Overview: The Fisk Jubilee Singers' Travels in the Antipodes and South Asia, 1886-1890

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When Frederick Loudin and his troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers (FJS) departed from Ceylon for British India in November, 1889, they could not have predicted that an enormous cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal would nearly cause them to miss their first concert in Calcutta. The members of the FJS were exhausted from the voyage and were uncertain of how their performances of African American Spirituals would be received by British and South Asian audiences in India. Nevertheless, they arrived just in time and gave an excellent concert that was cheered by the packed house and lauded in local English and Bengali newspapers. While the Singers were only in Ceylon, India, Burma, and reaches of East Asia for approximately five months, this tour was no less remarkable than the three and a half years they spent performing in Australia and New Zealand. This Omeka exhibit illuminates the important – yet little-known – history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ tours of the Antipodes, South Asia, and East Asia from 1886 to 1890. This global tour has received far less scholarly and popular attention than the travels and tribulations of the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers (1871-1878). However, this exhibit argues that these performances were very important in raising global awareness and veneration of the Singers, of African American Spirituals, and of Fisk University.

Throughout their time in Asia and the Antipodes, the Singers traversed social spheres and spaces that were often restricted to the white colonial elite. In addition to staying in several exquisite hotels, the FJS performed before large crowds in famous concert halls. In each city they visited, the troupe received acclaim and invitations to private gatherings from prominent persons. However, they neither wished to only share their talents with ticketholders, nor to socialize only with members of the colonial elite. As musicians who believed their performances contributed to missionary endeavors promoting the betterment of persons the world over, they held free concerts specifically for Aboriginal Australians, Māoris in New Zealand, Karen persons in Burma, and Indians. During their world tour, the FJS confronted and negotiated conceptions of race and class in an array of social contexts as they raised global awareness of African American Spirituals, promoted Fisk University (despite not having official sponsorship), and, in their view, encouraged Christianity among colonized persons.

Much of the scholarship and popular literature on the Fisk Jubilee Singers focuses on the formation of the original troupe in October, 1871 and its eight years of touring the United States, Canada, Britain, and Continental Europe. Led by Fisk’s music director, George White, and sponsored by the American Missionary Association (AMA), these famous tours aided in financially supporting Fisk University during its first decades. By 1872, the FJS developed a public image as a professionalized group of refined vocalists who presented audiences with a unique form of music. By the following year, the Singers received so much praise and publicity in the press that imitation jubilee groups unaffiliated with Fisk University began to travel the United States. Competition with these rival troupes led the Fisk Jubilee Singers to set their sights on performing in Britain and Continental Europe. From 1873 to 1878, George White led the FJS on a series of successful tours of Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Holland, and Germany. The Singers received the acclaim of European critics and musicians as audiences filled continental performance halls. Throughout this period, the Singers’ profits were substantial and allowed for Fisk University both to remain solvent and to expand its campus through construction projects, such as Jubilee Hall (1876) and Livingstone Missionary Hall (1882). Although the FJS’s tours were quite lucrative and raised global awareness of Fisk University and African American Spirituals, the University’s administration disbanded the group in 1878.

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Frederick Loudin

George White and several members of the Singers, however, did not wish to conclude the project. In 1879, White and Frederick Loudin recruited new members for the FJS and toured the United States and Canada without the official support of President Cravath or other Fisk administrators. Although concert attendance was not consistently high, by 1880 this new incarnation of the Singers received praise from concert-goers, music critics, and the future United States President, James A. Garfield. During this time, Loudin both increasingly took on the role of director and improved his skills as a public speaker. Loudin began to incorporate into each performance a series of speeches addressing racial inequality in the United States, the importance of African American Spirituals, the mission of Fisk University, and the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. After three years of touring North America, recurrent ill health and waning profits encouraged George White to resign and dissolve the Fisk Jubilee Singers again in 1882. Despite White and Cravath’s disapproval, Frederick Loudin resolved to revive the troupe and take on the role of director. Under his adept leadership, new and longstanding members entered the ranks of the Singers on a subsequent two-year tour of North America. However, Loudin and his troupe wanted to receive greater acclaim by taking their talents to other reaches of the globe.

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Travels of the FJS 1884-1890

By 1884, Frederick Loudin and his wife, Harriet, planned a six-year tour of Great Britain, the Antipodes, and parts of Asia. This global tour would conclude with the Singers reaching the west coast of the United States in 1890. In April, 1884, the Fisk Jubilee Signers departed New York City bound for England. In addition to their agents and Mrs. Loudin, the troupe initially consisted of contraltos Georgie Gibbons and Maggie Wilson; sopranos Maggie Carnes, Belle Gibbons, Mattie Lawrence, and Pattie Malone; tenors Robert Bradford Williams and John Lane; bassos Frederick Loudin and Orpheus McAdoo; and Leota Henson as pianist. Loudin recruited vocalists not only for their vocal talents, but also for their personal refinement and moral character. Arriving in Britain in the summer of 1884, the Singers received several social invitations and performed at private gatherings. However, sweltering weather during the first summer months led to low ticket sales to their public concerts. Such a disappointing turnout caused the Loudins to worry that the global tour could be financially disastrous. Nonetheless, when the Singers toured the Midlands the following fall, they performed before crowds of thousands. The FJS continued to find success in Britain and Ireland over the following year and a half. But by early 1886, fears of diminishing ticket sales compelled the Singers to depart for to the next leg of the global tour.

