Good Things Actually Come in Four: Jubilee Quartets

What Is Jubilee Quartet

Jubilee Quartet is a musical genre that originated in the mid-1800s. It is as an outgrow from secular and sacred narratives and begun to be sung in moderate tempos. It came from a mixture of harmonized western influenced singing and African American aesthetics and musical values. This included things like the call-response forms of African American folk spirituals and work songs. It emerged after the American Civil War, when institutions were created for former slaves. It’s associated with three periods that include:

  1. The Jubilee Period (1880-1929)
  2. The Transitional Period (1930-1945)
  3. The Gospel Period (1946-1969)

Some characteristics of a Quartet includes: 

  • A minimum of 4 people and a maximum of 6 people in the group
  • Highly rhythmic
  • 4 roles that included:
    1. The base singer – Often had the lowest voice and can be seen doing the thum, thum, thum, of the song.
    2. The baritone singer – Often sung in blue notes, grace notes, and melismas. Was the narrator/soloist of the group.
    3. The second tenor – Often harmonized with the group.
    4. The first tenor – Often had the highest pitch and mimicked instruments with their voice.

During the Jubilee Period different types of Quartets came to be. These included:

  • University Jubilee Quartets: When a full group sung the chorus in harmony and there was a soloist. No instrument was accompanied. Most of the songs were strophic.
  • Minstrel Jubilee Quartets: African Americans formed minstrel troops in response to the restriction of them being able to form in white minstrel shows. These shows began to include religious singing groups mostly Jubilee groups to become more popular. 
  • Community-Based Jubilee Quartets: Typically were folk counterparts to university Jubilee Quartets. Sang spirituals conceived by slaves but harmonized by Europeans. These quartets often went against rules that “governed European musical theory and performance practice” (Burnim and Maultsby, 79). These quartets used specific devices like hocket and polyrhythms to produce rhythmic variety. 
  • Shape Note/Sacred Harp Quartets: This quartet used fasola singing. Used the scale fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa. Helped with teaching music literacy.
  • Barbershop Community Quartets: Quartets that practice in barbershops where the group harmonizes spirituals, folk songs, and popular songs at the moment. Where most secular and sacred quartets were established. 

During the Transitional Period there was a transition from university and community Jubilee Quartets to gospel repertoire and performance style. The transitional period included:

  • A switch/swing/double lead: This was when there was an altering of narration in a song from two lead singers.
  • Fifth lead: When a baritone singer sung above the tenor line, using a falsetto voice. 
  • Walking/pumping bass: Walking percussive foundation produced by the bass singers in the Quartet.
  • Song Battles: Competitions that Quartets engaged in for popularity and trophies. Changed the style of performance as the Quartets had to get creative to win the battles. 

During the Gospel Period African Americans begun to see big changes that included:

  • Added instruments: This included an electric guitar, drums, and an electric bass. Some even experimented with pianos. 
  • Working Sections: The soloist would add improvised testimonies to further engage the audience. 
  • Touring Circuits: Quartet groups who went around singing in churches, schools, fairs, halls, and festivals for the entertainment of people. 
  • Crossover Phenomena: A result of touring circuits where Quartet groups switched from sacred to secular music.

Social Implications and Commodifications of Jubilee Quartets:

Jubilee Quartets were very important for meeting African Americans needs, interests, and aesthetics of the community. The social implications of Jubilee Quartets signified the change of African Americans from slaves to entertainers. Black people were put into scenarios they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. African Americans had finally started to reap money for the commodification’s they created. Because of the creation of the radio in the 1930s, African Americans were targeted and used as political tools to the African American community, but reaped major benefits from the radio.

Important Performers/Influence of Future Genres 

Important performers included:

  • Golden Gate Quartets 
  • Five Blind Boys 

Image result for golden gate quartet

Image result for five blind boys 

Jubilee Quartet would have influence on the beginning of rock and roll and the blues. 

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Today we still see the importance of Jubilee Quartets . Quartet are often seen in the churches that we attend and the music that our parents listened to. This type of music was so important for shifting the way black people began to be seen in the United States. Although we were still seen as inferior, we could make a name for ourselves with this music. We could be entertainers and express ourselves with this music. 

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