Jubilee Quartets: From Storefronts Churches to Movie Screens

The Origins

             At the turn of the 20th century, a new form of music emerged. It was competing alongside the dehumanizing yet highly popular minstrel shows and trying to rejuvenate Negro Spirituals without taking away from its essence and importance to the Black community. Hence the rise of the Jubilee Quartet. 

              Jubilee Quartets were the products of university choirs such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In the late 1880s-1920s, Jubilee Quartets could be found singing very similar repertoires to the Fisk Jubilee Singers which would mainly be Negro Spirituals. However, a distinctive difference was that these newly-found quartets were much smaller in size compared to the university choirs. Jubilee Quartets set the foundation for the innovative groups to come.

            In the videos below, there are many similarities that can be drawn between the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Mitchell’s Christian Singers, a Jubilee group. Both perform at a slow tempo with a melancholy drawl, and their songs are Negro Spirituals still. 

Transitional Period

           As Black people began to move out West and up North from the southern states, they brought their music and culture with them. However, Black music began to transform as a result of urbanization and the stronger presence of Black churches across America. This led to the second phase of the Jubilee quartets- the transitional period.

             Quartets of this era set the foundation for what would become one of the most distinctive genres of American music- gospel. Due to the increase in technology, including the radio, Jubilee Quartets were able to gain more recognition within the U.S. and internationally. What distinguishes quartets of the transitional era from early Jubilee quartets is the fact that rhythm was more evident, and this can be heard in the recording of “Gabriel Blows his Horn.” Members of the quartet used their voices as instruments in order to diversify their sound as well. 

            What’s more, because of the increase in technology and media, groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet were able to bring their musical talents to Hollywood. They were featured in films such as “Star Spangled Rhythm”, “Hollywood Canteen”, and “A Song is Born.”

Gospel Period

             Lastly, the gospel period of quartets is considered the early stages of gospel music in America. The Jubilee Quartets of this period had all the defining characteristics of gospel music such as heavy clapping, belting, and call-and-response. However, knowing that Black music has always been a reflection of the past, present, and future, one can draw obvious parallels to the African ring shout in the gospel period of quartets.

              During the 1930s and 40s, Jubilee Quartets began to dabble in the secular repertoire, but this completely stopped in the gospel era. The songs now had religious meanings due to the gospel quartets’ foundation in storefront and pentecostal churches. Additionally, gospel era quartets began to use actual instruments such as the bass guitar. 

The evolution of Jubilee quartets is one that demonstrates the ever-growing creativity of Black people while also maintaining some aspects of the past. As stated before, African American music is and has always been a reflection of the past, present, and future. 

Works Cited

  • “The Golden Gate Quartette.” IMDb, IMDb.com, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1327933/.


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