An Introduction to A Capella plus Rhythm: Jubilee Quartets

Negro Spirituals have had influence over every single American genre of music that is still performed today. One genre that was directly influenced by Negro Spirituals is the Jubilee Quartet, which began taking flight after the 1930s: the transitional period. Jubilee Quartets used similar content to Negro Spirituals but began slowly incorporating syncopated beats and secular messages. Before the secular messages came to fruition, quartet songs focused on the “’good” life; hence the name “jubilee.” The highly syncopated melodic line, accented accompaniment, and “ragged” rhythm are characterized as Ragtime, which was incorporated in many quartet performances. Ragtime was most popular from 1826-1920, which was before the height of Jubilee Quartets, thus quartet music was heavily influenced by the style and message of Ragtime music.  Because of the quartet’s “gospel” message, quartet style singing originated in southern churches and community events; eventually various groups began recording for radio.

Jubilee Quartets have a very unique sound, and are characterized by having four basic vocal harmony parts. First being the Bass: essential, anchored bottom, this ultra low voice sang the rhythmic, percussion-like parts. The second lowest voice was the Baritone, whom was usually the lead singer and the narrated the songs. The final two higher voices are the First and Second Tenor. These two voices were relatively high, and alternated between melodic and percussive parts. Percussive voices are essential to a Jubilee Quartet because their songs were traditionally sang A Capella. These percussive parts created a beat and rhythm that made the songs interesting, catchy, and memorable. As the first musical genre to apply intricate vocal beats, rhythm was very important.

Although highly rhythmic, Jubilee Quartets dominate the majority of the genre, several other kinds of quartets exist: Barbershop Community Quartets, Shape Note Scared Quartets, University Jubilee Quartets, Minstrel Jubilee Quartets, etc. Several renowned groups developed from these various types: Dixie Jubilee Singers (1920), The Mills Brothers (1934), Heavenly Gospel Singers (1939), and the Golden Gate Quartet (1940).


Because an innumerable amount of African Americans excelled and enjoyed this highly entertaining style of music, Caucasians began participating in Minstrelsy. A minstrel Show is an American form of entertainment, developed in the early 19th century, that incorporated comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that mocked people of African descent. These shows were not a form of flattery; they were extremely ignorant and disrespectful. Another from of entertainment including African Americans that developed in response to Jubilee Quartets is the Cake Walk. A Cake Walk is an intense dancing contest, which awards cake as a prize. These performances, by African Americans, became very popular form of entertainment for Caucasians. Although Cake Walks were entertaining and enjoyable, they subjected African Americans to an “entertainer” status. This is why African Americans are seen as only good for entertaining white people in present day.

Yes Sir, Mr. Bones!

Cake Walk

Not only did Jubilee Quartets influence Minstrel Shows and Cake Walks, they also influenced several other future genres. Quartet singing developed into small Gospel ensembles, which eventually developed into full-blown Gospel Mass choirs. Quartets are responsible for much of the traditional Gospel music that African Americans enjoy today. Jubilee Quartets are also directly responsible for the development of Rock N’ Roll in both the African American and Caucasian community. Both Gospel and Rock N’ Roll incorporate intricate musical parts and rhythms, which were used, first used by quartet performers. This fact proves the extent of African American creativity and influence over all American music.

Where there is major influence, commodification follows. Most instances of commodification of African American music usually include Caucasians as well, but not always. When the lead singer of the Golden Gate Quartet enlisted in the Navy, the bass singer stole the rights of all of their music, even though he did not write any of it. He benefitted greatly from this and didn’t give the actual writer credit until years later. This is an interesting and unique example of commodification within the black community.

Intricate harmonies, syncopated rhythm, and beats are the backbone of almost every modern day American genre. Stomps, claps, hums, “ooos,” “ahhs,” and snaps are used widely throughout various genres, and the first genre to utilize these was the African American Jubilee Quartet. In conclusion, these musical groups were and will continue to be very important to the African American community and its music. Quartets show the creativity and uniqueness of black people. Although Caucasian communities do not perform in quartets or pay homage to their brilliance, they indirectly show admiration by mimicking the style of Jubilee Quartets.


Thank you for reading!

Nia Jackson

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