A Conversation with Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, authors of Out of Sight and Ragged but Right, have turned their focus on black gospel quartet. Their latest collaboration, To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition traces black vocal music pedagogy from the halls of Fisk University to the mining camps of Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama, and on to Chicago and New Orleans. 

In the 1870s, the Original Fisk University Jubilee Singers successfully integrated Negro Spirituals with formal choral music disciplines, establishing a permanent bond between spiritual singing and music education. Early in the twentieth century there were countless initiatives in support of black vocal music training conducted on both national and local levels. The surge in black religious quartet singing activity that occurred in the 1920s owed much to this vocal music education movement. 

To Do This, You Must Know How also includes 160 black and white photographs, including vintage quartet photographs and advertising placards. The book is now available from UPM. 

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Abbott and Seroff where the authors cover their departure from their previous subject matter, a unique title, and the depth of research that readers and historians have come to expect from this team.

What is the significance of the title of your new book? 

Abbott: Well, “To do this, you must know how” is just one of those old true sayings, like, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” In terms of our new book, it describes the essential role that vocal music instruction played in the development of black gospel quartet singing. The religious folksongs of slavery could not have survived and prospered without an educational component to serve as a rudder. The experiments that gave birth to the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought the Negro spirituals under the stabilizing influence of Western choral disciplines. These experiments resonated in black American life, and served as a model and inspiration for the gospel quartet tradition. 

Seroff: Many listeners wrongly assume that traditional African American gospel quartet singing is essentially impromptu. Recognizing the inherent discipline may allow for a deeper appreciation of the artistry.

To those familiar with your earlier collaborations, To Do This, You Must Know How may look like something of a departure. Do you see it that way?

Seroff: In our first two books, we didn’t have the luxury of consulting participants in the phenomena we wrote about. To Do This, You Must Know How grew out of an oral history collecting project which gave us many opportunities to test our understanding against the judgment of veteran quartet practitioners. Access to rehearsals and “programs” added a more intimate, experiential knowledge of context and on-the-ground practices. Strong friendships with some of our elderly informants, many now deceased, brought a different sort of commitment, or sense of responsibility to this project.

Abbott: We started collecting those oral histories over thirty years ago, so we got to talk to people who were singing quartet before World War I. Our mutual interest in black a cappella quartets is what got us writing books together in the first place. A cappella quartets have been largely ignored, or downplayed, in the popular literature of blues, jazz, and gospel. Nevertheless, they preceded, informed, and participated in all of these things. There is a lot of information about quartets in our first two books, especially Out of Sight, where they come forth in historical context as an extremely popular vehicle for the perpetuation of black vernacular music style; which brings us to To Do This, You Must Know How.

The sheer burden of detail in your books can be intimidating to prospective readers. With that in mind, can you tell us something about your overall approach and intentions?

Seroff: Basically, we try to write solid, unimpeachable scholarly works that are also readable. Preserving names and details is an essential part of the long-term reference value of our books; but weary readers can skim over some of the weightier details and lists of names without losing sight of the themes and narrative drift.

 Our research is document-driven rather than agenda-driven. We never start out with a hypothesis; rather, we try to collect and review all available resources, then pour over our findings to discover salient issues and patterns of continuity.

By fully detailing our sources, we’re attempting to reinforce our conclusions and make them resistant to contradiction. An equally important purpose for including so many footnotes is to steer future researchers to potentially useful sources of related information.

The history of the African American musical heritage can be likened to a jig-saw puzzle; some areas or facets are well-documented and analyzed, but there are large empty spaces that make the scope and continuity difficult to comprehend. Our research allows us to fill in some of the gaps.
Abbott: Fill in some gaps, loosen up some hidebound notions, and restore some forgotten heroes to dignity. Take John Work II, who dominates the first chapter of To Do This, You Must Know How. John Work II was the guiding light of the Fisk University Male Quartet, a champion of black music pedagogy and the Negro Spiritual, and a progenitor of the gospel quartet revolution. For this he was disrespected, even in his lifetime. How come we don’t know more about this man? And then, to realize that some of the most vital black urban centers in the United States -- Chicago, the historic hub of black entertainment commerce; New Orleans, the cradle of jazz -- were dependent on emigrant singers from a little old coal-mining town like Bessemer, Alabama, to ignite their gospel quartet traditions.