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Roll Call: Three Castles and the Music City

April 12, 2022


Roll Call: 3 Castles and the Music City

Transcription by: Ayinde Jean-Baptiste

Destiny O. Birdsong: It's 2007 on an inlet overlooking Ghana's southern coast, and the Fisk Jubilee singers are harmonizing before a concert. Chords echo within the walls of Sao Jorge Da Mina, St. George's of the Mind, now simply Elmina Castle. In its heyday. Elmina, the Mine, this first and for centuries, the largest of the slave factories on the Guinea Coast witnessed, as the name would suggest, the voracious extraction of hundreds of thousands of human lives. But today its halls, which carried the cries of infants, cousins, lovers wrenched apart, are thrummed alive again, with music. This voyage back to the old slave castle started on a campus on a continent leagues away from Elmina, generations before these Fisk Jubilee Singers were born. Neither the singers nor director Dr. Paul Kwami, himself a native of Ghana, had been to Elmina Castle before. And while the technicians were setting up before the recording, some of the students asked if they could explore the castles Dungeons. Dr. Kwami told them "no". Choir member Preston Wilson went anyway.

Preston Wilson: I was milling around and looking through the dungeons and some of the extermination chambers, and you could still smell the stench of death. And even on the walls, you could see, um, handprints and nail scratches of like people who were being dragged. And I like, bawled, like full-out sobbing. They like, they had to carry me out. And as soon as I get my stuff together, the entire choir, like everyone is crying. 

Dr. Paul Kwami: Seriously. Like babies. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Director, Paul Kwami gathered them. 

Dr. Paul Kwami: Our prayer that day was that our music would be embedded in the grounds and walls of that castle so that anyone who would walk in there would experience the forgiveness and peace of God.

Destiny O. Birdsong: That prayer, to change forever through music a landscape haunted by the scourge of slavery, was the Fisk Jubilee Singers' founding desire, and more than a century before these vocalists set foot inside Elmina Castle, another troupe of singers set out carrying that very same hope. I'm Destiny Birdsong, poet, novelist, and proud daughter of Fisk University, and you're listening to a special presentation melding music, poetry and firsthand historical accounts to honor 150 years of the Fisk Jubilee singers, the musicians who rescued Fisk University and set the course of American music. This is 3 Castles and the Music City. In the fall semester of 1871, the oldest institution for higher learning and Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University, was on the literal brink of collapse. 

Ella Sheppard: There was no money, even for food, much less for repairs. So many of us shivered through winter with not an inch of flannel upon our body. The wind whistled around and groaned so fearfully that we trembled in horror in our beds, thinking the sounds were the cries of lost spirits of the soldiers who had died in them. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: That's Ella Sheppard. She was among the earliest students to enroll at Fisk, a gifted vocalist, a musician. At the age of 15 Ella, like many of her peers, sold her services as a teacher, music instructor, and seamstress to cover attendance. When it opened just nine months after the end of the Civil War, Fisk University, formerly the Fisk Free Colored School, offered tuition-free enrollment to Black students from ages seven to seventy. Though Fisk would eventually boasts such star pupils is W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Diane Nash, John Lewis and yours truly, in those early years when Ella Sheppard was a student, it was doubtful ,whether any future luminaries would ever call the university home. 

Ella Sheppard: Our provisions and limited food began to tell on the vitality of the students and some of our best pupils were sacrificed. Many a time a special prayer was offered for the next meal. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Fisk had its start inside a crumbling Union barracks given over to rot. Much of the South was still reeling from the fallout of the war. Institutions like Fisk depended heavily on the generosity of wealthy white donors like the American Missionary Association, the AMA, a major player in postwar support for freed people. But even with that support, the university still couldn't pay its bills. The staff and faculty prayed constantly for relief. But no one prayed more fervently than the students themselves. When they gathered to pray in private, Ella Sheppard noted that they often sang their own hallowed songs. 

Ella Sheppard: Sitting upon the floor, there where but few chairs, and practicing softly learning from each other the songs of our fathers. The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then too, they were sacred to our parents who use them in their religious worship. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: These songs were vital artifacts, keepsakes, passed from generation to generation during slavery. The American slave system was designed to eviscerate Black people's control of their lives, their loves, and their physical bodies, but in the evening quiet of their homes or secreted among hush arbors centuries of enslaved people wove their hopes, histories, and prayers into music.

unknown: You can pull a body from a plot of land, but you can't extract a song. What they couldn't write or hold or press into each other's palms when sold away, they melodied, memorized, and sang in hushed tones at prayer meetings or whispered to an upturned wash pot or echoed over fields, marking the stock and pull of field hands. And when the chance came to steal away in the night, the songs would light from spirit to spirit like a warning call.

