Do you recall how, throughout the hyper-graphic game of pétanque that was childhood, you once described any incomprehensibly long period of time stretched between yourself and something you simply couldn’t wait for as, “A hundred years” away? Summer vacation seen from the month of April was a hundred years away. Your next birthday, forever feeling a hundred years away. Field Day, the county fair, trips to Disney World, vacations to the beach, and later Homecomings, Sadie Hawkinses, and Proms, all a hundred years away no matter how verifiably close on the calendar. Christmas was always a hundred years away, particularly on Christmas Eve. One hundred years, a solid century, is indeed a very long time when posed beside the short page even of what is regarded as a fairly lengthy mortal perambulation on this Earth.
Precious few things with a human heart live for one hundred years, and those that do are often treated like gold cigarette cases – only taken out for flash on special soirées. Those exceedingly elusive everyday-use things that wear hobnailed boots and house something essential about the communal heart of humanity? These things live forever the real way, the way forever felt when you were a kid but actually is in practice. Two such time-immune entities are Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium and the equally ineffaceable Fisk Jubilee Singers, celebrating 130 years and 150 years of life respectively this year, and joining foundational forces with O.N.E The Duo and Allison Russell on Tuesday, June 28th to commemorate a shared symbolic history that has lasted, and will continue to last, long past any of our living limbos.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers represent one of the inaugural acts to christen the storied stage of the Ryman, first gracing its famously acoustic boards in 1892. Comprised of a shifting array of vocal artist enrollees at Fisk University, the original ensemble is responsible for formally introducing the Negro spiritual, the oldest purely American folk songs in existence, to the remainder of the listening world. This was accomplished in 1871 when the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured for the sole purpose of raising the necessary money to sustain the university. Perhaps because they were quite literally singing for their lives in those early years, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have served ever since as an instrumental reason this primordial form of music was acknowledged as the fertile ground upon which so many other popular genres have been sown, and they remain a key component as to why these echoes have been lovingly preserved in their purest format for imbibement by modern audiences.
Now heralded inductees of the Music City Walk of Fame, the Fisk Jubilee Singers also enjoy Hall of Fame inclusion in the Gospel and Classical Music categories. President George W. Bush awarded them the National Medal of Arts in 2008, and they have produced glorious collaborations with Neil Young, CeCe Winans, Keb’ Mo’, Shania Twain, India.Arie, Ledisi, The Fairfield Four, and Rodney Atkins. The National Museum of African American Music recognized their efforts with its esteemed Rhapsody and Rhythm Award, the a cappella choral ensemble took home a Best Roots Gospel GRAMMY last year, and they are now comfortably installed with well-deserved membership in the Academy of Country Music.
For all the undeniably phosphorescent pop purposes in the at-those-times unconventional choice itself, there is also a highly pronounced and tangible reason that Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Madonna, and U2 (to list but a few) all sought out full choirs when they were lone-swimming in the compositional currents of what would end up being some of their most creatively spiritual and spiritually creative work. Blood-attuned voices singing in dichroic glass harmonies that hearken back to heart-sundering histories course with their own life-giving fever. A choir instantly reconceptualizes nearly any song that borrows its godhead and can cast the equivalent of bronze moonlight across any melody, but particularly those that convey something of the stardust uniquely resident in shared suffering.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers do not merely shuttle that hard-sung story in song, they embody it by merely being. Lead by their sanguine and boisterous Musical Director, Dr. Paul T. Kwami, the Fisk Jubilee Singers soared through standards like “Done Made My Vow“, “An’ I Cry“, and the sunset hum of “Walk Together Children”. Each time they collectively maxed out their unified breath for a note, it hit you square in the chest with twice the felt force of the bass drop at any of the world’s best-rated raves. With the proceeds from this event being dedicated to the Fisk Jubilee Singers Endowed Scholarship Fund, the overall sense that one’s presence alone was contributing to the unbroken legacy of this form of undiluted music served as a heady bonus.
