He Came, He Sang, He Stayed
In 1989 I was in New York when I received a letter from Arthur Baysting. “You’re going to Memphis?” he wrote. “Then stop off in Nashville on the way and go and see this academic. There was a black American spiritual group that toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1880s: they were here six months. Surely some of them must have made a connection with New Zealand and decided to stay.”
When I called the academic on a pay phone, he didn’t want to know – despite my mentioning a mutual friend and a capella scholar who’d suggested the idea to Arthur. I got the firm impression he didn’t want to share his area of expertise, even though I was only interested in a few tips about the New Zealand period. But he grudgingly agreed, we set a date, and a week or two later I got on the Amtrak train from Penn Station and took a journey of quite a few hours to Atlanta, then caught a Greyhound bus to Nashville, passing through Chattanooga. It was one of those journeys of musical geography.
In Nashville I found a motel: it was grimy, in the wrong part of town, but it was affordable. I called the academic about the meeting the next morning. His wife answered. “He’s not here,” she said. “He’s gone to Virginia to track down some rare records”. I explained what I was there for. In a caring way, she said, “So: you’ve set up a meeting. You’ve come to Nashville, by train. You’re in a motel, alone – and you don’t know anyone here?” That’s right, I said. “Mm.” She said. “He’s done this before.”
So I spent the weekend in Nashville, visited Studio B where Elvis recorded, the Country Hall of Fame, and the Grand Ole Opry. The latter, no longer at the Ryman Auditorium but in Opryland, a dedicated park on the outskirts of the city, was quite a wacky experience. It was still run like an old-time radio show. Top of the bill was Loretta Lynn, who did just a couple of songs; there were also lesser names such as Little Jimmy Dickens. On a Sunday afternoon, I caught another Greyhound and headed to West Tennessee. And that, as Tom T Hall would say, is how I got to Memphis.
Weeks later, I got a letter from my mother in New Zealand. She’d been talking to someone she knew, and when asked what I was up to, said I was doing some research on a black gospel group who came to New Zealand in the 1880s. “Oh I know someone whose grandfather was in a group like that,” said the friend. “She’s very proud of him.” When I got home to Wellington months later I got in touch with the grand-daughter: her ancestor was indeed a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, on their 1887 visit. And she had his diary …
This piece was written for William Dart’s much-missed journal Music in New Zealand and published in 1991. Recently, a friend of mine, Gabor Toth, has written a more thorough piece on the Fisks and R.B. Williams for the Wellington City Library website. If the internet had existed back then, or digitised newspaper resources such as the wonderful PapersPast, I wouldn’t have had to leave home to do the research. As it turned out, I didn’t anyway.
R.B. Williams: New Zealand’s Fisk Jubilee Singer
By Chris Bourke
Music in New Zealand, issue 12, Autumn, 1991 © Chris Bourke
Above: R.B. Williams with his children: Nell Williams, Robert Bradford Williams Jr and Vera Jane Williams, c. 1901
Picture a black American talking to a Maori elder on the banks of the Wanganui River in 1887. The American has come to New Zealand to sing gospel music, but has decided to stay here to study law. Hearing this, the elder offers the aspirant lawyer a case about to come up on the Maori Land Courts. ‘My first case!’ writes the American in his diary. ‘But the chief tells me I must learn Maori before I can hope to practise successfully for his people.’
It sounds like something out of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or one of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fantasies. But that black American – Robertson Bradford Williams – went on to practise law in New Zealand, meet Caruso and Nellie Melba and become active politically in Wellington. His colourful life is something fiction writers would be reluctant to invent.
Williams was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1861 – ‘the year the Civil War began’. He received a BA from Yale University (where he also played baseball) before returning to Georgia to teach–and give lectures on the evils of alcohol. Then he joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers, one of the first groups to perform negro spirituals internationally. With the Fisks, Williams toured England, Australia and New Zealand, arriving here in 1886.
In Melbourne, Williams met and married Katherine Josephine Burke. They settled in Wellington, living in Bowen Street, Tinakori Road and Wadestown. In 1889, while in Napier performing with the Fisks, he received a telegram from the Attorney-General, Sir Robert Stout: ‘You have been admitted to the degree’.
Williams practised law from an office in Lambton Quay, and also in Taumarunui. He became the choirmaster of the Wesleyan Church in Taranaki Street (not taking anyone who was under 18, thinking singers ruined their voices if they started too young), and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament. However in 1902 Williams became the Mayor of Onslow Borough. He died in Otaki in 1942.