Destiny O. Birdsong: Some enslavers pointed to these plantation melodies as proof of their captives comfort. How could anyone under torture choose to sing? 

FJ Loudin: These songs are the pure waters of our affliction 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Singer FJ Loudin

FJ Loudin: They gushed forth from us when we were smitten by the hand of man. As the water gushed forth from the rock in the wilderness, when smitten by the rod of Moses. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: For the singers themselves, the spirituals were more than work songs, or pastimes, or plantation melodies, they were life preservers, buoyant vessels set afloat like baskets on the Nile, ferried on the hope that if they would not see freedom, their songs might tide their children out of bondage. Whether that liberty came in this world, or the next. The force of that resolve was palpable in the songs themselves, but also in the singers. And it moved enslaved people to do more than just wait and hope for freedom, it emboldened them to fight for it. When Ella was a toddler, her mother, Sarah, in an act of desperation, scooped up her child and ran headlong to the river.

Ella had been trained to spy on her mother by the plantation owner's wife. And Sarah was intent on ending their days of enslavement, right there. But as she reached the water's edge an elder called out: "She's going to stand before Kings and Queens." And though Sarah Sheppard returned to the living, she promised her daughter, "My baby will never be a slave."

In the fall of 1871, there was probably no one more familiar with the state of Fisk's finances than the university treasurer, George White. After years of finessing, the books, robbing Peter, Paul and every other apostle to make ends meet, White knew just how close the university was to foreclosure, and he was dreaming up an unorthodox solution to rescue it. Though he had no formal musical training, George White had an exceptional ear, and like many of Fisk's white faculty, he was mesmerized by the 'home songs' of his students, and eventually gathered the most gifted vocalists into a small choir. He enlisted Ella Sheppard, talented pianist, and then Fisk's sole Black faculty member, at all of 17, to help him document the songs. By that October, over 100 spirituals were collected. With Fisk on the brink, White saw his choir as the school's last best hope. And so, defying Fisk's administrators, George White collected the university's best singers, cleaned out what was left in the coffers, and set off on a fundraising tour. 

Ella Sheppard: Taking every cent he had --all his school treasury could spare, and all he could borrow, and leaving his invalid wife and two small children, Mr. White started in God's strength with his little band of singers to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of the people. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: The singers' parents weren't exactly thrilled. Before Emancipation, enslaved people were forcibly taken from their families. The finality of those separations was like death. For those who were lucky enough to reunite and freedom, hazarding, another split must've seemed like a fool's errand. Even before leaving for the tour, the troupe was confronted with the potentially fatal consequences of their work. On their way back to Nashville from a show in Memphis, the singers were caught between trains in a small Southern town. A crowd of drunken whites campaigning at a political event nearby spotted the group and begin hurling slurs at them. As the choir retreated to the station, the conservatives ran them down. George White placed himself between his students and the mob and instructed them to start singing 

Ella Sheppard: Our hearts were fearful and tender, and darkness was falling.

Destiny O. Birdsong: As their voices rose, members of the crowd began to quiet, peel away and retreat. By the time the singers were closing out their hymn, only the mob's leader was left.

Ella Sheppard: We were softly finishing the last verse of "Beyond the smiling and the weeping, I shall be soon/ Beyond the farewell and the greeting, Beyond the pulse's fevered beating, I shall be soon/ Love, rest, and home, Lord, tarry not, but come. When we saw the bullseye of the coming engine and knew that we were saved, the leader begged us with tears falling to sing the hymn again, which we did. As the train passed slowly by. I heard him repeating "love, rest and home. sweet, sweet home".

Destiny O. Birdsong: Across the South, including multiple instances and Nashville, Black schools and businesses and churches were being burned to the ground. And much of the wealth and fiscal progress of Black Americans was lost in the destruction. For these Fisk students, the stakes of their concert tours were higher than their personal educations or wellbeings. The fate of much of their community also weighed in the balance. The troupe set out along the path of the Underground Railroad, performing Western European choral music and popular tunes by composers like Stephen Foster. But initially they met with little success. The Fisk students sang to small audiences and barely earned enough to cover travel. Neither Fisk nor the American Missionary Association would endorse the singers, and they were left to depend on the charity of strangers. More than once, George White had to beg assistance to pay for boarding, but the music? The Cleveland Herald called it: Beauty Unadorned! The Delaware Gazette said: The concert is no Negro menstrual affair, but an elevating of refining and remarkably delightful entertainment. And the Cincinnati Daily Paper wrote: It was probably the first concert ever given by colored troupe in this temple, which has resounded with the notes of the best vocalists in the land.

