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Bowers marks soulful link with Fisk Jubilee Singers

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By Damon Lawrence

Students at Harriman’s Bowers Elementary School got treated to 140 years of tradition last Wednesday.

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers gave a rousing performance inside the school gym.

“We’re honored to have them,” first-grade teacher Christy Ruskey said.

The singers are students at Fisk University in Nashville. They travel the country and the world performing.

In 2009, they received a Grammy nomination for a collaboration with music artist Jonny Lang.  

“This is 140 years’ worth of a legacy, so we take pride in what we’re doing,” Jubilee member P.J. Moton said. “But at the same time, we humble ourselves because we know that we’re carrying on a tradition that’s been there long before we have and will still be there long after we’re gone.”     

The history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers dates back to 1871. The original members are credited for introducing slave songs to the world.   

“I didn’t know anything about them, and I’m ashamed to say that because I’ve lived in Tennessee my whole life,” Ruskey said.

Her lack of knowledge about the group changed last year when Bowers decided to put

 together a series of exhibits on prominent African-Americans for Black History Month. Ruskey’s class was assigned the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

“We started the research, and I started to gather some things that I thought my kids could break down even further,” she said. “As we got into it, I didn’t have enough information I felt or enough information to put on the wall to make an exhibit, even though I had purchased some things and my kids had made things.”     

Ruskey said she got in touch with Fisk President Hazel O’Leary and Paul T. Kwami, musical director for the singers.  

“They were so generous,” she said. “They sent me stuff, and that’s how it started, and then we’ve just stayed in contact.”

Ruskey said she met with Kwami when she visited the campus last April and discussed the possibility of having the group visit Bowers for a performance.

“He said if we could work it out, they would stop by during Black History Month this year and sing a few songs for our kids,” she said.

It worked out because the singers had a performance scheduled last Thursday in Clinton, S.C., and was able to stop by Bowers on the way.

They sang six songs a cappella for the students, including “The Gospel Train,” “Elijah Rock” and “Rockin’ Jerusalem.”

“It was really good,” second-grader Baylee Mize said about the performance.

The audience also included students from Walnut Hill Elementary.

Jubilee member Nicole Morris said the group was happy to perform for the students.

“They learned so much about us and they treat us like we’re superstars, but we’re just college students,” she said. “It’s very humbling.”

Afterward, the group sang “Happy Birthday” for Bowers music teacher Joyce Dickerson in the hallway.

The group has 16 members. Moton, who is from Birmingham, Ala., said they practice together twice a week.

“But we also have to practice on our own in order to perfect our own individual sound,” he said.

Morris, who is from Sicklerville, N.J., said being a member requires hard work.

“You have to audition every year,” she said  “Even if you’ve been in the group previous years, your spot is not guaranteed.”

Morris also said group members must have a grade-point average of at least 2.5.  

“On tours and on trips, we have our books and our laptops with us,” she said. “We’re students first, and then we’re Jubilee Singers.”