The word jubilee was derived from the bible where its latin definition most nearly meant “to shout with joy”. Black people adopted this definition most literally, and adopted a genre of music called jubilee singing. Jubilee started in only Black communities such as churches and historically black colleges and universities, but it soon made its way onto the main stage appealing to all different kinds of people. The groups, some known as quartets, took on a similar appearance to glee singers meaning they wore suits and ties. Jubilee music was mostly sung a cappella.
Jubilee became very imporant to the Black community for a plethera of reasons, but one reason was most important. Before the Jubilee period of 1880-1929, Black people were never seen on a stage or any platform unless they were being exploited or humiliated. When jubilee became mainstream, it was the first time Black people performed publicly with dignity. Jubilee singers were well-known and respected which was not common amongst Black people during this time.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a choir-like group established at Fisk University in 1871. They started as a means to raise funds for the school, but they became so popular they went on tour. They sang a cappella and dabbled mostly in traditional negro spirituals. The group, when first established, consisted of nine men and five women, all of which were students at Fisk University. The choir was directed by George L. White. The choir appealed to all audiences and became very popular. In the first year tour, the choir raised $40,000, ultimately saving the school from filing for bankruptcy. The original choir was disbanded in 1878 due to the grueling conditions and treatment they received on tour, but when the choir was reinstated in 1879 it was back and better than ever. Fisk University remembers the anniversary of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers’ first tour by celebrating Jubilee Day on October 6th every year. They set the precedent for all the Jubilee Quartets and more to come.
Jubilee quartets formed after the jubilee choir era. Jubilee quartets became widely popular sacred music singing groups. Quartets performed their own arrangements of negro spirituals tor large crowds. Quartets began to appeal to all types of people, Black and White, because of their harmonies and performance skills. Quartets had many ground breaking historical moments such as transitioning Black entertainers from laughable to respected. The Golden Gate Quartet became the first Black musical group to perform at Constitutional Hall, and they even went on to perform at the White House several more times. Jubilee quartets influenced the blues and jazz eras, and you can still find jubilee styled music today. An example of modern jubilee music is the group Take 6. Although this group is a sextet, their music style and content resembles many of the original jubilee quartets.