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[Detail] Filipino Varsity Four.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Jubilee Singers: African-American Culture and Popular Entertainment

From Chautauqua's earliest days, companies of African-American "jubilee" singers were immensely popular attractions. Most of these performances featured a group of singers and musicians performing slave songs of the pre-Civil War South, in some cases with period backdrops and costumes. Oftentimes, the groups would also perform selections from popular Broadway "negro productions" such as "Showboat" and "Porgy and Bess." Groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed to raise money for their institution (Tennesee's Fisk University) while other groups such as the Southern Jubilee Singers and Players did so as a profession.

Chautauqua Jubilee performances tended to package African-American culture in caricatures and stereotypes that reflected the white audience's expectations and that persisted as popular images until the 1950s and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. By searching on keyword, jubilee, researchers have access to scores of materials relating to African-American performances.

The promotional literature for the Jackson Jubilee Singers is typical:

There is a subtle witchery in negro singing that charms an American audience. Even when negro voices are untrained, when the harmony is forced, negro melodies have a charm that is all there own. The race in America, through the years of slavery and later years of irresponsible freedom has had a leaven of humor and care-free abandon in their lives and relationship with each other. The rhythm and character of their songs are a relic and inheritance in which are blended joy, superstition, and religion.

  • What attitude towards African-American performance is expressed in this citation?
  • What do you believe is the purpose of showing singers in both formal and stage attire in promotional materials?
  • How does this piece characterize and portray African-American singing and culture?
  • How might this portrayal be distorted to suit the needs of the advertisers?
  • What distinction does the piece draw between "negro" culture and "American" culture?
  • What modern forms of advertising use stereotypes to promote products?
photograph from ‘The Manning Glee Club’.

Detail from a Photograph from "The Manning Glee Club."

By the 1920s, many jubilee companies began to consist all or in part of white performers wearing blackface makeup. This occurred because bureaus could cut costs by borrowing talent from different shows and because the practice was already popular on Broadway and the vaudeville circuits.

A search on keyword, blackface, yields several documents including materials concerning the Manning Glee Club. The materials feature several comments from former audiences members, one of whom remarks:

The second part was entitled "Half Hour with the Old Time Minstrels." There was the regulation circle, but the old-time feature of having all the men in black face was missing. Fred H. Lawton as tambo, and Elmer Millard, as bones, were in black face and fancy costume, and carried off the honors . . . There was a spirit and a hearty good will in the singing of the negro melodies that won the sympathy of the audience.

  • What do the images in the materials for the Manning Glee Club suggest about what minstrel shows were like? What do they suggest about the kinds of roles that African-American and blackface performers had in these shows?
  • What expectations does the reviewer have for "old-time" shows? How might these expectations have changed over the years?
  • Do you think that it was advantageous or damaging to race relations in the United States to feature mixed companies? What about blackface performances?
  • What is the purpose of having white men in blackface perform "negro melodies" instead of African Americans? Does this hold a certain appeal for the audience? Does it lend the music a different meaning?
  • What stereotypes of African-American culture might a white man in blackface be more willing to exploit than an African-American performer?