Meanwhile and adjacently, musical mixology is a class that ought to be taught at Berklee and heavily emphasized every place sound is sold. It is certainly the best way to get any ears the right kind of drunk. Even if such courses were the modern-day replacement for the commonplace penny bible of the Victorian age, the likelihood of striking upon a pair of briny and transpontine sibyls with wisdom-yielding eyes like O.N.E The Duo would be miraculous. Tekitha, with her bottle-of-belladonna beauty will be instantly recognized by hip-hop fans the world over as the featured female vocalist of the Wu-Tang Clan, while her daughter/co-artist, Prana Supreme Diggs, is the child of RZA, Wu-Tang’s founder and de facto leader. The mother/daughter pair bring every curl of this royal artistic filigree to their admirable and authentic ambuscade of the country music scene.
While country music has been every bit as whittled to its current sculptural sonic-shape by skillful Black hands and voices as any other contemporary musical form, we still often find ourselves living in a shirty world bearing a banausic rictus smile that publicly pretends certain genres belong to blindly assigned neighborhoods, these assignations being made under massively preconceived notions and misshapen Cartesian propositions about who lives where. It isn’t even cross-pollination when you begin talking about where the blues, gospel, roots, folk, Americana, and a host of other traditionally Black soundwaves filter in to form the superstructures of both country and rock; it is nothing short of synergenetic breath and blended blood.
That said, there are considerably shallower splice-springs for any country crossover artist to fjord than coming straight out of the hybridization gate attempting to leap from what can be the understandably territorial shorelines of hip-hop to the roiling riverbank of country. Darius Rucker made the jump from the much-nearer verges of alterna-pop, Rhiannon Giddens trilled over from traditional Appalachia, Mickey Guyton brought her power-vocal prowess over on the R&B rocket, and Petrella was crowned “First Lady of Country-Soul” relatively easily thanks to the pre-existence of Ray Charles. Before O.N.E The Duo defiantly claimed this space, perhaps the BIPOC-predecessor that had parachuted from the most impressively different mountaintop was Cleve Francis, coming over from the field of cardiology!
Following directly in the (until too recently) only dimly-lit footsteps of way-making Black country artists like Charley Pride, Lesley Riddle, and Stoney Edwards—whose complete collection of recordings has only just this past week come to DSPs for the first time—the mother-daughter duo have already curated a catalog of full-throated croons to rival any Cline or Carlile, and one containing worlds of spiritual latitude combined with the seeds of harmonic hypnosis to boot. Strongly written and even-more-strongly delivered songs like “Guilty“, “River of Sins“, “One Minute to Midnight“, and “Stuck in the Middle” showcase the charitable passions, djinn-ridden dreams, and internal affrays of these extraordinary women. The dynamic dyad even covered ZZ Ward’s evocative “Put the Gun Down” to stunning effect, Prana Supreme in her flamingo-flounce jumpsuit à la Steve Nicks meets Gloria Gaynor, filling the room with the mauve lambence of her youthful-but-ancient voice. It is perhaps in Prana’s presence that the truest meaning of the band-name acronym comes most poignantly through: O.N.E stands for Observant, Noetic, and Effervescent. There is intentionally no period after the “E” in the name because the effervescence of evolutionary, intemperate bravery knows no conclusion or pitstop.
Vindication today can often be given to a sad set of prescribed veneers. For those in need of a rainbow re-up on what real redemption that is not hunting a grand ending looks like, Allison Russell’s total artistic oeuvre is a lesson in taking control of what (if anything) you choose to founder on. Her canon is about the transcendent suggestion that you do not have to expire or relinquish any part of yourself upon the pyres of any of it, no matter how the purgatorial flames may lick your sides and soul. As a founding member of both Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, Russell is always demonstrating the wild gesture of love better than anyone else around and consistently illuminating the point that community is a conscientious choice, never a compass point. Hers is the vox of a postmodern sphinx, both physical and ethereal, that lets you know you are neither excluded nor exempt from any of these conversations, no matter what your background or future visions.
Russell’s Contemporary Roots Album of the Year Juno win this year for the debut tour de force that was her first solo album, entitled Outside Child, marks the first in history within this category for a Black woman. She snagged three GRAMMYs for this same percipient project that has recently also landed her a Flatiron book deal for a memoir centered on the lived experiences serving as the inspirational subject matter of the album. On this ceremonial eve at the Ryman, Russell is a vibrato-voiced panther-woman in a sparkling mermaid dress, wielding a clarinet and a banjo like totems of swamp faith and actively calling down her ancestral angels in creative communion with those breathing ones cohabiting her stage space.
