Tuskagee Institute Singers / Quartet 1914 – 1927
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It is difficult, and rightly so, to think of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and not think of its founder, principal and sole teacher of its first 30 students in 1881, Booker T. Washington. Washington’s interest in the sacred folk songs of African Americans strikes critics as curious in the context of his policies. Yet Washington clearly championed those old plantation songs to such an extent that he sought to uncover them by a variety of means, perpetuating their memory for future generations despite calls by Tuskegee music teachers to favour songs in the European tradition. It is difficult to tell whether Washington was using the so-called “quaint” and “weird” antebellum melodies to cultivate white philanthropists with messages like Live A-Humble or whether in fact he entertained a genuine interest. Regardless, they were a part of his Tuskegee, fuelled, perhaps, by the organization in Boston of the Society for the Collection of Negro Folklore in 1890, which at its 1899 Hampton Conference encouraged the preservation of “the beautiful plantation melodies” to the exclusion of coon songs and ragtime. Clearly, though, Washington was aware of the benefits of utilizing travelling student choirs to stump for Tuskegee. Continuing after his death in 1915, as Patricia Turner reports, a collection of student’s tours in 1916-1918 were under the direction of lead tenor Alvin Neely, who was still touring with a non-student quartet in 1930. It may be that some of those students form part of the octet that recorded these 1914-1916 titles. It has also been rumoured that composer William Levi Dawson was a member of a recorded Tuskegee group, but Albert Scipio relates that Dawson reported membership in a quintet of student cadets who offered free concerts at Army and Nan training camps during the summer of 1918. This would position him in a group active between the recording dates of these sessions. Led by Charles Winter Wood, the group included Dawson (2nd tenor), William T. Handy ( 2nd tenor), William G. Washington (1st tenor), Howard Wilson (baritone), and Rutherford Sanders (bass). Dawson, incidentally, was not only a talented student at Tuskegee, but later returned there to found a music department and choir. He became noted for his transcription of African American folk themes, composed a symphony premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, played classical and jazz trombone and served as one of the judges at the Fort Valley Folk Festivals in 1941 and 1942 (see DOCD-5576), moving with great facility from classical to folk and jazz. The first song reveals a very competent, well-trained group. Their sombre voices on Go Down Moses rise and fall in slow, sweeping harmony, creating a contemplative and haunting ambience. In contrast, the next title, Good News, is a lively and spirited performance, demonstrating a more complex approach, with slow and rapid interchanges and overlapping vocal parts. The group’s choices of material to record were popular, standard items, but this does not make them any less interesting, as excellent renditions are given of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen and Roll Jordan, Roll. As The Tuskegee Quartet, the group made two recordings in December 1926 both issued on Victor. Their version of I Want To Be Like Jesus, recorded by the previous group in 1914, is a moving performance.
Aunt Mandy’s Chillun’s 1930 recordings round the collection off with the light hearted Adam And Eve In The Garden (two Parts) and the uplifting The Prodigal Son (two Parts). The male/ female group’s singing is of a good standard and enjoyable enough, despite a rather staged feel to the church sermon setting, with the bass vocalist sounding somewhat caricatured.