Review: “There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and his Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916”
A few weeks ago a friend of mine needed a little help at his pub, so I agreed to go into town to collect the cover charge at the door. While there, I heard a metalhead opine that Robert Plant needs to get back to his roots. The comment obviously struck me, as it undoubtedly would most members of the Americana community, as ignorant and foolish, but then I realized that it could easily have been me making that statement, that I could still be lost in the bad Wayne’s World parody that is the musical taste of so many classic rock fans. Therefore, I made no attempt to change his mind nor did I tell him that Plant was, in fact, reconnecting with his roots. I simply nodded and went along with it, holding out hope that maybe one day he’ll hear Blind Lemon Jefferson or the Drive-By Truckers and head out on a musical quest similar to the one I’ve been on for over a decade.
It began when I realized that, with Kurt gone, there was nothing on the top 40 or mainstream rock charts for me and that hearing the same old classic rock tunes everyday was getting old. So, starting with the roots-infused rock I already loved, I began exploring the modern Americana scene and all of the great music still being made. But even more important was my journey down the many twisted roads of American roots music, these roads often being heavily covered-over, having no forseeable end nor beginning, and with many intersections leading to one another. I used Sun Records as my beginning point and went backwards with the main goal being to find great music, but with questions about our history and heritage never far from my mind. Where did it all begin? When did it stop being “folk music” and become “popular music”? Who was the single most important figure? I still don’t have the answers to any of those questions, but a recent 2-disc set and book from Archeophone Records may be the closest I have came yet.
On There Breathes a Hope, Archeophone, a label with a reputation for giving serious reissues to music recorded prior to the advent of electrical recording in 1925, offers 39 early recordings by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet as well as four recitations of Paul Laurence Dunbar poems by Quartet member Rev. James A. Myers and recollections from Jerome I. Wright, a member of a later incarnation of the Quartet.
But before we go any farther with the recordings themselves, I feel that a brief history lesson is in order.
Nashville’s Fisk University was founded in 1866 with the mission of providing higher education to the newly freed former slaves of the South. In 1871, the student choir- billed as the Fisk Jubilee Singers- began a tour of the United States, introducing a predominantly white audience to African-American spirituals for the first time. The highly popular group continued to tour until 1878 both at home and abroad, eventually even singing for Queen Victoria.
After their initial era of success the choir continued to perform, but for several decades stopped performing spirituals which many in the black community viewed not as folk music, but as a disturbing reminder of slavery. Then in 1897, a former Fisk student and musical standout named John Work II came back to the University as a Professor of history and before long had been named the leader of the Fisk choir. He got to work immediately at reestablishing the “Jubilee Singers” and also, at the insistence of the University’s music department, began touring with a male quartet.
Work’s avid promotion and collection of spirituals, coupled with the large number of Fisk graduates who later became teachers made Work one of the more important, if most overlooked, figures in 20th century music. Fisk graduates were required to have high musical training and those who later found jobs teaching passed the spirituals they had learned on to their students, some of whom went on to form their own highly influential quartets in the ’20s and ’30s.
But what about the recordings themselves?
First of all, those expecting 5.1 surround sound should probably look elsewhere. These are recordings from 1909 to 1916 and like all collections from this era, the songs are taken straight from the 78s and Edison cylinders. So while the sound here and on other similar collections isn’t perfect, Archeophone has done their best to ensure that it sounds as good as possible. To those accustomed to the modern technology that has made most of today’s music too clean and generic this will present a problem. To others, it will merely add to the haunting beauty of the recordings.
Secondly, those expecting a sound similar to the Soul Stirrers or the Golden Gate Quartet may also find themselves disappointed. The Fisk Quartet were certainly influential on those groups and countless others, but their acapella performance style is far more trained and formal. While some may prefer more upbeat renditions, I feel that these slower versions bring out just as much feeling and provide a heightened emphasis on the lyrics. These renditions cut right to the heart of the material, offering visions of hope for the future while never forsaking the grief and strife of the present.
Work himself serves as the lead tenor on most of the recordings which, with the exception of Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” consists entirely of African-American spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Roll Jordan Roll,” “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “My Soul is a Witness” among others that should be very familiar to most fans of roots music. Another notable voice on the collection is that of legendary concert tenor Roland Hayes, who made his recording debut with the 1911 lineup of the Quartet and takes the lead on two of the recordings here.
This collection superbly showcases the Fisk Quartet’s fastidious harmonies as well as the great traditional songs. I had heard only one of these recordings- the 1906 version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”- prior to listening to the two discs that comprise this collection, yet I found all of them to be oddly familiar and soon found myself singing along and tapping my toes. Overlooked in the familiarity of the Fisk repertoire is the fact that Work and his Quartet are one of the main reasons these tunes are so well-known today.
In summation, There Breathes a Hope is one of the best archival releases to come out in years and it places the Fisk Quartet in their rightful place as one of the most important acts in the entire roots music canon. Listening to these two discs- which come packaged with 96 pages of liner notes- is like coming home. The music of the Quartet represents so many of my own thoughts on folk music and music in general. It’s not about the sound, it’s about the feeling. It’s about the sense of community that the song creates, not great modern sound quality surrounded by emptiness. But most importantly, these spirituals will do what spirituals should do: comfort you, renew your hope for a better tomorrow, and connect you with an important piece of our history.