But despite the high praise, local press wasn't enough to stoke broader interest. As the harsh Midwestern winter set in, the ensemble struggled for both funds and warmth. On November 16th, 1871, shivering and thinly dressed, the Fisk students made their way to Ohio to give a concert for the National Congregational Council at Oberlin's First Church.

Because of Oberlin University's history of abolition, the singers had expected a warm welcome. But by the 1870s, that abolitionist spirit was a liability to the university's graduates who were often viewed as too militant for professorships, and Oberlin was working to distance itself from that legacy. So on that rainy cold November night in Northern Ohio, the young singers were sequestered in the church's balcony, tucked out of view and billed dismissively as: The Colored Youngsters of Fisk University. The conference-goers wearied from the day's debate, paid minor attention to the little choir at the chapel's rear. The performance, an afterthought, wasn't even logged into the minutes of the meeting. They stood and, being in church, chose to worship.


Steal Away is not an easy song to perform, but there's a reason it became the first anthem in nearly every one of their concerts. The opening notes have to be perfectly sustained, building gradually with every added voice entering at the same pitch. Delicate singing is a feat of strength for any voice. The crescendo, as it blooms cannot be one of restraint, but rather of effortless, unified, floating.

Seated among the hushed parishioners was Thomas Beecher, younger brother of both Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the preeminent minister, Henry Ward Beecher. Thomas sat enraptured during the performance, and told the seniors if they could persist to New York, he'd put in a word with his brother, the head of the wealthiest congregation in New England, this dire expedition now had a spark of promise, but even with hope on the horizon, the singer still faced the harsh reality.

Ella Sheppard: Our strength was failing under the ill treatment at hotels, on railroads, poorly attended concerts and ridicule. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Ella Sheppard became so ill that her doctor insisted she retire from the tour altogether. But George White refuse to continue without his pianist. And regardless of the risks, Ella was compelled to stay. Perhaps her fellow singer, Maggie Porter put it best. 

Maggie Porter: We were nothing, but a bunch of kids. All we wanted was for Fisk to stand. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Oberlin helped to further cement the singers as a unit, and moved George White to officially christen the young troupe. 

Ella Sheppard: Mr. White met with us with a glowing face. He had remained in prayer all night, alone with God. "Children," he said, "it shall be Jubilee Singers, in memory of the Jewish Year of Jubilee." 

Destiny O. Birdsong: On December 14th, 10 weeks after they departed Fisk, the Jubilee Singers arrived in New York City. If they could draw enough interest, the city could be a windfall. But if they failed to turn a profit, the Jubilees and their school would be finished.

True to his word. Thomas Beecher put the ball in motion for the Jubilees to perform at Plymouth Church. At the weekly Friday prayer service, Henry Ward Beecher invited his congregants to hear the music of 'generations of benighted souls.' The Fisk students were once again tucked away in a balcony, but this time, with the aim to catch their audience off guard. The singers were hidden behind a curtain in the Plymouth choir loft, and on Beecher's cue, they set out to astonish the crowd. 

Maggie Porter: Mr. White, who was more than six feet tall, got down on his knees with his little whistle and crawled along on his knees to give us the key to Steal Away.

Destiny O. Birdsong: The curtains party, stunned, congregants stared.

Maggie Porter: I often feel my heart quicken when I recall myself for the first time standing before the vast audience. And again, hear my voice tremble. As I attempted to lead Steal Away to Jesus

Destiny O. Birdsong: ...

Though the AMA continued to deny their support for the tour, one of its officers was present for the. And his account was glowing. 

AMA officer: I shall never forget the rich tones of the young men and women as they mingled their voices in a melody so beautiful and touching, I scarcely knew whether I was in the body or out of the body. Their sound was so exquisite in quality, full of the deepest feeling, so exceedingly soft that it could hardly be heard. Yet because of its absolute purity, carrying to the farthest part of any large hall, it commanded the attention of every audience. As the tone floated out a little louder, clearer rose to the tremendous crescendo of my Lord calls 

me... and diminished again into exquisite pianissimo sweetness was critical. Enemy was conquered.

Destiny O. Birdsong: As the last note echoed in the vaulted hall, Minister Beecher applauded, opened his pocketbook, and directed his wealthy congregants to do the same. 

Maggie Porter: I think the collection was $250! From that time on, we had success.

Destiny O. Birdsong: The original Jubilee Singers made a name for themselves. I carrying the songs of their forefathers across the country. Seven of the 10 singers were born enslaved, including Thomas Rutland. 

