Review: Burleigh Society & Fisk Jubilee Singers Conference Weekend (March 2 - 3)
This past weekend, the Burleigh Society held their first academic conference, focused on Harry T. Burleigh’s and Ella Sheppard’s role in the creation of the concert spiritual, one of the most impactful genres in American classical music. Through the work of guest speakers and performers, the careers of Burleigh and Sheppard provided rich discussions on stylistic legacy, inheritance, re-imagination, patronage, and Black feminist theorizing. Attendees and participants were given a space to reflect and engage with the ways Black composers have navigated predominately-white spaces and institutions while retaining their stylistic and archival priorities for themselves and their fellow Black Americans.
The weekend began with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing on the same stage as Burleigh for his 1892 New York debut. When the Singers entered the stage, the hall took on an aura of solemnity and awareness: of the legacy the Fisk Jubilee Singers represented, of the historical and artistic work they executed with each performance, and the new performance traditions they were creating. The second half of every Fisk Jubilee Singers concert is titled “A Portrait Comes to Life,” where a portion of the ensemble takes the stage in 1870s period dress and replicates the 1873 painting of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. To say that moment was powerful feels incomplete. Combined with executive director Dr. Marti Slaten’s performance prior to intermission, their presence reminded me that recognition of ancestry, be it genealogical, pedagogical, or stylistic, is a core facet of black classical performance practice. Those on stage and in the audience were not the only people present in that space. If you’d like to read more on the SInger’s concert, please read this amazing review by composer and music critic Brin Solomon here.
On Sunday, Dr. Daphne Brooks of Yale University, opened the conference as our keynote speaker. Her lecture considered Ella Sheppard’s role as a career and stylistic ancestor for journalist, music critic and singer Pauline Hopkins. Brooks considered Hopkins’ novel, Of One Blood as an early example of a black feminist music criticism. Through the character Dianthe Lusk, a fictional Fisk Jubilee Singer, Hopkins considered black women’s voices as an archival resources, pulling past events to the present for critical consideration. Brooks also considered how Sheppard and her fellow women members utilized comportment to push against the voyeuristic retelling of their biographies (e.g. her mother’s attempted murder-suicide) answering a question posed earlier in the lecture: “How does one translate, and transcend the horrors and ordeals of enslavement…?” To read more on the theoretical and musical lineages of Sheppard, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Pauline Hopkins, consult Brooks’ text Bodies in Dissent, Chapter 5.
After the keynote, the conference was split into four sections: 1) The Concept of the Concert Spiritual, 2) Harry Burleigh’s Musical Geography, 3) Institutionalizing Concert Spirituals, and 4) Family Legacies. The first panel featured discussions on Burleigh’s “Deep River,” (1913). Lucy Caplan spoke on two iterations of Burleigh’s “Deep River” that helped popularize the piece: a large community performance led by E. Azalia Hackley (1867–1922) and a radio play of the same name by Shirley Graham (1896–1977). Kenneth Overton reflected on his first exposure to “Deep River”, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price, a catalyst for his pursuit and attainment of a career as a opera and concert vocalist and co-founder of Opera Noire NY. Dr. Paul Kwami foregrounded the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ impact on the dissemination of spirituals, and Dr. Louise Toppin considered the sexist coverage of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds in newspapers and the large number of concert spirituals and art songs of both women that remain unpublished. Dr. Louis Epstein with music students Reed Williams and Isiah Pressman presented their mapping of Burleigh’s NYC performance venues, part of a larger digital mapping project, Musical Geography. The second panel featured Burleigh society president Lynne Foote, Burleigh biographer, Dr. Jean Snyder, Majda Kallab Whittaker of the Dvorak American Heritage Society, Fisk Jubilee Members Dartisha Mosley and Andrew Davis, and Dr. Crystal DeGregory. Each panelist explored one of the following topics: Burleigh’s support networks in the standard, predominately white, patronage system of the late 19th century, the founding of the National Conservatory of Music, the programming of concert spirituals in high schools, inter-genre exchange during the Black arts movement, and a poetic reflection on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Burleigh, Sheppard, and the late Fisk archivist Beth M Hawse in relation to archiving, re-imagining, and sharing of knowledge and experience.
The final panel featured descendants of Burleigh, Sheppard, WC Handy, J. Rosamund Johnson, Matthew Kennedy (a former music director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers), and Bob Cole. Led by Dr. Slaten, the descendants reflected on their relatives’ achievements and issues of copyright, royalties, and inclusion in dominant narratives. Burleigh’s grandson expressed interest in the development of a new generation of spirituals; WC Handy’s grandson called for copyright law updates and less dispassionate writing from music biographers. Both of Sheppard’s descendants talked about gentrification’s impact on Black history narratives in Nashville and the need for greater visibility of Sheppard’s contributions in those stories. It was an urgent reminder of the disproportionate problems Black composers and their families have encountered in music history and publishing; this has been a major point in circles of Black music scholars that requires even more action from other parties in the near future.
The afternoon was over way too soon. But it was one of many events throughout this entire year that highlighted the rich contributions of Black composers like Sheppard and Burleigh and the work that still needs to be done.