Gender Inequality in Jubilee Quartets
The jubilee quartet is a music genre that originated in the mid-1800s as an extension of the American university singing movement. These early groups consisted of four to six voices and a composition arranged for a four-part harmony sang in either a cappella or with a limited number of instruments. Over the years, jubilee quartets went through several phases, from university jubilee quartets to minstrel jubilee quartets to community-based jubilee quartets, etc. Although some aspects of the genre have changed over the years, one thing that remained constant was the lack of women represented. From the jubilee quartet’s origins, the genre was traditionally performed by all-male groups. Especially in the music industry, most female quartets were underrepresented/recorded on a much smaller scale compared to their male counterparts.
Beginning in the early 1920s, large record companies began recording male jubilee quartets commercially. As time went on, more record companies began adding one or more jubilee quartets to their labels. By the 1930s, jubilee quartets became more popular through radio broadcasts, commercial recordings, and touring. Race series, or special series of recordings performed exclusively by African Americans for an African American market, were launched and, along with an increased number of live radio broadcasts, helped expose more quartet groups to audiences outside of the groups’ local communities. One thing that was missing from this booming industry was the presence of female groups, who were included in the industry in much smaller numbers and seemed almost nonexistent. Because the traditional structure of African American jubilee groups was all-male, all-female groups were not as popular. Today, because of the lack of publicity, it is much more difficult to find well-documented information and recordings from these female jubilee quartets. One group where some recordings are available are the recordings of the group believed to be the first female quartet recorded, the Wheat Street Female Quartet.
The Wheat Street Female Quartet
The Wheat Street Female Quartet was a jubilee quartet based in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1920s. The group is believed to have originated from members of the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, a church later known in the 1940s and 1950s for its many gospel and quartet programs. Much like other all-female jubilee quartets, it is challenging to find any documented history of the group, but what is known is that in 1925, the group made history by becoming the first female quartet group to have their music recorded by a record company. In 1925 and 1926, the Wheat Street Female Quartet recorded six sides for Columbia and OKeh, recordings that can still be found and listened to online today. While the Wheat Street Female Quartet made history for female jubilee quartets, the lack of documentation on the group is proof of the extreme differences in the commodification of the music/performances of male jubilee quartets compared to their female counterparts.
Sources: African American Music: An Introduction