How’m I Doin’ : Jubilee Quartets

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Origin of the Genre

The African American quartet appeared in the mid-1800s. Jubilee is a genre that contains narrative text, either secular or religious. It is usually sung in moderate or fast tempo. Jubilee came around during the nineteenth century, it was a product of the University singing movement which emerged after the Civil War. A jubilee quartet is a group of four to six voices that perform formal arrangements of spirituals. Minstrel Jubilees once reflected whites interpretation of African American, in 1870, African Americans began forming minstrel troops since they were not allowed to perform at white shows. Community-based Jubilee Quartets are a product of both University Jubilee Quartets and Minstrel Jubilee shows. Other forms of quartets include Shape-Note/Sacred Harp Quartets and Barbershop Community Quartets. These groups offered a unique singing style that evolved as a sub-genre of gospel music in the twentieth century.

Characteristics of Genre

A jubilee quartet is made up of four to six vocal parts. There is typically a bass singer, a baritone singer, a first tenor, and a second tenor. The baritone singer is usually the lead singer and narrator. Jubilee quartets traditionally focused on harmonies and well-blended ensemble sounds. University quartets focused on achieving a lyrical style, while community quartets focused on a percussive and rhythmic style. Jubilee songs were fast tempo songs that included verses. Minstrel shows mimicked the university style but had distinctive qualities such as humor and showmanship. Barbershop quartets harmonized spirituals, folk songs, and popular songs of the period. White minstrel shows often imitated this style of quartets.

Social Implications

Jubilee quartets allowed African Americans to obtain opportunities they otherwise may have been denied. During World War II, The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet was used to help inform African Americans of what was going on and to spread awareness of political campaigns. Jubilee quartets were also featured in films and radio advertisements. During the war, Radio broadcasts were the only outlet for quartets that remained.

Important Performers 

Fisk Jubilee Quartets

The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet

The Mills Brothers


During this period, the radio was the hottest new thing. Columbia recorded the first African American group in 1891. Victor Record Company recorded the first black sacred quartet on discs in 1902. radio broadcasts, commercial recordings, and touring helped with the popularization of community quartets. Race series, recordings of performances by African Americans targeted towards African Americans, also helped quartets reached a larger audience.

Influences of Future Genre

Jubilee quartets were the product of negro spirituals and folk music. Musical elements of jubilee quartets such as the influences of call and response and focus on musicality and rhythm would go on to lay the foundation for future genres such as gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues.

Conclusory Opinions

Jubilee quartets are just one example of African Americans creating a place of their own in history.  Music has always been an outlet for African Americans. As time goes by, we are able to see how creating a place of our own has grown into something so unique and expressive. Jubilee quartets are simply a piece of the puzzle in what is to become African American music.

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