Thomas Rutland: These songs were not comprised after the manner of ordinary music. The slaves made them up from whatever they saw or heard. Steal Away to Jesus had its birth down on Red River, where on one side were slave plantations and on the other, a red Indian territory. Among the Indians was a missionary who used to cross the river at night to hold Bible readings and prayer meetings with the slaves. But the masters objected. This caused the slaves to wait until the masters and overseers had gone to bed. And then would get into canoes and paddle gently across the river to the mission house. And because they have called it, steal away to hear Bible readings and prayer meetings, they call it stealing away to Jesus.

poem for Thomas Rutland: A living memorial that soothed 

Thomas to sleep as a child 

before he was free 

Steal Away to Jesus

birthed on the Red River's lee 

by slaves who kept time 

swaying side to side 

their bodies chewing 

their rallentando 

into harmony

 as if magic 


Destiny O. Birdsong: Alongside his fellow Jubilee Singers, Thomas Rutland helped raise $20,000 between the choir's two domestic tours. Beyond the novelty of an all-Black choral ensemble translating the music genius of the enslaved, audiences were astonished by the Jubilees' sheer technical ability.

As word of their talent spread, the Jubilees performed to sold-out audiences and inspired such public demand that their tickets sometimes had to be auctioned to the highest bidder. The students, who just months earlier could hardly purchase bread crusts, were now paid $500 a year. Each.

While the Jubilees' first tours had earned enough money to purchase Fisk an acre of land in north Nashville, at the site of old Fort Gillem, it would cost at least another $40,000 to build a permanent structure. The type of structure George White had long since sketched onto the choir's early promotion flyers, hoping to stoke donors' appetites for legacy. White was convinced the Jubilee Singers could raise that much money, for the dream of Jubilee Hall, but they would have to cross the Atlantic to do it. That story coming up next on 3 Castles and the Music City

WPLN:3 Castles and the Music City is possible thanks to the support of Curb Records and The Poetry Foundation and the collaboration of Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Check out our website where you can add your memories and well-wishes, and everyone can leave a message for the ensemble and read more of their story. That's all at

Destiny O. Birdsong: America Robinson was one of Fisk University's earliest students, and a later addition to the fabled Jubilees. She did not join the original tour because she was to be part of Fisk's first collegiate graduating class. America was quick-witted, playful and more than a little rebellious.

America W. Robinson: I do not see from my part, how one woman can drag with as many clothes as Jenny wears. Everyone speaks of it. She is very imprudent in her diet, as well as dress. She says she has the consumption of blood, but Mr. White says, it's the consumption of food. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: As ambitious as she was bawdy, America had little interest in derailing her studies. But when she was recruited into the ensemble for their grand expedition overseas, she gave up her dream of walking in Fisk's first commencement, bid farewell to her fiancé, and boarded the Cunard steamer Algeria to make the grueling ten-day journey to England.

America W. Robinson: I try to eat, but do not get seated before I have to contribute to the sea. I was never so sick. I sing to see if I can sing, but oh, it is very weak. It sounds like a wee baby's voice. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: America was born enslaved to her half-uncle, and bore a scar across her face, left from a beating by his wife. She escaped as a child when her father smuggled her into Nashville on an army wagon in the chaos after the Battle of Murfreesboro. America attended Fisk from its opening day and was the only member of the early touring choir to actually earn her degree. She wrote letters to her fiancé, James Burrus, throughout the European tour. 

America W. Robinson: I did not realize that I would miss you so much or long to see you so much until I left Fisk. When I was there, I did not think that you loved me, but it still pained me to leave you. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: That pain of leaving, was likely front-of-mind for America and the other Jubilees for another reason. Their voyage over the Atlantic was a mirror of the passages that saw millions of their ancestors sunk into bondage. But like a mirror image, their journey was rendered in reverse. Young, brilliant voyagers, traversing an ocean under their own power, returning to the forge of their enslavement, not to feed the avarice of captors, but to confirm the rights of liberty for themselves. 

Ella Sheppard: If all the Negro women, slave and free, had been thus considered, our God had probably not bathed this beautiful land in human blood, requiring a drop of blood for every tear wrung from the crushed hearts and bruised bodies of our mothers. Some lived with a broken heart, yet trusting God. No wonder they sang in minor strain. "Oh Lord. Oh my Lord. Oh my good Lord. Keep me from sinking down."

Destiny O. Birdsong: There were moments of sinking during the tours. A member of the original group, Benjamin Holmes, who had stayed home was one of three Fisk students to die that year of tuberculosis. Though the international tour saw less segregated accommodations, the climate was grueling. And Europe was a shock.