Jane Paul, a grand-daughter of Williams who lives in Wellington, describes him as a tall, handsome man in a bowler hat and white scarf. He was a tenor, and was once said to have a voice ‘to charm the angels out of heaven’.
Paul is fiercely proud of her grandfather, and she treasures the diary he kept while touring New Zealand and Australia in 1887. His handwriting is often indecipherable, but the diary tells the story of an arduous journey through both islands. The tour lasted seven months, and besides his discomfort, the diary reflects the depth of his religious faith, his love for ‘Kate’ back in Melbourne, and the generosity of his hosts throughout New Zealand.
But he also shows a concern for the primitive lifestyle of the Maori and an interest in the Treaty of Waitangi. The level of alcohol abuse in the young country disturbed Williams, whose only vice seems to have been betting on horse races.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled around New Zealand by boat, train and horse-drawn carriages, performing in just about every town, small or large. In Hastings, 600 people paid to see them, while 200 more listened outside. But the tour was slow going. On 13 January, 1887, the troupe left Waipukurau: ‘We have a ride of three hours by train to Dannevirke, then by coach 17 miles to Woodville,’ reports the diary. ‘Coaching is so hard. Conversation on the way very lively and instructive. We are in the heart of the famous 70 mile bush. Nice hall to sing in – Woodville is only 15 years old.’
‘January 14: Today we start for Palmerston through the beautiful Manawatu gorge. Oh, such scenery: rugged grandeur, steep cliffs, narrow and dangerous roads. All of us in high glee. We pick ferns on the way. Arrived in Palmerston sick and hot. A flat, stony and dusty place, not at all pretty. Sing in good concert to full house.’
From the Manawatu, the troupe travelled to Wanganui. Along the way Williams read a book on etiquette, ‘giving valuable hints in conversation and conduct in general company’. His reading during the tour – Shakespeare, the Bible, law books, a history of New Zealand – reflects a thirst for knowledge, or self-improvement. Despite his Yale degree and many talents, Williams worried about an uncertain future: ‘Went to bed early, contemplating with disquiet my nomadic career.’
I found this photo years after writing this story, when wandering through the Alexander Turnbull Library. It was from an exhibition they’d had, and I ordered a copy. Bill Egan has recently written to tell me the dapper musician in Napier is not a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His name is Hosea Eaton, and he visited New Zealand and Australia in 1877 as one of the Georgia Minstrels. More details and some Arcadian pictures here .
After suffering from the heat in New Plymouth (‘gladly anticipating departure from this awful place’) the Fisks returned to Wanganui via Hawera. As Williams learnt about the struggles of the Maori he became distressed:
‘January 28: Visited [Hawera] land court; case conducted through an interpreter. Natives sat in the back.
‘January 29: Back to Wanganui. Saw the largest assembly [of Maori] yet to come under my observation. Drink oh drink is their curse. Wandered among them all day, visited their camp in the rain, and saw why it is that their mortality is so great. Oh, how the Government of NZ must answer for the misery of this fine people. Heard natives discussing the question of disposing of their land. Such oratory I never heard. Saw them eat their ‘tucker’ or ‘kai’… Talked to army people re land case. Complicated land laws.’
Williams saw more of the effects of colonisation near Masterton. ‘February 7: Visited the Maori Pah, saw their meeting house – very like Arabian or Turkish mosques. Tribes about here are called the Ngati Kahunganu [sic]. Interesting people, they do not give many ‘curios’, though they live better at this pa than any other I have visited. Oh, but they are dirty and lazy and such drunkenness among them.
‘February 8: Travel again through the gorgeous Rimutaka. Someone amongst us compares the scenery with African nature. This much is sure, the panorama is grand. Nothing like it I have seen. I was shown the lake, which according to the treaty with the natives is not to be disturbed. Stipulated in Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, it is a fishing ground.
According to his grand-daughter, when Williams died he had developed a taste for whiskey. During his first tour of New Zealand however, he was still a prohibitionist and the effects of alcohol on our society shocked him:
‘March 17: Every loyal Irishman out today. Full of bad whiskey and colonial beer. The effects … always make one pugnacious. Went to the races but lost my money at the totalisator.
