- Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry by Sandra Jean Graham
Sandra Jean Graham's Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry is a detailed and valuable genealogy of the spiritual, from its roots in early-nineteenth-century slavery to its incorporation into mainstream popular entertainment in the 1880s as source material for performances seen by black and white audiences across the country. The book's eight chrono-thematic chapters begin with the spiritual's origins in the oral traditions of enslaved black southerners. Graham then introduces the narrative's pivotal historical actors, the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, and charts their influence on popular entertainment. The Jubilee Singers' inaugural concert tour—an effort to "[sing] school buildings into existence"—represented the first time that spirituals were formally arranged and performed in public (p. 17). Their success inspired competitors and imitators, turning a signature act into an entire "jubilee entertainment industry" (p. 84). Jubilee singers became part of popular culture in the late 1870s, when blackface minstrelsy and theatrical stagings of Uncle Tom's Cabin began to incorporate and parody spirituals. This popularity enabled and fueled a new genre that Graham deems the commercial spiritual: [End Page 205] popular music that burlesqued the themes and forms of traditional spirituals. By 1890, the term jubilee, which once denoted sacred concert spirituals, had become merely "an empty signifier" (p. xiv).
Graham's approach reflects her disciplinary background as an ethnomusicologist. Because, as she writes, "Spirituals were songs that lived in performance, not on paper," Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry incorporates modes of evidence beyond the textual (p. 11). In addition to examining sheet music, concert programs, and performance reviews, Graham analyzes spirituals' musical qualities, including lyrical structure, arrangement, and pitch. This musical analysis does not merely provide a more vivid portrait of nineteenth-century spirituals but also allows for significant historiographical intervention. For example, Graham argues persuasively that commercial spirituals were not just "ersatz versions of folk and concert spirituals," as textual analysis has led previous scholars to conclude; they were, instead, the foundation of an emergent black entertainment industry (p. 144).
However, Graham's particular interest in the musical, rather than the historically specific, qualities of spirituals sometimes undermines the book's efficacy as a work of historical scholarship. One overarching question Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry pursues is why this specific musical genre became so commercially successful. Graham concludes that it was "the spiritual's emotive power," revealed through musical analysis, that transfixed postbellum audiences (p. 249). When heard aloud, spirituals tapped into the tendency of nineteenth-century audiences, preconditioned by "sentimental parlor songs" that "tug[ged] at their heartstrings," to be "easily moved to tears"; spirituals also succeeded because they were ideologically "consistent with the romantic racialism of the time period" (p. 250). Yet these claims are frustratingly vague. Although Graham cites canonical historians of black folk and popular culture, she engages primarily with fellow musicologists. Graham's evocations of nineteenth-century history are generally accurate, yet there are also moments when the book sacrifices nuance and complexity, such as conflating antebellum slavery with plantation slavery and attributing the "gradual dismantling of slavery" to government action alone (p. 17). These oversimplifications are significant because slavery forms the spiritual's very origin story. The nineteenth century thus often appears incidental to a narrative that largely proceeds without engaging—much less illuminating—its setting.
Nevertheless, the book fulfills its goal of "'preserving] the heritage of Negro Spirituals'" and successfully establishes the centrality of the spiritual to the development of black performance culture (p. vii). Graham has also done a great service for students of popular entertainment: Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry includes exhaustive tables of jubilee performers, performances, and songs, in both the text and an online companion. This work is thus a welcome contribution to historians' knowledge of nineteenth-century musical performance...