America W. Robinson: Men smoke everywhere. It seems so irreverent, 

Destiny O. Birdsong: new acquaintances kissed liberally. 

America W. Robinson: I stayed all night with a young lady last night who wanted to know if we kissed in America. She wished to kiss me goodnight before retiring, but was rather timid. English people seem to like kissing. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: And surprises arrived quickly, as on the second night of their first European tour, when the elder Jubilees were thrust into the highest realm of English conduct.

Now this is a part of the story you may have heard. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, touring Britain, made their way to Buckingham Palace where, enchanted by their voices, Queen Victoria herself proclaimed, "Surely you must come from the city of music." And just like that Nashville, Tennessee Music, City USA had its identity. But the reality was more complicated. The Jubilees didn't meet Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, and she didn't tell them Nashville must be a musical city, because she never spoke to them at all, at least not directly. In truth, the Jubilees hadn't even expected her attendance. The choir had actually been invited to sing by Lord George Campbell, the 5th Duke of Argyle, after their first performance garnered, rave reviews. On a stormy afternoon in early May, the singers were mingling Argyle Lodge with Lord Campbell and some lesser members of the court, suddenly the Duke excused himself to receive a visitor. And there amidst the summer downpour, descending from a closed carriage, stood, to the singers' astonishment, Queen Victoria.

Maggie Porter: Poor ignorant me. I received the greatest disappointment of my life. The queen wore no crown, no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen in her widow's cap and weeds. But it was the queen, in flesh and blood. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Maggie Porter described her appearance as a letdown. The queen had come to visit her daughter who was married to the duke's son. The Jubilees' presence, Queen Victoria later wrote, was just happy coincidence. 

Maggie Porter: I can see her now. She had on gloves. I can see her taking off her gloves and looking at us all of the time. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Victoria wasn't one for piety or even the abolition movement, but she did enjoy a novelty. When they finished singing, she didn't applaud, she didn't thank them, she simply smiled, then exited the room. But Queen Victoria's blessing was enough to open doors across all of Europe. From Westminster Abbey, where they sang Steal Away over the tomb of Bloody Mary to a Sunday at St. Paul's, with the Prince and Princess of Wales, and to a far greater triumph, singing for Victoria's daughter, Vicky and her husband, Friedrich at San Souci, in Prussia. In its time, it was the finest palace in the world. That performance was one of Ella Sheppard's favorite memories. 

Ella Sheppard: I shall never forget that one insight, without ceremony into the home circle of the grandest royal house in the world.

Destiny O. Birdsong: Prince Friedrich Wilhelm didn't stand on formality, but greeted every singer by name. In the home of the world's most powerful monarchs, these young Black vocalists from Fisk were recognized, seen and heard. Back in their hotel that night they gathered for evening prayer and sang "praise God from whom all blessings flow." 

Ella Sheppard: We had devotions when all united in one common prayer of thanksgiving and praise to our heavenly loving father for his wonderful kindness and loving guidance through paths of which we know nothing, which ended this day of the greatest and most peculiar honor to the Jubilee Singers.

poem for America Robinson: I'm saying we crossed the sea

 and the people leaned in. 

Listened for our harmonies. 

We sang a song for a crownless 

robeless queen

 and I felt like the royalty 

saw our beautiful, even if she didn't 

see how or say how 

even the scar on my brow 

found its own tune

 I sing to see if we can sing

 the wind between us crowned good 

as these storied seas around us 

keep shining

Destiny O. Birdsong: there was fun on these tours. Outside of performances, baseball was played, operas were staged in hotels, cornbread was baked in Geneva. But even with all they enjoyed, the tour proved costly. Laura White, the wife of the Jubilees' conductor who had accompanied her husband on the voyage, died from typhoid fever. Griefstricken and sick from travel, george White left conducting of the singers entirely to Ella Sheppard 

Ella Sheppard: With so many of the management ill and absent, the singers, with volunteer help, carried on the work to the close of the season. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: The Jubilees decided to end their British tour with a concert at Exeter Hall. It was their most profitable by far, earning over 10,000 pounds, supplemented by books and oil paintings. Tenor Benjamin Holmes told the audience at Exeter, at the concert's close, "The foundation of Jubilee Hall, which was laid last spring with American greenbacks, will be capped with British gold." The once hardscrabble band of schoolkids was returning to the U.S. with international acclaim, a fame bolstered by their mission's perceived righteousness. Even at the heights of stardom, the Jubilees were still working toward their main purpose, a permanent structure to school generations of future Fiskites. Jubilee Hall would be the crowning achievement of an audacious journey. And as they toured, the singers dreamed of performing at the dedication of a grand hall with the name of their ensemble etched into the masonry.

