British Black Gospel, Part 1: From the Plantation to the Palace
Steve Alexander Smith is the writer of British Black Gospel, a book which traces the roots of Gospel in Britain. Exclusively for MOBO.com, Smith will be provding an overview of the world leading US Gospel market, and how it compares historically and economically to its British counterpart - taking us from the origins of British black gospel up to the present day. You can find out more about the British Black Gospel book on Amazon.
Between 1861 and 1865 America was locked in a desperate and bloody struggle over the issue of slavery. The Northern states were victorious and the confederate southerners crushed. When the dense smoke of the battlefield cleared, a new generation of African-Americans emerged. From 1866 onwards a new moral campaign would be fought on many fronts giving birth to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement 100 years later.
In 1871 black students from Fisk University in Tennessee USA formed a choir with one single objective in mind, which was to raise badly needed funds for an educational establishment which was threatened with closure. The right of a free slave to be educated was the driving motive behind the 11-membered negro-spiritual choir who took a brave step into the unknown. The United states mainstream at this moment in time were not ready for a performance from such people unless it drew from the minstrel tradition. White audiences appreciated them on stage but their hotel accommodation and travel remained racially segregated, despite this, the performances were dignified and skilful.
In 1873 the choir took their voices to Europe, beginning in Britain, the doorway to a European campaign that would leave an impression for many years to come. The British, who abolished slavery in 1807 received the Fisks with open arms and embraced the Spirituals in cities the length and breadth of the country. Without the benefit of TV or Radio many within this era were hearing what the national newspapers had dubbed ‘a stranger enchanting sound’, for the first time.
This historic trip to England absorbed a myriad experiences such as the opportunity to sing before the great Queen Victoria, a legendary Prime Minister and thousands of people across the social spectrum. Academics of music listened and analysed a musical outpouring that penetrated their minds and souls.
Although funds were raised far in excess of what was required to save their University back home, these ex-slaves saw in Britain an environment where they were treated with the dignity and respect that eluded the black man back home. After the tour, which later took in an equally successful adventure on the European continent, some members of the troupe, one being Tenor singer and negro-spiritual tutor Thomas Rutling refused to return to America and eventually settled down in North Yorkshire.
In a bizarre twist to the Fisk Jubilee Story, one of the songs that they introduced to our shores, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ went on to become the regular battle cry for rugby union fans in stadiums across the country. The song also became rooted in UK Chart and BBC TV sport history when reggae band UB40 performed it as a theme to the televised 2003 Australian world cup tournament.
England went on to win the competition and a plantation song that was introduced to the British public over 100 years earlier became the inspiration for a great victory.