"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Fisk University and UMM: a music parallel

Fisk University Jubilee Singers
Much of the nation was in smoldering ruins when the Fisk School was established. Today it's Fisk University, proud of its roots in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. We go way back to 1865 to appreciate the start of this school which today is a distinguished private liberal arts university.
It's located in one of my favorite cities: Nashville TN. Yes, much goes on in and around "Music City" that is separate from music. Music is how I developed my affection for the place. I used to go to Opryland before it was a big hotel. It was a theme park with a little train that would take you around. Everyone waved to each other: people on the train and people on the grounds. Today I write occasional songs and have them recorded at Nashville demo studios. The music professionalism is second to none. Standards are high but people are relaxed and friendly too. They are always honest with you.
Fisk University has a historical parallel with our University of Minnesota-Morris. Both had a defining music group that traveled and promoted the institution. Fisk University gave us the Jubilee Singers in 1871. They originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville on October 6, 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for expenses. They prayed that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school.
To this day, on October 6 annually, Fisk pauses to observe the anniversary of the singers' departure from campus in 1871. Today the Jubilee Singers perform in a University convocation and conclude the day's ceremonies with a pilgrimage to the gravesites of the original singers. The old songs are sung at the burial places of the first performers.
The Jubilee Singers introduced much of the world to the spiritual as a musical genre. In the process they raised funds that preserved their University and permitted construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of black students. Jubilee Hall is today the dramatic focal point of the Fisk campus.
In the case of our U of M-Morris, the men's chorus under the direction of Ralph E. Williams was a defining group. Our UMM was a quite fledgling institution at that time: the early 1960s. The institution was transitioning from its long history as an ag school. The men's chorus traveled in the area but more importantly went to two World's Fairs, in Seattle and New York City. They opened the Minnesota Day festivities at the Seattle World's Fair. They did much to elevate the early profile of our four-year liberal arts college. Their signature tune was the "UMM Hymn."
If the choir would continue performing that tune today, I would direct my annual $ contribution to music instead of the social sciences. (A faculty member tells me it should be "science" and not "sciences" but I have my habits.)
Social sciences is the field where I personally have a sense of comfort and affinity. I feel some intimidation from the academic music crowd.
Fisk University got our attention recently because we almost got our new chancellor from there. In a rather surprising episode, Dr. Rodney Hanley withdrew not long after having been chosen and announced. I went public with my theory about that. No one has contacted me to contradict it. The turn of events was highly unfortunate.
In the wake of Hanley's withdrawal, we have the news that Jacqueline Johnson, after being ushered into retirement with fanfare, is going to stay! I'll wager she stays through the whole next academic year and maybe even beyond! Maybe she was inclined toward retiring because of some unpleasant things. School administrators always deal with unpleasant things.
But now, maybe the institution realizes that regardless of particular issues on campus - the "Northstar?" - she is really needed. Maybe she is getting some special accommodations. That would be wonderful. We can disregard "Northstar" so long as it doesn't come back.
As expected, you can find an exhibit of Fisk's Jubilee singers on YouTube. What a wonderful presentation. I urge you to click on the link below.
And, don't forget that you can appreciate the original UMM men's chorus on YouTube. Here's a link to that:
Fisk University promotes itself with a slogan that would be equally appropriate for UMM: "Fisk is small enough to know your name and large enough to meet your needs."
I wonder what awaits Rodney Hanley in his future. He formally resigned at Fisk. Has that resignation now been rescinded? I don't know. Is he a total free agent now?
Hanley's resignation from Fisk was not a complete surprise to education field professionals who track higher education. It had been expected since the sudden departure last year of President H. James Williams, the person who recruited and hired Hanley. Williams abruptly parted ways with Fisk last year for reasons that neither he nor the University explained. It was reported that he and the University board had reached differences on key leadership decisions. Williams was hired earlier this year to be president of Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati.
Hanley's departure comes as Fisk has been searching for a new permanent president. Hmmm. . .you don't suppose the wheels have been turning to get Hanley in the president's position?
A bulwark for black America
Probably no single institution has played so central a role as Fisk, in the shaping of black learning and culture in America. Our UMM has developed into the "jewel in the crown" of the U of M, quite distant from the mess in the main campus wrestling program, or the overall ridiculous stuff that has been going on in athletics there. If it hasn't crossed a line yet, when will it cross a line?
We wish the best for Dr. Rodney Hanley, who may have had to withdraw here because of unpleasant circumstances. We don't know, of course. I don't think he withdrew because of any sort of perception of living in Morris. He had plenty of time to consider living here in this small rural town, a safe and quiet setting that many people like. It's even better now with Ted Storck's chimes gone. You can visit Floyd the Barber, a.k.a. Dave Evenson, who can always fill you in on what's going on.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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