But when they finally arrived home in Nashville, Jubilee Hall was little more than a hole in the ground. As the Jubilees' star grew, the American Missionary Association, which repeatedly denied the singers their endorsement, was now openly embracing the choir and their fundraising success. The year of their first European tour, the Jubilees' fundraising receipts were higher than the income of the entire AMA combined. And the association begins shamelessly skimming funds of Jubilee Hall's reserves to finance its own operations. Stunned at this discovery and fearful that the news would mean a scandal with their English donors, George White had little choice, but to corral his weary band of singers and embark with the Jubilees on another European tour. This type of white foolery was just one in a laundry list of reasons that members of the choir and Nashville's larger Black community still had their misgivings about Fisk. Save Ella Sheppard, all of the university's faculty were white, the school's enrollment favored the fairskinned, there was little support for community school houses, and even among the Jubilees, the old dynamic of racial hierarchy was alive and well. And though he loved his students, George White found their swelling confidence in the face of fame, a threat to his authority. When a handful of singers tried staying back in England for solo tours, White worked to undermine them. He pointed to his own sacrifices, the death of his wife, to justify breakneck scheduling. Julia Jackson, a young contralto, was so overworked, she suffered a stroke in the middle of the night that left one half of her body paralyzed, and White simply sent back to Nashville for a new singer. Elder Jubilees, like FJ Loudin, were incensed. 

FJ Loudin: If we grow sick, we're to be shelved or turned out to die. And in fact, as we are killed, you put in a new one, while one of the managers rests. I realize that I owe a duty to myself, which forbids that I should break myself down in two or three years when with a reasonable amount of work, I might last much longer. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: And knowing all this, and recognizing Fisk's track record of prizing its goals, even above the singers' wellbeing, Black Nashvillians, couldn't quite believe that a building as ornate and towering as Jubilee Hall would ever truly, be meant for them. But in 1876, over a year before the touring singers would finally come home, Fisk University celebrated the dedication of Jubilee Hall, without the Jubilees. Their namesake though, the L-shaped six-story Victorian Gothic dormitory, it's spire visible above the northern ridgeline, was the first and grandest permanent structure on Fisk University's campus. Today on 17th Ave North, in Nashville, Tennessee, that monument still stands. It is the oldest building for the higher co-education of Black Americans in the United States and every column, brick and beam in its edifice was purchased with money from the Jubilees' tours, a Testament to those intrepid singers who raised over $150,000 to see it completed, the equivalent of $3.2 million today. In its early years, Jubilee Hall was more than a symbol of the choir's success. It was also a guard against the constant threat of white violence. And for years, Fisk students would sit in shifts through the night as armed watchmen, scanning the countryside for potential arsonists from Jubilee Hall's highest turret. Attempts were made, but the building was never set alight. It remains a women's dormitory, in some cases, now having housed several generations of students from the same family. Its carved staircase was sent from Sierra Leone by a former student. And in Appleton Hall, on the first floor, a portrait by Edmund Havel of the singers who toured Europe still hangs, a gifted commission from the monarch who never quite looked at them in the eyes. In the middle of the portrait taller than the others, stands the oldest member of the group, FJ Loudin. An established singer when he joined, Loudin's debut at Fisk was a triumph. 

Ella Sheppard: His name should be Mr. Loud Man. He has a wonderful voice and seems a man of some experience. Mr. White asked him if he thought he could stand being flattered and praised for one year. Mr. Loudin thought seriously for a moment then replied, he did not know, but he hoped so. Very different indeed from Jubilee Singers' replies. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Loudin had been shut out of white society at every turn of his early life in the United States. He was born free and excelled as a student in his hometown of Ravenna, Ohio. In fact, Loudin was at the top of his high school class, which led the parents of his white classmates to withdraw their kids in protest. In his time with the Jubilees, Loudin found freedom to excel in Europe, a liberty he wasn't ready to give up.

FJ Loudin: We were astonished to find such freedom. I gradually realized that I could do what anybody else could do without any prohibitions on the ground of my color. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: In 1879, when Fisk's president disbanded the Jubilee Singers, because their fundraising goals had been achieved, Loudin stepped in to lead. He knew the choir's best days were still to come, and he formed a new ensemble named the Loudin Jubilee Singers. In his role as director, Loudin became more outspoken about combating the racial prejudice he and the Jubilees faced in the U.S. 

FJ Loudin: In Europe, we were welcomed in the house of royalty, and in Germany, we had the pleasure of stopping in the palace of the crown prince. So it was elsewhere until we came to our own land. I could not help speaking on this. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Loudin's Jubilee Singers, pioneered global touring, as they journeyed from Europe to Australia.

