The Oberlin Gospel Choir will celebrate its first anniversary with a performance that pays tribute to two influential ensembles that preceded it: the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in Nashville in 1871, and the Oberlin Black Ensemble, which came into existence a century later through the effort of two Oberlin students.
Delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oberlin Gospel Choir finally debuted in spring 2021 with an outdoor performance on Tappan Square. The second concert in its brief history will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14, in Finney Chapel.
Like the Oberlin Black Ensemble before it, the Gospel Choir welcomes student voices from across the college and conservatory.
“Our current iteration of the Gospel Choir is, of course, inspired by those who came before us,” says La Tanya Hall, an associate professor of jazz voice and director of the ensemble. The concert will feature songs that were staples of the early Fisk Singers, followed by selections popular at Oberlin Black Ensemble concerts in the early 1970s. “We are more than excited that we get to share this music with our students, and we’re excited for people to hear how hard they’ve been working,” says Hall.
Pride and Perseverance
It was November of 1871 when the newly formed Fisk Jubilee Singers turned their dire fortunes around in Oberlin.
By that time, Fisk University was only five years into its existence but already had fallen deep into financial disrepair. Founded in the wake of the Civil War for the education of freed slaves and other Black citizens, Fisk launched a student vocal ensemble that was charged with touring the North in search of desperately needed funding.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, as they soon came to be known, performed in towns along the route of the former Underground Railroad. They initially made their way toward Cincinnati and then to Columbus, their artistry earning acclaim among the mostly white audiences, but netting little in the collection basket. (They raised about $50 for their Cincinnati performance—and promptly donated it to families devastated by the Great Chicago Fire that had broken out only days earlier.) The singers considered abandoning their mission, but instead continued on to Oberlin, where they performed for a convention of influential ministers in the community’s First Church.
With a selection of ballads complemented by spirituals they previously had sung only among themselves, the singers generated favorable word of mouth from their Oberlin performance, and they were met soon after with a flood of new opportunities. They toured across the eastern U.S., appearing in countless churches and singing for luminaries of the time including Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant, who had invited them to the White House. They encountered racism, illness, and fatigue as they went, but they exposed the world for the first time to the music of their culture, blazing a path of enlightenment and eventually returning to Nashville with sufficient funds to save their school. By 1873, the Fisk Singers mounted their first tour of Europe, performing for royalty throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Now completing its 150th anniversary celebration, the ensemble continues to light a beacon of hope through performances across the region and around the country.
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a global inspiration for those of us who want to keep spirituals and gospel music alive,” says La Tanya Hall. “This music is such a vital part of the American musical landscape, and every opportunity to play it keeps this history of the music growing and evolving.”
Connecting to the Black Experience
“In some ways, I think we thought of the Oberlin Black Ensemble as my generation’s version of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Oberlin,” says Charles Woods ’73, who co-founded the student ensemble in January 1971 with fellow sophomore Everett Williams ’74, MMT ’74. Woods is quick to note, however, that their ensemble’s roots were grounded much more in creative release than fiscal or cultural imperative.
The Oberlin Black Ensemble started as so many student initiatives do at Oberlin: as a project for Winter Term, that period of focused study—on virtually any subject a student chooses—that takes place each year during the month of January.
“In my mind, we were 19-year-olds doing something that we enjoyed,” says Woods, an economics major who went on to a career in information technology and education. “We were getting some support and having some fun.”
“Some of us were involved in our churches, and some of us liked the idea of connecting to the Black experience in a way we typically did not experience at Oberlin at that time, so it was bringing some of our background and history to the Oberlin context. We just started putting the word out, and people started saying they were interested.”
Their Winter Term project culminated in a late-January concert in Warner Concert Hall, then continued in the months that followed with performances in area churches and schools, as well as a live appearance on a Cleveland television station and a spring gig in Finney Chapel. In short order, the group’s roster had ballooned from 28 original members to 50.
In its second year, the ensemble toured the East Coast and Southern U.S. By year three, Williams—a piano performance major who also pursued a master’s in music teaching—led a two-week tour of his native California that stretched from San Francisco to San Diego. Woods credits Al Wellington, from the Oberlin admissions office, with arranging tour stops and accommodations with families whose children were interested in attending Oberlin. The ensemble continued to perform through 1979, with faculty support from voice professors Doris Mayes, Andrew Frierson, and others.
Numerous efforts to revive the choir in the years since proved unsuccessful, until Hall took up the task shortly after joining the Oberlin faculty in 2016. She is quick to credit the commitment of two longtime faculty members who made the Oberlin Gospel Choir possible.
“The journey to reviving gospel music at Oberlin really belonged in the hands of Wendell Logan and Bobby Ferrazza, who lobbied for a choir to be a part of the conservatory curriculum,” say Hall. The late Logan created the jazz studies program at Oberlin, and Ferrazza—a professor of jazz guitar in the conservatory—served as its longtime director.
“I set about designing a course that would be inclusive of all students in the college who wanted to celebrate this music,” Hall says. “When I learned about the Oberlin Black Ensemble, it became doubly important to ensure that a gospel choir would again be a part of Oberlin. But Wendell Logan and Bobby Ferrazza laid the groundwork for what has come after them.”
The Oberlin Gospel Choir’s May 14 concert will be presented in two sections. The first, “Remembering the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” features spirituals and other traditional tunes—including music and arrangements by Oberlin-educated composer Moses Hogan ’79—that were popularized by the ensemble a century and a half ago.
Part two, “Remembering the Oberlin Black Ensemble,” welcomes the return of the ensemble’s co-founders, Woods and Williams. Among the selections will be Leon Lumpkins’ “Wings of a Dove,” featuring Woods as vocal soloist with Williams at the piano. The program concludes with “Oh Happy Day,” an arrangement of an 18th-century hymn that was popularized in 1969 by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who made it an international hit. A resounding blend of the sacred and the secular, the tune was a staple of Oberlin Black Ensemble performances from the group’s inception.
“It’s certainly a point of pride, as well as some excitement, to interact with the current iteration of the ensemble,” Woods says. “It’s amazing, and it’s rewarding, that we had an idea that has persevered over time.”
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