For nearly 150 years, a historically black private university in Nashville has prided itself on its liberal arts studies and its music. Vocal ensembles at Fisk University have been there about as long as the campus. But the songs performed there today might well have sounded very different had it not been for the efforts of one its first music directors.

A new CD shines a light on the efforts of John Work II. Its called There Breathes a Hope.

And as Jeff Bossert of member station WILL reports, it also reopens the debate over whether so-called Negro spirituals are integral parts of America's music history or cruel reminders of slavery.

JEFF BOSSERT: Between 1909 and 1916, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet recorded more than 40 songs.

(Soundbite of song, There Is A Balm In Gilead)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) There is a Balm in Gilead. Oh, make the wounded whole.

BOSSERT: The tenor with the eerily high voice in this recording is John Work II. He was a scholar, musician, an anthropologist who collected these songs from the days of slavery, had them published and recorded many of them with the quartet.

(Soundbite of song, There Is A Balm In Gilead)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) Sometimes I feel discouraged. I think my works in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

BOSSERT: When Work came to Fisk University in 1891, the institution had already used music as a way to save the school from insolvency. The first Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world, performing for Queen Victoria. And what they were performing was just as significant: They switched from operatic arias to religious songs. But by the time Work came to Fisk, the choir had disbanded, and was all but forgotten in part because of those very songs.

Mr. DOUG SEROFF (Author, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895): Because of their very sacred nature, they had been an essential part of the insular slave worship.

BOSSERT: Author Doug Seroff has traced the earliest history of black vocal harmonies, and wrote the liner notes for the new collection.

Mr. SEROFF: Further, white minstrel performers had seized on spiritual songs and subjected them to parody and ridicule - ridiculing the slaves religion as well as the songs.

BOSSERT: Seroff says there was a reluctance to perform spirituals following emancipation because they were seen as a degrading reminder of slave life. He says freed men were anxious to put this era behind them, and saw a college education as a way to achieve that. But Seroff says Work saw things differently:

Mr. SEROFF: For John Work, the spirituals preserved the religious faith and wisdom of his forebears. And he took great pride in the racial heritage of sacred folk music, and especially, the fact that the songs in his mind contained no trace of hatred or revenge against the slave masters and oppressors.

BOSSERT: John Work II was the son of a slave and he eventually convinced the university to let the singers go back out on tour.

(Soundbite of song, Shout All Over Gods Heaven)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) I got a cross, you got cross. All of God's children got a cross. When I get to heaven gonna lay down my cross. I'm gonna shout all over God's heaven.

BOSSERT: Reduced from a chorus to mens quartet for financial reasons, they made their first recordings in 1909 for the Victor label.

(Soundbite of song, Shout All Over Gods Heaven)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) I got a crown, you got crown. All of God's children got a crown. When I get to heaven gonna put on my crown. I'm gonna shout all over God's heaven.

Heaven, heaven. Everybody's talking about heaven aint going there. Heaven, heaven. Gonna shout all over God's heaven.

BOSSERT: The Fisk Jubilee Quartet became messengers for black music, says Tim Brooks, author of the book Lost Sounds, a history of the earliest African-American recordings.

Mr. TIM BROOKS (Author, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919): They only toured in the North, of course, usually to a kind of an upper educated group, and churches, and things like that. They didnt play vaudeville, or broad-based entertainment. So when those records came out from Victor, the big record company in 1910, they spread across the country and people everywhere, including people who would never allow a black person in their front parlor, bought those records.

BOSSERT: Some blacks felt the Fisk Jubilee Singers were pandering to white audiences. But Brooks says there were fans, including Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak, who believed black Americans should look to their own roots and traditions for music and build on them.

Mr. BROOKS: Another very prominent school of thought was that no, they should show that they can do everything that the white man can do, and do it as well, or do it even better. That is, follow the European tradition, go into great art, and show how well they could do it. Roland Hayes himself pursued that very strictly.

BOSSERT: Roland Hayes was the most prominent singer to come out of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet.

(Soundbite of song My Soul is a Witness)

ROLAND HAYES (Fisk Jubilee Quartet): (Singing) My soul is a witness for my Lord. Oh, my soul is a witness for my Lord. Oh, my soul is a witness for my Lord. Oh, my soul is a witness for my Lord.

You read in the Bible and you understand. Methuselah was the oldest man. He lived 969. He died and went to heaven, Lord, in due time.

Now, Methuselah was a witness for my Lord. Oh, Methuselah was a witness for my Lord. Oh, Methuselah...

BOSSERT: Hayes went on to become a lyric tenor. Translating the power of his voice and the rest of the quartet recordings for modern ears turned out to be a challenge for Richard Martin, co-owner of Archeophone Records. He says the shellac discs and wax cylinders compiled for this CD set were released years before standard playback speeds existed. And, with only a cappella voices to guide him, Martin sought some advice.

Mr. RICHARD MARTIN (Co-owner, Archeophone Records): The recommended speeds as they applied made this material sound like it was funeral music. And by consulting with an expert, and testing out some theories and comparing it to what we knew about what the group was supposed to sound like, we were able to make the changes to the pitching that made it much more vibrant, much more jubilant, and it just clicked.

(Soundbite of song, Peter on the Sea)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter. Peter on the sea, sea, sea, sea. Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter. Peter on the sea, sea, sea, sea. Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter. Peter on the sea, sea, sea, sea. Peter walking on the, Peter walking on the sea.

Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel in the li, li, li, li. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel in the li, li, li, li. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel in the li, li, li, li. Daniel in the lion, Daniel in the lions den.

BOSSERT: Surprisingly, John Work IIs contributions to African-American music on the Fisk Campus were largely overshadowed by those of his son. John Work III spent more than 40 years at Fisk, not only as a student and teacher, but leader of the Jubilee Singers, and was the first African-American chair of the schools music department.

Today, Anthony Williams is an associate professor of music at Fisk. He did his dissertation on John Work III, who he knew.

Professor ANTHONY WILLIAMS (University Organist, Fisk University): The research his son his did was more extensive, therefore he probably overshadowed his father in that regard. But I believe without his fathers work, Im not sure where his son would have been in terms of his work and his research.

BOSSERT: John Work II left the Fisk campus under a cloud. Its unclear whether he was dismissed or quit, perhaps because the university remained uncomfortable with the kind of music he championed.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Bossert.

(Soundbite of song, O Mary, Dont You Weep)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) Oh Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn because Pharaoh's army already got drownded(ph). Oh Mary don't you weep.

SIMON: You can hear music from the Fisk Jubilee Quartet at

(Soundbite of song, O Mary, Dont You Weep)

FISK JUBILEE QUARTET: (Singing) ...and tell all the news because Pharaoh's army already got drownded. Oh Mary, dont you weep.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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