The Chamber Singers make a pilgrimage to the heart of the Spiritual
April 12-14, 2002

The Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges under the direction of Associate Professor of Music Thomas Lloyd recently completed a year-long “Pilgrimage to the heart of the Spiritual.” Their goal was to connect with the living traditions of the Historical Black College choirs who first performed the now famous choral arrangements of the Spirituals in the years after the Civil War. The were privileged to perform with choirs from two of the oldest and most widely respected choral programs in this tradition, the Howard University Choir under the direction of James Weldon Norris and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, directed by Paul Kwami.

During the course of this pilgrimage they also discovered Haverford connections to these colleges that they had not been aware of before. A November 9, 2001 concert with the Howard University Choir in Marshall Auditorium at Haverford was arranged with the help of the Rev. Dr. William Pollard, senior minister of the more than 100-year-old Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore, and long-time member of the staff of the Haverford College Library, whose son John Pollard was a graduate student serving as assistant director of the Howard choir.

They also found that Haverford’s ties with Fisk University reached back to a Quaker activist named L. Hollingsworth Wood (1873-1956) who served for almost forty years as a member of both the Board of Trustees at Fisk and the Board of Managers at Haverford. At an April 13, 2002 concert at Fisk University in Nashville, Lloyd presented the Paul Kwami and the Jubilee Singers with a framed reproduction of a 1920 letter from Fisk Dean C. W. Morrow asking Wood for help in arranging a steam-boat crossing for a Jubilee Singers tour to England. Below the note is a reproduction of a photograph of the “Old Bell” at Fisk also from the Wood collection.

The Chamber Singers’ journey to Fisk was arranged with a great deal of help from a living Fisk/Haverford connection, Lucius Outlaw, Jr. Currently serving as the Director of the African-American Studies Program at Vanderbilt University, Outlaw was also the T. Wistar Brown Professor of Philosophy at Haverford for 20 years, before which he had also served as a member of the faculty at Fisk, having come back after graduating with the Fisk class of 1967. Also involved in the tour plans was Haverford’s current Music Performance Coordinator, Marilyn George who is also a Fisk alum, class of 1974, and a former Jubilee Singer herself.

The November 9 concert with the Howard University Choir was particularly felicitous because it was arranged at the last minute by the Rev. Dr. Pollard through his son John when the Fisk Jubilee Singers had to cancel their planned trip to Haverford due to complications arising from the then very recent events of 9/11. Just two weeks before the concert, Haverford director Lloyd had met with the Black Ministerial Alliance of pastors from the numerous African-American churches in the Ardmore neighborhoods just next to the college to invite them to encourage their members to attend the upcoming free concert with the Jubilee Singers. He spoke with Rev. Pollard, also the current chair of the Alliance, about having the Chamber Singers come to sing during morning worship the next Sunday at his Zion Baptist Church. When news of the Fisk cancellation came through the next day, Rev. Pollard was quickly on the phone to his son making arrangements for the Howard Choir to take their place.

It was a memorable concert for all involved, with many from the Ardmore community in attendance. The two choirs took turns singing Spirituals from their repertoire, as well as some rousing “work songs” sung by the men of the Howard Choir. Made up of about 50 current

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undergraduate and graduate students as well as Howard alumni from the Washington area, the multi-generational choir’s sound was powerful and richly expressive. The cadences of the music rolled naturally from their voices, and the deeply felt connection to an unbroken tradition going back to the late 19th century was unmistakable. James Weldon Norris, a Howard alum himself and director of the choral program there since 1973, gave brief introductions to the Spirituals his choir sang, drawing on his own personal experience early in his career working with Hall Johnson and some of the other great arrangers of concert Spirituals. The concert closed with Professor Norris conducting the combined choirs in a moving performance of R. Nathaniel Dett’s Listen to the Lambs.

From the moment the Haverford and Bryn Mawr students arrived at Fisk University in April, they were impressed with the sense of history that permeates every corner of the relatively small campus. Several of the bi-college students were housed in Jubilee Hall, an imposing, historic building constructed in the late 19th century with funds earned by the first touring ensembles of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. However, it was the Fisk students themselves, especially those privileged to be members of the current Jubilee Singers, were the most tangible historical representatives of one of the first Historical Black Colleges to be founded at the end of the Civil War, and the first performers to introduce the sacred songs of the slaves to the outside world. After returning home, several bi-co students noted how for many of the Fisk students they met, especially members of the Jubilee Singers, Fisk’s rich history was an important factor for them in choosing to enroll. Some also felt that while many students also come to Haverford for its strong historical connection to Quaker values, the Fisk students seemed to be much more versed in the particulars of their history.

This historical awareness was most visibly demonstrated in the Jubilee Singers’ part of the April 13 concert shared with the Chamber Singers in Fisk Memorial Chapel. For one set of songs entitled “A Portrait comes to Life” eleven of the Jubilees posed in formal period costume in the positions of a famous painting by Edmund Havell of the second troupe of Jubilee Singers made during their 1873 visit to Queen Victoria and England, the original of which still hangs in Jubilee Hall. Performing without a conductor, as is their tradition, they each introduced themselves to the audience in the names of their historic predecessors, using the colorful colloquial speech of the time.

After each of these introductions, they would switch gears to sing together a Spiritual arrangement with impeccable ensemble balance, precision, and diction. The selections included several of the arrangements of such early composers as John W. Work III which were much more succinct in style than many of the more extravagant arrangements to come later. Within this simpler musical framework, there was also more opportunity for inspired improvisational solo singing. As these historically revived men and women sang so freely and directly to the audience while sharing easy glances back and forth among themselves, all who listened could not help but be impressed by the combination of close-knit ensemble, spontaneity, musical conviction, and dignity with which they projected the music. Their performance was a vivid demonstration of a dimension of the Jubilee Singers’ past often noted by historians since that time: of how the historical importance of the first troupe of “Jubilees” was not only that they brought a previously unknown body of great music to the world, but in the way they presented an image of the children of the slaves as being dignified, confident, and highly educable that contrasted dramatically with the demeaning caricatures presented by the racist black-face minstrelsy troupes that dominated popular American culture of the time.

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At the end of the Fisk program, as at the Howard concert, the two choirs sang a number of Spirituals together. An unexpected highlight of the tour came the next morning, when several members of the Jubilee Singers brought the Chamber Singers to sing at the morning worship of the Sylvan Street Baptist Church in Nashville where they were ministers of music. The response of the assembled congregation was warm and demonstrative, including spontaneous clapping and waving of hands at a number of climatic points in the middle of the songs the Haverford and Bryn Mawr students shared.

As one way of “bringing home” something of what they had learned from the experience, the Chamber Singers added one song from the repertoire of each of the choirs to their own program for the annual Commencement Concert in Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Great Hall. From the Howard University Choir they learned Hall Johnson’s powerful arrangement of I’ve been ‘buked, with its haunting melody speaking so eloquently of determination in the midst of great sorrow. From the Fisk Jubilee Singers, they brought home John W. Work’s Rise, Shine, for Thy Light is a-coming, trying to come close to brilliance and joy they encountered in the Jubilee’s performance in Nashville. These and 17 other Spirituals performed by the Chamber Singers have now been compiled into a new CD to be released at the beginning of the new academic year.

It is hoped that these collaborations with the Howard and Fisk choirs will only be the first of many to come. The Haverford and Bryn Mawr students undoubtedly came to feel a much more personal connection to music they had already grown to love. They now have faces and a sense of historical place to entwine with the simple words and unforgettable melodies that will remain their companions for years to come.

- Tom Lloyd, August 2002