‘April 12: My experiences were varied and numerous. Saw all grades and classes of people. Helped to feed the totalisator. On my way home saw some disgraceful conduct on the part of men and women, all drunk, all obscene and all white. I don’t ever want to hear of depraved coloured people again.’
At the end of May, the Fisk Jubilee Singers sailed from Bluff for Australia. ‘All excitement and joy at a speedy return to our Melbourne home and my Kate/ writes Williams, but a love for New Zealand had been firmly established.
‘May 27: Well satisfied with our stay in Invercargill, impressed with its great possibilities, as with all of the colony – it is exceptionally rich in every season.’ The Muldoonian economic policies of Julius Vogel caused him to make an astute observation, however: Too much borrowing will ruin the best country in the world.’
Williams spent the rest of 1887 in Australia, but returned to New Zealand the following year with the Fisk singers. The diary hints that he may have worked towards his law degree in Sir Robert Stout’s office, before being admitted to the bar in 1889.
He continued to give public performances after settling here, however. A review in the New Zealand Times of 4 September, 1890 records:
Mr R. B. Williams too was suffering from a cold, but it did not rob his voice of its peculiar sweetness and charm. We cannot accord unqualified praise to his interpretation of Blumenthal’s Message’, which was marred by several wrong notes. Mr Williams’ best effort was Bishop’s ballad Tvly Pretty Jane’, which he sang very well and tastefully. All his songs were vociferously applauded, and he was repeatedly recalled …. The concert ended at a commendably early hour, 9.45 pm.
Speeches toasting Williams before he returned to America for a six month holiday in 1911 suggest he was a popular member of the Wellington legal fraternity: ‘Very many years ago Mr Williams came to Wellington a complete stranger,’ caid C. P. Skerett, KC. ‘All he had was a sturdy courage, a good University education, and a predilection for law. One could understand what courage was required by a gentleman in his position, but with indomitable courage, honesty, and straightforwardness, allied with his perseverance, made him a very successful practitioner.’
There was more romance about Williams than any other lawyer in Wellington, said the city mayor, T. W. Hislop. Williams’s achievements were ‘evidence of the injustice of the great war that took place in America 46 years ago. He was worthy of a high place in the citizenship of any country.’
The Fisk Jubilee Singers c. 1905. National Library of NZ, PA1-q-242-477
The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced negro spirituals to New Zealand, and the world. They originally consisted of eight singers and a pianist, all students at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, one of the United States’s leading black universities. They set off in 1871 to raise money for their university, and became known internationally.
By 1880, when the university ended its sponsorship of the group, they had toured the northern USA, England and Europe. They sang in the White House and before Queen Victoria. Later groups continued to use the name for commercial purposes, and New Zealand received visits in 1886-87, 1888-89,1904-05, 1910, 1918 and 1924.
Frederick J. Loudin led the Fisk group to visit New Zealand in 1886. It was during a tour of Britain (of limited success, though they did perform to 5000 people in Hull, birthplace of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce) that entrepreneur R. S. Smythe saw them and invited the Fisks to visit Australia and New Zealand. They played 60 concerts in Sydney, 40 in Adelaide and 30 in Brisbane, and their New Zealand tour lasted seven months.
‘Such a feat would be impossible today,’ reported the Dominion in 1942, on the occasion of R. B. Williams’s death. ‘Let it be said that Mr Loudin amassed a fortune, and when he retired built a beautiful home in Ravenia, Ohio, which he called Otira after the famous gorge in New Zealand.
‘Later visits here by the Fisk Jubilee Singers were not so successful. But the Singers were the first to introduce to New Zealand that type of evangelical song known as the negro spiritual, and after they departed it was common to hear such numbers as “Steal Away”, “On That Great Morning” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sung in some of the nonconformist churches.
‘Such songs have never been better sung. The modern manner of vocalising them academically has robbed them of their native rhythm and sense. It was a revelation to hear the Singers in their slave hymns, in voice expression, and sometimes in action, they simply lived the lyrics.’
Williams’s diary hints at some bad feeling towards Loudin. He mentions looking for him in ‘public houses’ and finding ‘the old man at the Empire, where I understand he played billiards all day’. On 17 February, 1887, he writes, ‘Somebody asks old man Loudin about his business in the papers. He replied ambiguously and evasively.’ And the next day, “The public are duped – the old man is the only genuinely happy man in the lot.’