Accompanied by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Rob Curetone on upright bass (or, “Big Bull Fiddle” as Russell brilliantly referred to it!), Jon Lucas on drums, Marcus Perry on keys, Joy Clark helming the guitar, and Milwaukee’s own SistaStrings making musical mince pie of the cello and violin, Russell expressed humble pride ahead of their collaborative presentation of “Quasheba, Quasheba“, openly marveling at the significance of this performance representing the first time her ancestor’s name had ever been sung by a choir.
Already a spectral sequence of a tune that will teach you to believe that singing, in and of itself, can be a savior, “Nightflyer” is something vulpine and star-strewn when Russell sings it on her own. However, this song, when widened in sonic scope by the comet storm of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and all of the other galaxies of talent on stage that night, became a new breed of radically elevated radial point. As a closer, it would be impossible to imagine any song better suited to pinch hit for all that is praiseworthy in the act of beseeching oneself to tell time from the bright-o-clock bent, no matter what. There was not one bottom left in a seat, not a single unclapping hand to be observed, and no voices of any ilk not lifted rafter-high by the taking of such deep drags on such sacrosanct starlight. The decibel of voluminous applause at the end was the roar of a minotaur and utterly indistinguishable from the full cannonade of the choral voices at their top tier of projection – and all this with the added potency of the invisible-to-the-eye-but-not-the-ear assistance of every unseen forebear Russell had begun the show by calling down from “the listening sky.”
It is not news that barely anything in the TikTok times of today lasts 150 seconds, much less 150 years. Unlike Europe and the U.K., America is rather unfortunately famous for tearing down archival architecture of any kind, material or memorial, before those properties can ever obtain the patina of fermented time that so defines the cityscapes of the old countries. Among the grossest ick-byproducts of the internet has been its insistent inversion of the meaning in old things. Instagram and the Silicon psychos would have it that immediacy is somehow imperial while slow, cumulative age is to be discarded as worthless, even mock-worthy. Raising your voice above the hubble-bubble to put the notion to the face-filter generation that primeval and foregone things command pride of place at all times can frequently feel as tiresome and hopeless as completing an overnight tram journey made with an open goldfish bowl in one’s lap and the goal of not spilling a drop (or killing the gilled inhabitant).
The best analogy available to this awestruck author regarding the aural merit of these masterful melody makers is one relating to a high school trigonometry class, in which I struggled to pull my first-ever “B”, even with a full-time tutor. There were unpredictable and uncontrollable flashes of spontaneous understanding where the whole structure of trig and all its formulas would reveal itself for a split moment, and those exiguous enlightenments would open my mind out into all manner of holy recognition of so much else beyond math. Alas, I never could hold onto those upstart calculus insights or ever successfully maneuver them with reliable efficiency on standardized tests that wanted me to work trigonometric problems, but they very much permanently altered my ability to do trigonometric thinking in the much harder unbalanced emotional and rational equations that would be writ across the new notebook of my non-standardized life later on. Do I use trigonometry itself every day in my goings and comings? No, but it does absolutely impact the way I can think about any subject, from math to memory.
Experiencing the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Ryman, O.N.E The Duo, or Allison Russell in any singular context would assuredly change the way anyone processes music, meaning, and much else in life in exactly this sort of holistic manner. The privilege of seeing them all together in the benighted cafe of one of Nashville’s most iconic, important, and integrative listening spaces, the Mother Church of Country Music as it is aptly called, and as a fitting dénouement to African American Music Appreciation Month 2022 would change the way anyone sings – even those who shyly claim they do not outwardly warble, and even amidst domestic and global circumstances that may feel dark as ten Alexandrian midnights and make singing seem as far away as holidays did when you were small. The ultimate message of the shared artistic commitments of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, O.N.E The Duo, Allison Russell, SistaStrings, and the Ryman itself is the everlasting echo of encouragement to keep in mind that human life, however extended or abbreviated, is ever a freehand sand mould, and one that is never shaped without a valid personal confrontation with (and peacemaking mission to) the shadow. Or, as Allison Russell herself eloquently chanted more than once at this arresting occasion: We are not what we have lost. We are more than the sum of our scars.