Various Artists

Negro Spirituals: The Concert Tradition

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French label Frémeaux & Associes' Negro Spirituals 1909-1948: The Concert Tradition is subtitled "Trained voices, jubilee quartets and university choirs," which from the first is casting the net far too wide, as not all groups known as "Jubilee Singers" belonged to any perceived "concert tradition," which in itself is an erroneous assumption as it applies to gospel music. Going along with the idea for the moment, the first disc consists of classically trained African-American singers who were compelled to sing traditional gospel songs, usually in professionally made transcriptions by black composers such as R. Nathaniel Dett and Harry T. Burleigh. Some singers, such as Roland Hayes, readily embraced the challenge of singing gospel; others, such as Marian Anderson, might have been just as happy singing Schubert Lieder, but hardly felt in a position to decline performing and recording such material. The advantage to obtaining this collection, outside of being able to hear recordings of rare singers such as Jules Bledsoe and Ellabelle Davis, is that most of the recordings on the first disc were made in Europe and therefore were not available on records in the American market in the 78 era.

The downside, and it is a serious one, is that the "concert tradition" tag is applied to a wide range of different choruses that appear on the second disc. This is misleading, as it is clear that a number of these groups, while in some cases connected to colleges or consisting of professional singers, hew fairly close to the traditional notion of congregational singing and do not rightfully belong to a "concert tradition," if there ever was such a thing. Certainly many of the recordings contain beautiful examples of early gospel music, albeit often reproduced at the wrong speed or in second-rate transfers. Nevertheless, the second disc is like going from a horse to a mule to a giraffe -- these groups just simply aren't related to one another, at least under a "concert tradition" rubric. This is a shame, as there is so little understanding of this period in gospel music that to just put a bunch of things together and put a tag on it -- "the concert tradition" -- is counterproductive and just seems like the wrong thing to do. Frémeaux & Associes' should have just left this project at one disc, the first one.

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