October 18 - Words and Music

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On October 18, 1892, Paul Laurence Dunbar recited some of his poems during an event in Dayton that featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  He was 20 years old, working as an elevator operator and had yet to publish his first book.  Paul described the event to his friend James Newton Matthews, a country doctor and poet from Mason, Illinois.

Last night the Fisk Jubilee singers were here and I read for them at the Y. M. C. A. hall.  There was an audience of between six and seven hundred people who received my poems with an unexpected heartiness.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Newton Matthews, October 19, 1892.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).

Fisk University in Nashville was founded by the American Missionary Association shortly after the Civil War for the purpose of educating people who had been enslaved.  Since the 1870s, a vocal ensemble called the Jubilee Singers has performed African American spirituals in concert tours throughout the U. S. and around the world.

Fisk Jubilee Singers arrived from Dayton this morning, where they gave two concerts for the benefit of the Y. M. C. A.  Each night they sung to a crowded house.

Xenia Daily Gazette and Torchlight (Xenia, Ohio).  October 19, 1892.  Page 3.

Last night's concert at Association Hall by the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers was most enthusiastically enjoyed by the large audience.  It would be difficult to convey in words an adequate description of the enthusiasm and mirth provoked by some of their songs, while others stirred the deeper feelings by the pathetic and heart-scorching melody.

"Amusements."  Dayton Evening Press (Dayton, Ohio).  October 18, 1892.  Page 4.

The progress of the colored race was never more completely shown than by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, at their entertainment last evening in Association Hall.  The evident intelligence of these members of the African race was very pleasing to those who desire to see the advancement of their fellow creatures manifested.  Certainly in the program the old melodies of slavery times were most effective.

"Amusements."  The Evening News (Dayton, Ohio).  October 18, 1892.  Page 4.

Paul later wrote that the emotional appeal of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was rooted in the suffering of Black Americans forced to work in slavery.

When F. J. Loudin, of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, told me how the people flocked to hear his troupe sing their simple old plantation songs I wondered.  When I heard a college glee club or white male quartette sing these same songs, with strict attention to every minute detail of time, attack and harmony, I no longer wondered.  It is only the negro who can sing these songs with effect.  The white professional acts:  the negro feels.  Here lies the difference.  With the black man's heritage of song has come the heritage of sorrow, giving to his song the expression of a sorrowful sweetness which the mere imitator can never attain.  Many of the old plantation hymns, rude and uncouth as they were, improvised by the negroes themselves under the influence of strong religious zeal, are models of melodic beauty.  Underlined almost invariably by a strain of sadness, they sometimes burst out into paeans of hope, rising above the commonplace and reaching up to the sublime.  Through them all can be traced the effect of the condition of the people.  The years of depression and fear, with their intermittent moments of flickering hope, going out again in despair, and then again brightening into a hope that is almost a surety.  Even at the present day go into some of the small churches of the south and listen to their hymns.  The voices of the singers assume a tone that one cannot describe.  There is still that wavering minor cadence that cannot be imitated.  It is that heritage of expression still there, and through it all one can hear the strain running like the theme of a symphony -- the strain a supplication to God for deliverance.

"Plantation Music," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Quincy Daily Herald (Quincy, Illinois).  January 11, 1894.  Page 4.