I’m having a fine time writing about March Simpson and how she got her man. Still, I’m reminded that I have not yet posted about what exactly inspired this story. I’ve mentioned my family’s singing group, The Gift of Song, and how they sang spirituals, (African American folk songs), during the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were far from the first to do so, however. In the wake of the Civil War, many of the enslaved wanted to hear no more of the spiritual music that they composed as they toiled in bondage. I made that reluctance part of the character of March’s father, Virgil.
Some understood that the songs reflected folk art. In Dark Midnight When I Rise, Ella Sheppard, one of the founding members of Fisk Jubilee Singers said, “The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past, and represented the things to be forgotten.” But a lot of people understood the songs were folk art and began to collect them.
One of the early collectors was George White, a teacher at a newly established school in Tennessee–Fisk. The school was having a difficult time raising funds to continue operation. A recently arrived teacher, George White, had heard some of the students singing and formed a group. They started traveling locally in Tennessee and raising funds for the school singing European-styled concert songs. As encores though, they would sing one or two of the spirituals. White noticed how those songs were received and proposed that they create an entire repertoire of the spirituals to sing the songs publicly on a regular basis. Some in the group didn’t want to. But what made the idea more palatable in the minds of many was the wedding of the spirituals with the European approach. By doing this, they created something different that took the spirituals to a new place.
It took some time for the group to grow into a worldwide phenomenon, but they did. The Fisk Jubilee Singers endured a lot of bigotry and suffered indignities during their travels. But they also touched a lot of hearts. Their music let everyone know of the humanity of the enslaved. By singing, they preserved the songs and they captured the genius of those unknown composers and lyricists of the music. They also built Jubilee Hall on the campus of Fisk University. You can click the link to see it.
When my character, March Smithson is called upon to make a sacrifice for Milford College, she resists. But when mysterious new teacher Julian Lewis asks her, how long will she be able to hold out? The Songbird’s Stand releases this spring.
Zora Neale Hurston was not a fan of the Fisk Jubilee Singers style of singing.
Last week, I was reminded of the strong opinion Zora Neale Hurston had in her perspective of how spirituals should be sung. For her, things started to go wrong with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She talks about this in her essay “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” and blames them for putting forward this folk material in the wrong way. She insists: “I am of the opinion that this trick style of delivery originated with the Fisk Singers: Tuskegee and Hampton followed suit and have helped in spreading this misconception of the Negro spirituals.” She calls their style, “the Glee Club Style.”
As a Zora Neale Hurston scholar, and the daughter of a spirituals scholar, I was always torn by the insistence of her way and from what I knew in what I had grown up with. I’ve decided, and I hope Hurston might agree if she knew the current cultural climate, that we’ve got to hold on to these cultural treasures in any way we can. As you read this blog post, these works of literary art and faith are fading from our culture. From my perspective, holding on to something is better than nothing.
To me, the difference in how these songs are interpreted made for a natural conflict in my upcoming work, The Songbird’s Stand. My heroine March Smithson has her own views about the songs of her childhood, but the mysterious new teacher who comes to Milford College, Julian Lewis, has his own ways. Who will win? Is there such a thing as a victory in a battle of wills over intellectual property? I hope to bring you the answer at the end of March.
Meanwhile, here is a selection from my family singing group, The Gift of Song, as directed by my father. This song, “Don’t be Weary Traveller” is another one of those clever code songs, if you listen to the words. Aren’t the singers just welcoming some tired dude to Jesus? Listen closely. Just amazing.
Some members of the family called her “Hidie” You’ll understand why when you hear the song.
Whenever I am asked about where my scene-stealing child character, March Smithson, came from, I’ve attributed the basic aspects of her character to my niece. My niece and March were both born in the month of March and were both unsettled, busy active children. However, as the events in my most recent novel, The Mayor’s Mission, attest March is a bit of prodigy. She can sing. Then I realized that March had another inspiration–my mother.
My mother was also born in March and had a singing talent. She sometimes showcased that talent as part of a singing group organized by my musician father called “The Gift of Song.” The group, mostly made up of members of my mother’s family, existed for about ten years and went all over the Pittsburgh area performing in churches and concert halls for most of the 1970’s. My father is a scholar of this traditional African American folk music known as spirituals or sometimes called slave songs. Unfortunately, some also called them sorrow songs and just after emancipation, people wanted to forget them. Certain people at Fisk University realized the beauty in this music and organized ” The Fisk Jubilee Singers.” They toured around Europe in the 1870’s earning money to save the college and keep the songs alive. “The Gift of Song” was another one of those groups who helped to keep the spirituals alive.
Still, now in the 21st century, people are in danger of forgetting them. So in honor of my mother, I am posting a snippet of her best known solo “Ride the Chariot,” one of those clever songs that clearly had more than one meaning.
March Smithson’s adventures continue with events that change the shape of her life in the upcoming (June) The Representative’s Revolt. Her own love story comes later this year in The Songbird’s Stand. There’s even a peek into who March becomes by in 1910 in my novella, “A Sweet Way to Freedom” part of The Brightest Day, which will release on June 1. Don’t worry March fans. There’s plenty of her to come.