Fisk Jubilee Singers in Tacoma

–by Kim Davenport

Thanks in large part to the selection of Commencement Bay as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific railroad in 1873, Tacoma has witnessed visits by prominent musical soloists and ensembles throughout the city’s history. Either through targeted searching or casual browsing, I have found fascinating coverage of performances here by a who’s who of significant artists from all over the world.

It should, then, come as no surprise that the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in 1871 and still active to this day, have made many visits here. In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to share accounts of some of the earliest visits, dating from 1890, the first visit I could identify, to 1921, when the ensemble sang in Stadium Bowl!

If you are not familiar with the historic and cultural significance of this ensemble, I encourage you to watch this brief video, highlighting their role in familiarizing the nation with African American spirituals in the years immediately following Emancipation:

This music, a bedrock of African American culture, was an oral tradition which developed during the era of slavery. It could easily have been lost to our modern understanding had it not been written down in sheet music form in the years immediately after the Civil War, skillfully arranged for performance by brilliant black composers such as Harry Burleigh, William Dawson and Nathaniel Dett, and then performed widely by groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who brought the music to a national and even international audience.

Before we move on to stories of their Tacoma visits, take a moment to listen to the earliest surviving recording of the ensemble, from 1909:

The ensemble’s earliest visit to Tacoma appears to have taken place in April 1890. They performed at the brand-new Tacoma Theatre on April 15th, with a one-paragraph review the following day in the Tacoma Daily News stating:

“A large audience greeted the Fisk Jubilee Singers at the Tacoma theater last evening. The programme, consisting of fourteen numbers, was carried out in a manner which called forth loud applause, and several hearty encores were responded to. The song “Jingle Bells” was especially fine, while the medley near the close of the programme as peculiarly enjoyable. The tenor solo by C.W. Payne was excellent. None of the numbers was more entertaining than the solo “Down Upon the Suanee River” by Mrs. Jennie Jackson-DeHart, the only one of the company of eight who belonged to the original company when it started out 19 years ago.”

During the same visit, on April 25, the group performed at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in a concert sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with that performance receiving the following preview in the Tacoma Daily Ledger:

“Every day the singers are as rigidly drilled as though they had never appeared before an audience, consequently their voices blend together like the tones of a grant organ under the touch of a master hand. The gradation of the eight voices from the lower to the middle and upper registers is made without a flaw.”

By the time of their next visit, in March 1892, announcement of their concert was given a more prominent billing in the newspaper, with this advertisement for ticket sales referencing their prior performances before presidents, kings and queens:

The same paper provided a review of the performance, which read, in part:

“The company is headed by Mrs. Maggie L. Porter-Cole, one of the original company who first introduced the music of the slaves into the concert hall and whose efforts in the building of the Fisk university were so successful. The quaint, peculiar and passionate songs of the slaves receive a wonderfully effective rendering at the hands of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They all have good voices and they sing with great depth of feeling and taste. Nearly every number was encored last night.”

The Singers’ next performance in Tacoma appears to have been on January 20, 1904, as part of a series of events sponsored by the Y.M.C.A. which took place at the Lyceum Theater.

[That short-lived venue at 312 S. 9th was built in 1892, operated under various names, and was demolished in 1909.]

This performance received extensive coverage – both before and after the event – in the Tacoma Daily News. A preview article explained that this event had generated as much excitement as all of the other five of the Y.M.C.A.’s series put together, and spoke at great lengths of the significance of Maggie Porter-Cole, mentioned above, who was still the group’s leader. In part, the article read:

“Indeed, the remarkable preservation of her voice, with all its beautiful qualities absolutely unimpaired, is one of the marvels of the company’s career. In her are embodied all its early traditions, its lofty aims, the wonderful incidents of its history, and – herself a slave – a personal knowledge of the system of bondage out of which it grew.”

The review of the concert was detailed, naming all of the singers in the ensemble and describing every number on the program. In summary, it read:

“A large and appreciative audience gathered at the Lyceum theater last night and thoroughly enjoyed the concert given by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the Young Men’s Christian Association’s “star course.” The work of the Jubilee Singers was a surprise, excelling what had been expected of the troupe despite flattering advance notices. Mrs. Maggie Porter Cole, first soprano and musical directress, literally took the audience by storm, and the work of the remainder of the company was excellent.”

Many more visits came in the 1920s, several of which appear to have been sponsored by specific Tacoma churches. I have no doubt these events would have been well-attended, but occurring as they did in churches, they did not necessarily receive newspaper reviews to document the details of the programs.

The Rev. Frank Dyer, whose name appears at the bottom of the advertisement above, again invited the ensemble to perform in Tacoma in 1921, this time at Stadium Bowl. And so, on June 12, 1921, the Fisk Jubilee Singers joined the ranks of other famous visitors to Tacoma with their performance in what at the time was our city’s largest venue. In the same space that Tacoma residents had heard speeches by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had listened to the music of John Philip Sousa’s band, had watched a ceremony in honor of World War I General Pershing, and seen Babe Ruth play baseball, the Fisk Jubilee Singers now shared African American spirituals.

Coverage of the concert in the Tacoma Daily Ledger included the following:

“The appreciations of the old folk songs extended not alone to the members of the singers’ race in the audience. Their simple themes and melodies, their reiterations, refrains and harmonies, rendered with fidelity to their plantation origins but with the finished art of trained voices, won every ear and heart.”

More than a century later, the ensemble remains devoted to the work of sharing this music so deeply rooted in American history. After listening to many wonderful recordings on their YouTube channel, I selected the following recording as a last word on the story I have shared here:

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