Even though Negro spirituals are one of the most popular black sacred music genres, they have not been extensively considered as a commoditized cultural product or as a founding popular music of the U.S. Filling this gap, Sandra Jean Graham’s Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry examines the role of white-controlled Negro spirituals and jubilee performance in the establishment of the U.S. entertainment industry. She asserts that the entertainment industry was drawn from frequently exploited black labor: “built on black culture, black ingenuity, black bodies… it was embraced by black audiences who valued seeing their own community members onstage and knew how to look beyond the endlessly recycled stereotypes for subversive and affirming messages” (xv). By providing a nineteenth-century account of commoditized black sacred music performance and linking it to the concomitant development of the troubling blackface minstrelsy industry, Graham establishes the basis for interpreting the popularity and continuing impact of black sacred music genres today.
In his poetry, African American composer James Weldon Johnson referred to the enslaved African creators of Negro folk musics as “black and unknown bards.” These unknown black bards crafted Negro spirituals in community, within the pernicious chattel slave society that underpinned U.S. colonialism. The folk music tradition then provided “raw” product that was culturally mined by mostly white men who could copyright music long before African American composers could. By the end of the Civil War, there was a surge in live performances evoking a mythic, romantic plantation past. These concerts, minstrel shows, musical plays, circuses, and variety shows offered black performers employment and were the means through which U.S. and international audiences were exposed to black social life. While black audiences were anxious about and ashamed of portrayals of a slave past, white audiences were insatiable when it came to devouring what Graham calls “black musical behavior” in live shows. Unfortunately, those performances transmitted misrepresentations of black people’s spirituality, work ethic, sexuality, and character—mischaracterizations with which black people contend to this day.
The book is divided into two large sections: “The Rise of a Jubilee Industry” and “Spirituals for the Masses.” In Part One, Graham lays out the development of concert or arranged-composed Negro spirituals at Fisk University through the history of the legendary Fisk Jubilee singers. She follows the origins of the concert spiritual with a description of the various musicians and tastemakers who contributed to the popularity of the genre and the performers who copied the style, thus together creating what Graham calls a jubilee industry. Part Two covers the popularity of the spirituals through their intersection with the non-religious minstrel show; commercial spirituals; the use of spirituals in Uncle Tom shows, melodramas, and spectacles; and then the erasure of distinctions between traditional and commercial spirituals.
With this groundwork, it is in the second section that Graham makes a notable contribution to the literature on music of the U.S in the nineteenth century. She explores what are variously called “pseudo-spirituals” (Sam Dennison), “minstrel-spirituals” (Charles Hamm), “religious songs” (Robert Toll) and “commercial spirituals” (Graham’s designation for the subject of Eileen Southern’s research), referring to popular songs written between 1873 and 1875 that were based on Negro spirituals. Graham identifies three different tendencies within the genre: songs written for personal financial profit and mass-market appeal; songs featuring idiomatic words and phrases and themes; and songs resembling folk spirituals (internal refrains, call and response, and gapped-scale melody). To account for the myriad types, Graham proposes a revision of Dennison’s categorization based on lyrics: camp meetings (messages delivered by a preacher); tocsins (promised punishment for sinning); and salvation songs (anticipation of the afterlife). Instead, she offers a categorization based on compositional model (parody, folk song, or popular song) and performative intent.
To be sure, Graham’s research opens up possibilities for further investigation of the formation of a black entertainment industry that incorporates music industry discourse and critical race studies analysis. For instance, I anticipate that such interdisciplinary examinations would tease out the extent to which the formation narrative of the Negro spirituals genre has problematically centered white decision makers and affluent patrons. In Graham’s book, the newly freed men, women, and children are not centered in the exploitation matrix that cheated them out of the right to copyright their folk music.
Like several scholars before and contemporary with her (Eileen Southern, Toni P. Anderson, Andrew Ward, and Marti Newland Slaten), Graham recounts George E. White’s role in musically guiding the student performers of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to ensure that they would inspire audiences to donate to their cause. Graham rightly points out the invisible contribution of Ella Sheppard, a formally trained, student-collaborator who was far more trained than White, in Graham’s account. I have observed that Sheppard’s contributions have been underestimated by generations of scholars, thus leading to the discursive exploitation of Sheppard at the hands of writers—largely white—who have disproportionately wielded historical power in the academy and beyond. Her musical renderings as the accompanist shaped the performance practice and subsequent published compositions. Obviously, she was exploited, contributing invisible labor as a student-collaborator for what was perceived as the greater good of Fisk University and to the detriment of her own tangible posterity. Sheppard’s narrative is emblematic of the erasure of black women’s labor as a recurring theme that needs to be named and righted with our scholarship.
With regard to taxonomy and style in the book title and throughout the text, two matters stand out. Graham is too tentative in her use of the widely accepted term for the genre by black music researchers and practitioners, Negro spiritual—a choice that precisely marks period language, politics, culture, and historical genre designation. Such apprehension signals white Americans’ social anxiety and guilt about this country’s racist past and their willful forgetting. Second, there is much to be said about the politics, possibilities, and limits of Graham’s use of speculative/fictional writing to recount pivotal, verifiable accounts in musicological research. Space will not allow me to delve into these issues here, but I intend to address them in a larger essay.
Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry contributes to the important research on the development, preservation, appropriation, and poaching of African American intellectual property that was derived from the cultural expression of the rural, colonial South. Surely, a tide of research on early commercial African American musics will follow, including the work of Matthew Morrison, Rhae Lynn Barnes, and Mariel Rodney that probes the extent to which this post-bellum religious repertoire set, reinscribed, and challenged trends in the lucrative non-religious market place.