But Loudin’s upbringing was no easier that that of any other black who grew up at the time of the Civil War. J. B. T. Marsh’s 1886 study. The Story of the Jubilee Singers With Their Songs details Loudin’s early life. When Loudin was born in Charlestown, Ohio, his grandparents – having been stolen in Africa – were still slaves, though his parents were free. (They were changing the law in Ohio.)
Even though they were free, blacks still lived under the shadow of slavery. The Northern States, though they had abolished slavery, still fostered cruel prejudice,’ writes Marsh. ‘In some respects this ostracism was even more complete and unchristian in the free than in the slave states.’
Although Loudin’s father had given generously to a college, when it was time for his children to go there, he was ‘coolly informed that they did not receive coloured students’. Loudin went to school in Ravenia, where seats were assigned according to a pupil’s place in class. ‘As he progressed, other parents withdrew their children because he was sitting above them.’
Loudin converted to Methodism when young, but when he applied to join the church choir, was refused because of his colour. He didn’t go back. He trained as a printer but couldn’t get a job as white workers wouldn’t work beside him. Once, in Cleveland, Ohio, he could only get a hotel bed by saying he was a slave travelling ahead of his master.
Loudin went to Tennessee after the Civil War, and joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers prior to their second visit to Britain in 1875. He became manager and director of the Fisk company in 1882.
When the Fisks first started performing the spirituals in public, it took special courage. Doug Seroff in his essay, ‘Nashville – Historic Capital of Spiritual Singing’ quotes Maggie Porter Cole, a soprano from the original group: “The boys and girls could remember how their parents had sung the songs when they huddled together by river banks and on hillsides to worship, and the children felt that those things were sacred. They were for God and for their parents’ talks with God, and they were not for white men’s ears.’ 
Another member of the original group said, It was our fear that the coloured people would be grieved to have us expose the ignorance and weakness incident to the days of our degradation. We did not realise… how these were genuine jewels we brought from our bondage.’ 
But the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville demonstrated how useful black religious singing could be in the days of freedom. The first tours of 1871-1875 raised funds to operate the Fisk University, and eventually to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building in the South dedicated to black education. The achievement lead the theologian Rev. Henry Ward Beecher to say, ‘We talk about castles in the air, that is the only castle that ever I knew, built by singing from foundation to top. 
The success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers quickly led to many imitators, raising money for black causes or private entrepreneurs. Indeed, the Fisks were not the first black singing group to visit New Zealand. The Original Georgia Minstrels arrived in 1877, only a dozen years after the end of slavery. They were led by the flamboyant Charles Hicks, who like R. B. Williams couldn’t resist betting on horses, losing a fortune while he was here.
As their name suggests, the Minstrels’ music was popularized, without the religious element of spirituals. But the Fisk Jubilee Singers have had their critics too. In his Black Gospel, historian Viv Broughton writes:
For all their great international success though, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were something of an anomaly, eccentric to the norm of black music at the time. The audiences they sang to were white, and the spirituals they sang were tailored accordingly. The Fisks were the first, but certainly not the last, black American artists who dressed up the image and dressed down the music in order to cross over to the white market. As they themselves were quick to reassure the genteel church-goers who flocked to hear them, they had ‘purged the songs of all ungainly africanism’. 
1. Doug Seroff, ‘Nashville – Historic Capital of Spiritual Singing’, in Gospel Arts Day: A Special Commemoration, Fisk University, Tennessee 1988, p. 2.
2. Doug Seroff, op.cit., p. 2.
3. Doug Seroff, op.cit., p. 3.
4. Viv Broughton, Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound, Blandford Press, Dorset 1985, p. 13.
Various undated newspaper clippings relating to R. B. Williams, late eighteen-eighties to 1911, in the possession of Jane Paul. [H.D.] ‘Coloured Evangels – Memory of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’, Dominion, 5 June, 1942.
Maurice Hurst (edit.), Music and the Stage in New Zealand, Chas Begg, Wellington 1946.
J. B. T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers With Their Songs, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1886.
Jane Tolerton, ‘On minstrel trail, Helen got a bonus’ and ‘He came, he sang, he stayed’, New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 8 October, 1984.
R. B. Williams, Diary of 1887 (unpublished).
Charles Reagan Wilson & William Ferris (edit.), Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture, University of Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1989.
Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2002.
Cite this as: Chris Bourke, ‘R.B. Williams: He Came, He Sang, He Stayed’, Music in New Zealand, issue 12, Autumn, 1991, pp. 50-51.