FJ Loudin: Wherever we went, flowers were strewn along our pathway. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: And they drew the warmth of Aboriginal Australians, with a performance of Steal Away. In New Zealand, fans began to follow them from concert to concert. They even sailed to India and saw the Taj Mahal and asked the caretakers' consent to sing inside. 

FJ Loudin: We gather around the sarcophagi and soon the great lofty dome echoes the first Christian song it has ever caught up. And that song, the cry of a race akin to those whose dust sleeps in the crypt beneath. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Loudin helped expand and preserve the Jubilees' legacy, cementing them as the first globally touring musicians. And Loudin's Jubilee Singers were also able to earn a living as vocalists. When they returned to the U.S. after six years of touring, they were able to purchase land, build homes, and create their own legacies. Loudin himself had wood shipped in from around the world to build a house from places the troupe had visited. He became a businessman in his later life and opened a shoe factory in his Ohio hometown that employed an integrated staff. Loudin's Jubilee Singers kept the spark of the ensemble alive, inspiring the university to reassemble its trademark Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1898. And at the university that was saved by spirituals, one professor had the mission of saving the spiritual itself, coming up next on 3 Castles and the Music City.

WPLN:3 Castles and the Music City is possible thanks to the support of Curb Records and The Poetry Foundation and the collaboration of Fisk University Jubilee Singers, check out our website where you can add your memories and well-wishes, and everyone can leave a message for the ensemble and read more of their story. That's all at

Destiny O. Birdsong: I'm Destiny Birdsong. You're listening to 3 Castles and the Music City, a special celebrating 150 years of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, heard here under the leadership of one of their most influential directors, John Wesley Work II.

John Wesley Work II: Still a way down in the Negro's heart, there has been a smoldering coal of love for his own peculiar songs, which have been gradually fanned into a burning flame by the two forces: education and the knowledge that musicians of other peoples are studying it seriously. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Spirituals were passed by oral tradition, a game of generational telephone that allowed these songs to eventually evolve into the blues, jazz, country, rock, and gospel. But writing them created a time capsule in sheet music, a lockbox that singers could open for centuries and hear how American music began. Thanks to Work's landmark collection, Folk Songs of the American Negro, our hymnals today contain: Go Tell it on the Mountain,There is a Balm in Gilead, and Down by the Riverside. Work's appointment as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1898 was a watershed moment in the preservation of Negro spirituals. The son of a choir director who had once been enslaved, for this mild-mannered, bespectacled academic, fundraising was not the primary goal. His aims were artistic, educational and sacred. 

John Wesley Work II: To sing these songs effectively, the stranger must be in a spiritual frame of mind. Then too, he must not try to sing. That is, he must not try to impress people with his voice or voice culture, but abandon. Himself entirely to his spiritual nature. This done, there's no need for fear, or failure. 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Under his direction, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the first musicians to answer calls from emerging record companies like Victor, Edison, and Columbia. Over several trips to the New York area, they took another leap forward.

With recording in its infancy, John Wesley Work II's tenor voice had to literally, through force alone, move a needle through wax as he and his quartet closely gathered around a metal horn to focus their sound.

Victor previously labeled the black music, they released as 'coon songs,' but the Fisk Jubilee Singers commanded the title 'folk music,' and it's so well. Between the three record labels in the first 15 years of their trackings, over a million Jubilee records were sold. People in even the most remote parts of the United States,

if they owned a record player could hear these most fabled musicians perform. And it wasn't long before all they needed was a radio. 

WSM announcer: ...

From the Heart of the South, Magnolia Blossom, musical echoes of days long past, still living in the memory of the South.

Destiny O. Birdsong: Broadcast by WSM, and distributed over NBC's Red Network, this is Magnolia Blossoms, a so-called highbrow cornerstone of WSM's programming, including its resident ensemble, the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The show was the lead-in to The Grand Ole Opry and the Jubilee Singers were under the direction of the widow, Mrs. James A. Myers. Her husband, a reverend, had been part of John Work's recording quartet. And when John Work left the university, Mrs. Myers joined her husband as a member of the quartet, seamlessly blending her contralto into their fractureless harmony. She was even portrayed on albums, matching their suits, with her hair pulled back. But in reality, her role was much larger. Like Ella Sheppard before her, Mrs. Myers led without the title of director, conducting the ensemble from recording studio to a tour of army bases in 1918, as soldiers departed for world war one. She became the official leader for the next 19 years and was always known as Mrs. James A. Myers, never allowing anyone to show disrespect by addressing her by her first name.

poem for Mrs. James A. Myers: What's in a name? 

