- Nina Kennedy
H.T. Burleigh Society Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Carnegie Hall
Early in January, we had seen on Facebook that the Harry T. Burleigh Society was presenting the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert at Carnegie Hall. April and I sat in the audience for the concert, and were delighted to hear the old plantation songs or "Spirituals," which I had heard throughout my childhood while my father was director. We were also delighted to see that the current group had included my father's arrangement of the spiritual "Steal Away" on the program.
In her opening remarks, president and co-founder of the Harry T. Burleigh Society Lynne Foote welcomed the audience and introduced the group. The works arranged by Burleigh on the program included "My Lord, What a Mornin'," "Balm in Gilead," and "Heav'n, Heav'n." Spirituals arranged by John W. Work III, Hall Johnson, R. Nathaniel Dett, Moses Hogan, Undine Smith Moore, current director Paul Kwami, among others, were also included on the program.
Just before intermission, Lynne Foote returned to the stage to introduce soprano Marti Slaten - who is also executive director and co-founder of the Burleigh Society - to sing two spirituals arranged by Hall Johnson ("His Name So Sweet") and Undine Smith Moore ("Watch and Pray") with Paul Kwami on the piano. The audience was audibly moved by her soaring voice soulful performance.
After the concert we made our way downstairs where Marti Slaten was being greeted by well-wishers and admirers. I complimented her on her performance and introduced myself, to which she squealed "Oh my God!!" several times. Then she said, "I wish we had known you were coming! We would have introduced you!" Lynne Foote had announced at the beginning of the of the program that the descendants of Harry Burleigh and Ella Sheppard were in the audience. It hadn't occurred to me that the organizers might have wanted to include me in that same category. She then asked if we had dinner plans, which we did not. Right there on the spot she invited us to join her and some of the board members to a full-course dinner at the Trattoria Dell'Arte, right across the street from Carnegie Hall.
At dinner I sat next to the Society's co-founder, and got the full story of how the Society was founded, and the tales of miraculous, other-worldly coincidences involving descendants of Burleigh, Ella Sheppard, et al. They were delighted to learn that I was the one who had written and posted the Wikipedia article about Ella Sheppard.
We had seen in the Facebook post that an academic conference was scheduled for the following day, but had not planned to attend because it was scheduled to start so early in the morning. The conference was titled "More Than the Promise of the American Myth: Rethinking Burleigh and Sheppard in the Second Gilded Age."
Several distinguished scholars including Dr. Daphne Brooks, Dr. Louis Epstein, Dr. Jean E. Snyder, Dr. Crystal deGregory, Majda Kallab Whitaker, and many others, were scheduled to give talks and present papers; and a panel discussion titled "Family Legacies" was to close the event. The panel was made up of the descendants of Burleigh, Sheppard, W. C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole. Then Marti asked if I would participate in the panel. I was delighted to accept.
Toward the end of the conference I asked Dr. Kwami if he would be willing to let me direct the Fisk Jubilee Singers singing my father's spiritual "Steal Away" during one of their rehearsals at Fisk. I felt that the students were singing it too fast, and as a result, they lost some of the subtleties of the piece. As Dr. Kwami is from Ghana, I wasn't sure of how he would respond, or if he was hesitant around the idea of a woman directing the group. But he agreed, so stay tuned for the details surrounding my return to Nashville for Jubilee Day (October 6, 2019), and my debut directing the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Nina Kennedy, Suzzanne Douglas, Jeremy Williams, Sharde Curry, Marie Burleigh, K. Melanie Edwards, Carlos Handy, Maribel Handy, Harry T. Burleigh III
Photo credit: April Gibson, INFEMNITY Productions