Craven Lovelace

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September 13, 2012
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KAFM NOTES: The jubilee tradition

When we wish to stress the untarnished accuracy of a statement, we sometimes say, "It's the gospel truth." But just as there are differences between the books of the Bible we know as the Gospels, so too there have been different styles and strains of the musical genre which takes its name from them.

One such style dear to Craven's heart is the jubilee quartet style of gospel. For the fact that we can enjoy jubilee style gospel today - or, for that matter, that we even have a long gospel tradition in this country at all - we owe a great debt to a father and son whose names are not well-remembered today, but whose legacy lives on every time a gospel hymn is sung.

Gospel music as we know it today emerged in the 18th century in New England, among the congregation of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a theologian well-known in his time as the leader of a religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Edwards was not a forceful preacher, but he found the traditional long-meter hymns of the Protestant tradition too slow and staid for his church, and implemented faster rhythms into their songs. Eventually, these arrangements made their way South, where they were incorporated by African-American slaves into that shackled population's folk music.

The gospel of Southern slaves served two purposes - it offered praise to God, but it also acted as a sub rosa, coded blueprint for escape to freedom. Well-known hymns like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Wade in the Water" were thinly veiled "instruction manuals" for slaves interested in running to the North, toward "Canaan" (Canada) by way of the underground railroad of "Moses" (Harriet Tubman).

Following the Emancipation, blacks considered gospel a shameful reminder of their past slavery. Gospel might never have been rekindled as an important American musical form were it not for a man named John Work II.

In 1891, Work was a student at the black school known as Fisk University. Fisk had, years earlier, fostered a black choral group which toured the United States and Europe, singing both opera and gospel. But by the time Work came to the university, the choir had been dissolved. During the previous decades, black gospel had been stolen and parodied by white minstrel performers, to the point that serious-minded black musicians considered the form demeaning.

Work, unlike many of his peers, saw gospel as an important part of the black American heritage, and was responsible for the formation of a smaller gospel group, the so-called Fisk Jubilee Quartet, which went on to record more than 40 songs in the early days of the 20th century. The Fisk Jubilee Quartet was incredibly influential. Many jubilee quartets sprang up in its wake.

Work himself was eventually drummed out of Fisk University by an administration embarrassed by the music he pioneered. But his son would go on to not only further gospel music in America, but also make hugely important contributions to the history of the blues.

We'll learn the little-told story of John Work III next week - how he helped discover some of the best-known musicians of our time, and how he helped keep alive the joyous noise.

Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, partnering with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to promote the values of mutual respect, religious diversity, inclusiveness, compassion, and justice.

Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, You can visit for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.

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The Post Independent Updated Sep 13, 2012 02:09PM Published Sep 13, 2012 12:54PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.