The Evolution of Quartets in the African American Community


Jubilee Quartets paved the way for many music groups and genres. Following negro spirituals, jubilee quartets originated in the mid-1800s, mostly at historically Black colleges such as Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, and Hampton University. They’re a Capella vocal group containing 4-6 voices (typically men) singing four-part harmony arrangements with little to no instruments. These groups would travel throughout the North and South performing these arrangements at local churches and events as entertainment. “The early African American sacred a cappella vocal groups were originally known as jubilee quartets because of the nature of their repertoire and characteristics of their performance style.” (pg. 119). While “quartet” is typically a Western art form, they’ve had significant impacts and changes within the African American community. 

Jubilee Quartets (The Jubilee Period 1880-1929)

After the Civil War, singing Universities began to appear in the South for the newly freed Black slaves. It was at one of these colleges that the first Black quartet, The Fisk Jubilee Quartet, became well known in 1871. By this time, companies with all-Black casts began to enter the entertainment industry with their own minstrel shows for Black people and by Black people. Just four years later, shows with Black casts became religious-based, which resulted in Black minstrel troupes including religious singing and adding jubilee to their name. With their new name, these groups of four men began performing religious-based songs at churches in the North and South. “All jubilee quartets specialized in singing harmonized spirituals and jubilee songs” (pg. 124). 

Transition Quartets (The Transitional Period 1946-1969)

By 1935, Jubilee quartets were performing for both Black and White audiences. This mix of spectators resulted in a varied performance of songs for both cultures. “In the years between 1935 and 1939, when the Dixie Hummingbirds were performing for White audiences, it was customary for them to begin with at least one song that conformed to white expectations of what blacks ought to be singing before moving on to the rest of their show. ” (pg. 126). Quartets also added a 5th member to alternate lead vocalists during this period. In the 1940s, quartets began to add guitars to their performances to accompany the use of body percussion in song battles. It was in these performances, and many others, that jubilee quartets began to experiment with and perform different song genres. 

Gospel Quartets (The Gospel Period 1946-1969)

After the late 1940s, quartets became mainly African American. By this time, gospel music was well established, so jubilee quartets began to incorporate gospel music in their performances. As a result, jubilee quartets began to be known as gospel quartets. At this time, quartets began to integrate instruments into their performances and added a 6th and final voice. Along with gospel pieces, jubilee quartets included songs from popular artists in their performance sets. “The crossover of sacred soloists into popular entertainment and the fact that the entire groups sometimes switched into popular music were among the primary factors that led to the decline of quartets” (pg. 136).


In the 1950s, after the gospel period, interest in quartets decreased. The constant change of genres and performance styles became difficult to adapt to. The symbiotic relationship between African American sacred and secular music has been a primary factor in determining the image and identity of the quartet within the African American community. “This relationship has plagued the quartet tradition since its inception, first because of the for-profit performance modes of university, minstrel, and barbershop quartets, and later because of the crossover of quartet performers to secular music. Although the Black fundamentalist sacred community makes rigid distinctions between sacred and secular musical realms, the African American quartet tradition has historically transgressed these boundaries. (pg. 138).”


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