival Melodies, the plantation songs, in short, the inner life of slave hearts, expressed in music.” The preacher later remembered, incorrectly and probably conveniently, his first encounter with the Jubilees: “There was not a mixed blood among them; they were as black as midnight, every one of them.”

George White, for his part, believed that the Jubilees were unique because, as he explained to a friend in November of 1871, they stood “on the border between ‘the old and the new’” and “looked forward with hope to a future full of promise.” But journalists reviewing concerts during that first tour of the United States dwelled on the “old”—their descriptions of the singers’ style included adjectives like “real plantation twang” and declarations that the songs were sung as “only they can sing who know how to keep time to a master’s whip.”