Four’s a Party: A History of Jubilee Quartets

Origin of the Genre:

Jubilee quartets originated in the mid-1800s and are a combination of quartet singing in the European tradition and African American singing. The jubilee genre came out of the Negro Spiritual as it is comprised of sacred texts but sung in a faster tempo. Often times growing out of religious settings, jubilee quartets created a framework for various religious singing ensembles.

Characteristics of the Genre:

The name quartet in the African American tradition is not defined by the number of individual voices but by the number of harmonies sung, which is four. Characterized by the presence of four voices (as in Western traditions), Jubilee quartets are comprised of a group of a minimum of four voices and a maximum of six voices singing acapella, without instruments, or with limited instruments.

Social Implications:

Around the same time that Jubilee quartets first came about, the Civil War ended and some years later, African Americans were “freed”. There were still several laws, policies, and societal standards that prevented those who were once enslaved from being completely free and equal to their white counterparts. Even though they still needed to reach equality, freedom from slavery was a mere feat in itself. This caused African Americans to take some of the same messages that were sung in years prior in a melancholy, longing fashion to be “remixed” and sung in more upbeat ways.

Important Performers:

  • Fisk Jubilee Singers
  • Norfolk Jubilee Quartet


  • Mills Brothers
  • Golden Gate Quartet
  • Take 6


Radio stations and popular companies of the time often used jubilee quartets as a way to advertise products over the radio. Marketers knew that their message would reach the vast majority of the population as most people had radios due to their affordability. Jubilee quartets would sing a song, or jingle if you will, about a company’s product. The majority of the money made off these advertisements went to the radio stations and back to the companies. For large companies, spending a small sum of money on a radio ad was almost nothing in comparison to the money they would make because people heard the ad and were compelled to purchase the product. Although there were positive images of the jubilee quartet in the 19th century, negative images also came about in the form of minstrel jubilee quartets. Originally created in the mid 19th century by and for white Americans. In an effort to take back the slave narrative from Whites, African Americans put on their own minstrel shows and profited from entertaining others.

Influences of Future Genres:

Jubilee quartets influenced the creation of Gospel music. These quartets put a beat and rhythm to Negro Spirituals using instruments and voices. These jubilees, and eventually gospel, songs were emotional like spirituals but they were produced from and evoked different emotions that spirituals did. Jubilees had to make audiences feel different emotions, especially if quartets were going to perform them on television and radios.

Conclusory Opinions:

As previously mentioned, Jubilee quartets use the same sacred texts as Negro Spirituals but they are sung with upbeat rhythms. The coming of jubilee music coincides with the freeing of enslaved African Americans. Since music lyrics and styles are often born of the social context of the time they are created, it is almost safe to say that the jubilee was born out of this newfound freedom. African Americans took the same words they sang while enslaved and sad then turned the songs into those that celebrated the new life they could live.

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