A woman 

wielding before you 

a chorus made anew 

be careful 

about what you think 

you can dismiss. 

I homage perfection.

 I Maestro as I see fit. 

I Jubilee 

in any year I please 

Let's keep it simple. 

When the foot falls 

on the record

 it happens 

at my command.

Destiny O. Birdsong: Despite Fisk administration efforts, Mrs. Myers refused to allow the group to disappear in the 1930s, and remained at the university until 1947. When she created a successful alumni ensemble, "homage to perfection," is what famed composer, Maurice Ravel, wrote on a photograph he gave as a gift to Mrs. Myers, after hearing her Jubilees perform.

Mrs. Myers stands in the middle of two chapters of the Jubilee singers. Her parents attended Fisk with the original touring choir, and she grew up hearing Ella Sheppard speak as a member of the Jubilee Club. Mrs. Myers sustained the choir long enough for the reins to be handed to John Wesley Work III, who kept the group in the recording studio. From her tenure on, disbanding the Fisk Jubilee Singers has never been an option.

WSM announcer: The spiritual and plantation melodies brought to the world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers are representative of America's only group of folksongs. Since 1871 singers from Fisk University have given to all the beautiful songs of their people. This evening, we present the third generation of these singers under the direction of Mrs. James Myers.

Destiny O. Birdsong: The latest milestone in the Jubilee Singers recording history happened in 2021.

Grammy presenter: And the Grammy goes to: "Celebrating Fisk!"

Destiny O. Birdsong: In its 150th anniversary year, the ensemble accepted its very first Grammy Award, still intoning those sacred lyrics, that tided generations of their ancestors out of bondage. This music is our inheritance, not of land or stone or currency, but of fortitude, from centuries of people who shaped their hurts, hopes, and human longings into songs that could link a grieving mother in a Tennessee field to a widowed queen in her English palace, songs that could baptize the walls of a slaving citadel, songs that formed the very bricks of a castle built by 10 descendants of American slavery. 

Dr. Paul Kwami: It reminds me of the story, the story of Abraham, when God told him to take his son, Isaac, and to go somewhere... 

Destiny O. Birdsong: Fisk Jubilee conductor, Paul Kwami: 

Dr. Paul Kwami: He simply obeyed and received an abundance of blessings. These young African-American students chose to obey their director and traveled. And I wish they would know today that we are still talking about them, still admiring them for what they did. Just going out to sing.

Destiny O. Birdsong:Three Castles and the Music City is a production of Nashville Public Radio. Featuring poetry by Ciona Rouse, Bryan Byrdlong, Joshua Moore, and me, Destiny Birdsong.

Historic words brought to life by Jubilee Singers: Andrew Davis, Ariana Okhouzagbon, Cortney Town, Kennedi Hall, Jeffrey Casey, Tory Westbrook. Our thanks to Fisk student interns: Sonia Hordge, Anthony Kennedy, and Josiah Francis — also to Lauren Fitzgerald at Strategize 619, artist Xavier Payne, historians Tim Brooks, Dr. Steven Lewis, Dr. Crystal DeGregory and DeLisa Minor Harriss. Our gratitude also goes to author Andrew Ward of “Dark Midnight When I Rise”. 

Music contributions came from Bryson Finney, Adia Victoria and Shirley Sims, and Calvin Rogers. Curb Records and the Country Music Hall of Fame provided archival recordings.

We’d also like to thank alumni Adjoa Taylor, Robert Taylor, Tandekile Francis, and Esi Snodgrass.

The show was written by Joshua Moore and Colleen Phelps, and mastered by Jakob Lewis.

I’m Destiny Birdsong. This is 3 Castles and the Music City

In October of 1871, the oldest University in Nashville TN, teetered on the brink of collapse. To survive, Fisk University staked its last $40 on a set of field hymns and 10 descendants of American slavery. The singing group carried melodies their families shared in secret from the cotton fields of middle Tennessee to the high court of the Queen of England. The landmark tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers rescued a university, gave Nashville its identity, and set the course of American music. 

One hundred fifty years later the journey of the Fisk Jubilee Singers continues. Immerse yourself in the music and voices of the original chorus and hear how their stories are transformed through poetry in this one-hour special “Three Castles and the Music City.”

Produced in partnership with Nashville Public Radio [WPLN]
Hosted by: Destiny Birdsong
Co-Written and Produced by: Joshua Moore and Colleen Phelps
Editing by: Anita Bugg
Transcription by: Ayinde Jean-Baptiste

Destiny Birdsong
Ciona Rouse
Bryan Byrdlong

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