After arriving in Australia in May, 1886, the Singers received a cordial welcome from Melbourne politicians and businesspersons. Between June and November, 1886, the Singers performed to sold-out concert halls in Melbourne and Sydney and received high praise from Australian concert-goers, journalists, and music critics. Between November, 1886 to June, 1887 the FJS toured the North and South Islands of New Zealand, where they sang to diverse crowds in venues of all sizes. After a year and a half touring in eastern Australia, the FJS returned to New Zealand from December, 1888 to May, 1889. Once back in Australia, Loudin and the other troupe members received encouragement to tour South Asia from the Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, and from the former Fisk English Professor, Henrietta Matson.

Following a brief stopover in Ceylon, the Singers arrived in Calcutta in November, 1889. The troupe sang each night for two weeks at Calcutta’s Opera House. During the subsequent week, Henrietta Matson – who now served as a missionary in the subcontinent – arranged for the FJS to give concerts each night at the local Methodist Episcopal Church. While performing in the cities of Lucknow, Kanpur, and Agra in Uttar Pradesh in December, 1889, the Singers also toured remarkable historical sites. When visiting the famed Taj Mahal near Agra, the Singers gave an impromptu concert to a primarily South Asian audience. The Singers then spent the first week of 1890 in Bombay. Each night they performed to a full house at the Framji Cawasji Institute. Audiences pleaded with the troupe to give additional concerts in Bombay, and their performances received favorable reviews in local newspapers. Nevertheless, in mid-January, the FJS traveled down the western coast and through southern India to Madras. In this city, they performed every night for two weeks in Victoria Hall. Their final stop before their homeward journey was Rangoon. By the time of their arrival in early February, Henrietta Matson and her missionary colleagues had relocated to this Burmese city. Matson arranged for the Singers to perform in Bishop Thoburn’s church and to give private concerts to Buddhist Karen persons. After a week and a half in Rangoon, the FJS began their return to the United States. Between February and April, 1889, they performed in Singapore; Hong Kong; Shanghai, China; and Kobe, Japan. For more detailed accounts of the Singers’ travels and performances in Asia and the Antipodes, please see the pages entitled “Australia and New Zealand, 1886-1889” and “South Asia, 1889-1890” accessible through the navigation column located on the left-hand side of this page.

This digital exhibit, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Travels in the Antipodes and South Asia, 1886-1890,” preserves and presents to readers important archival material which help to illuminate the history of the Singers’ global tour. Extant documents relating to this period of the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers are far less copious and have been scattered to several archives within the United States and around the globe. This exhibit features a small – but important – sampling of documents related to the Fisk Jubilee Singers held in Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections (Nashville, Tennessee), and the Auburn Avenue Research Library (Atlanta, Georgia). In addition to scans of Frederick Loudin’s 1892 published travelogue, this exhibit contains images of correspondence, commercially-produced photographs of Asia which the FJS acquired during the tour, and ephemera from the Singers’ concerts in Australia and India. Moreover, in order to craft the narrative of the Singers’ global travels, this online exhibit utilizes and cites materials located in the Portage County Society Research Library and the Detroit Public Library’s Special Collections.

This exhibit is organized into ten “pages.” Each provides important and little-known information relating to the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ global travels during the late nineteenth century. Each page is accessible through the column of links on the left-hand side of the screen. In addition to this overview, this Omeka exhibit contains pages dedicated to the Singers’ time in Australia and New Zealand, their travels in South Asia and East Asia, short biographies of each member of the troupe during their global tour, Fisk University’s ties to India in the late nineteenth century, images of Asia which the Singers acquired during their travels, Frederick Loudin’s published account of the global tour, and collections of documents. This Omeka exhibit also features a virtual map, a note on contributors, and acknowledgements of those who helped to make this project possible. Several pages contain contents representative of the extant materials held in the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library’s Special Collections, the Auburn Avenue Research Library, and other archives. In addition to celebrating the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 150th anniversary, the contributors hope that this website will be of interest to both scholars and a general audience interested in the history of the Singers, Fisk University, African American musicians, Spirituals, nineteenth-century American musical performances, and global representations of African Americans.

Overview: The Fisk Jubilee Singers' Travels in the Antipodes and South Asia, 1886-1890