Jubilee: An Overview of the Song Literature of African American Women Composers

By Baker, Sonya G.; Strempel, Eileen | Journal of Singing, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Jubilee: An Overview of the Song Literature of African American Women Composers


Baker, Sonya G., Strempel, Eileen, Journal of Singing


THE AMERICAN ART SONG CANON continues to reidentify and rearticulate its borders and boundaries, and this organic process underscores the importance of including the works of a wide array of composers, including African American women. As scholar Helen Walker-Hill notes in her book, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music, the first published songs by African American women appeared in 1870, but over a century later these works are woefully underrepresented in the repertoire. It is our hope that this brief introduction to some of the composers of this literature, spanning a broad spectrum from Florence Price to Nkeiru Okoye, will inspire inclusion of these songs into voice studios and performances.

This rich oeuvre of music by African American women song composers is best contextualized within the complex social as well as musical experiences of African Americans. Africans were forcibly brought to this country under the institution of legalized slavery, which was established in the seventeenth century and only abolished in the 1860s. The religious folk songs referred to as Negro Spirituals, or sometimes simply Spirituals, are believed by scholars to have their origin near the end of eighteenth century. Spirituals were sung communally by enslaved Africans, often in a call and response pattern typical of African music. Through these songs, slaves could experience a God who would affirm their humanity even when whites would not, a God who could set them free spiritually and physically. Spirituals served several additional functions for slaves. These songs often highlighted the individual's responsibility to the community as a whole, as exemplified by songs such as "He's Got the Whole World In His Hand." This sense of community was a strong African tradition maintained by slaves in America. Spirituals also inspired religious feeling at meetings of slaves, which often combined music with dancing and drumming, aspects of the African tradition largely prohibited by slave owners in the United States. The strong rhythmic drive of some spirituals facilitated their use as "work songs" in the fields. Perhaps most importantly, Negro Spirituals expressed a longing for freedom, encoding messages in lyrics that frequently referenced the Underground Railroad. For example, "De Gospel Train" celebrated the Gospel and it celebrated the train of slaves escaping northward. Just as slaves sang spirituals to express their desire for freedom, they also sang to express their oppression and to celebrate life. In an interview with PBS, musicologist Horace Boyer stated, ". . . the negro spiritual itself is a religious folksong of the slave era, which expresses basically two thoughts. One is liberation, and the other is sorrow. For example, 'Go down Moses' is a sorrow song. 'In that Great Getting Up Morning, Fare ye Well' is a jubilee. That's a liberation. We're going to get out of this situation, one way or another."1

This dichotomy of sorrow and liberation is evident throughout the literature of music composed by African American women. While this bifurcation is not exclusively due to the influence of Negro spirituals, musical elements characteristic of spirituals-pitch approximation, repetitive melodies, rhythmic drive and complexity, call and response, and occasional communal participation-helped to create jazz (often considered the first truly American music), blues, and gospel music.

While slaves were singing spirituals in the fields and in church, free blacks established educational, civic, and cultural organizations, hoping to achieve a status equal to that of whites. Most of our nation's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established during this time. Many of the HBCUs followed the example of Fisk University-with their renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers-who harnessed the fund-raising potential of spirituals by successfully touring concert halls around the world. In her article, "Black Women in Art Music," Teresa Reed writes:

Despite developing their own communities, blacks in the Northeast sought equal status with whites, and some of their cultural and educational efforts were designed to foster their assimilation into mainstream society.

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