From Nashville to Northfield: the Journey of an African-American Spiritual

This Wednesday was Juneteenth – a good time to share this post…

By Naomi Bird

originally published to our email list, on Saturday, June 15, 2019
Raise your hand if you like Cantus.
If you didn’t raise your hand, well, we have some talking to do.
In researching for this week’s song I learned a fascinating story of a group of college students who formed an a capella singing group.  It wasn’t Cantus of Northfield, MN. It was the Jubilee Singers, 877 miles away and 100+ years earlier in Nashville, TN.  The voices of an all-black ensemble were on a mission to save their school, and in the process pave the way for much of what Cantus sings, and for much of what many of us have come to love about American folk music.
The year was 1871. Nashville, Tennessee.  Fisk University.  The black college was struggling financially.  It had been open for five years, having first been a general school for freedmen, opening just 6 months after the end of the Civil War.  The American Missionary Alliance had helped to set it up, and efforts around the country were underway to help former slaves and their families be empowered to make a life for themselves.
While I know in my head that slaves didn’t read or write, the significance of the fact that it was illegal for them to be taught how to do so – is mind boggling. Illegal. That people in this very country were treated in that way. The deck was stacked against them in so many ways.  Fisk University was poised to help catch them up on the lost lessons.
I’m not aware of any situations where a school’s music director is also the treasurer, but that’s how it was at Fisk.  George L. White, a northern missionary serving as the school’s treasurer and music director, took it upon himself to aid the school’s financial problem with a musical solution.
He would form a vocal ensemble and take them on a tour to raise money for the school. This all-black group consisted of five women and four men, all students at Fisk. It didn’t exactly take off like wild-fire.  Speaking of which, the very first moneys that they brought in they ended up donating to the relief efforts of the Chicago fire. Even in their need they had compassion and generosity and kept pursuing a solution to their problem.


Slowly, the tour around the Eastern United States built momentum and had popularity with political leaders and churches and concert halls in New York.  They eventually surpassed the goal of $20,000 White had committed to contribute to the University – doubling that and bringing in $40,000.

Over the following several years (1880s) the group grew and even did a European tour, performing for Queen Victoria and other notables as they raised $150,000.

[continued in the June 29 publication of SongNotes from the Birds –available here. –   including more details about the group’s travel experiences, and of course more specifics about our featured song of the month: “Down to the River to Pray” ]

Nathan’s recording of “Down to the River” will be a virtual ensemble – combining the voices of family and friends shared electronically and layered together by our magical recording guy Nick.

TEXT of “Down to the River to Pray”
As I went down to the river to pray,
studyin’ about that good ole way
and who shall wear the starry crown,
good Lord, show me the way.
O brother/sister/children, let’s go down,
let’s go down, come on down.
O brother/sister/children, let’s go down,
down to the river to pray.

Our recording of this song – and three others – will be available on Saturday, June 29 as part of the SongNotes from the Birds subscription series.  Click to subscribe


River image: Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

Image: Fisk Jubilee singers: By Prints & Photographs Department, MSRC – Deep Roots Magazine, Public Domain,


New in June 2019 – you can buy just the June collection, without committing to the monthly subscription.

Click here for purchase info.

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More about us:

We are the Birds.
We perform and record songs and write about them.
Nathan sings, Naomi plays piano, and often others are involved in our recordings as well.
We have old souls, and most of our music has been well loved already for many years.

Our goal is to use our music to enrich the lives of seniors – both in age and in spirit! – and cultivate meaningful connections between generations.

>> Here is a sampling of our May collection of garden-inspired songs (including special guest Christy Jones playing ukulele and singing on the last song!) Click to hear the sampler.

Each Saturday we send out a free email that contains a little something thoughtful to ponder, based on a song.  On the last Saturday of the month, we send a sampler of our recordings of all those songs from the month.  Sprinkled throughout these emails we also include fun family anecdotes about our four hatchlings, links to blog posts with behind-the-scenes perks, and info about opportunities to connect more through events or products.

We would love to share our music with more people. AND – some new free bonus tracks will be delivered to our email contacts periodically, so don’t miss that!

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Thanks for reading!

~Nathan and Naomi

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