There has been quite an amount written about the Fisk Jubilee Singers as well as some articles being available on Bessie Campbell the Australian banjo artist. Though little is known of her association with the off shot of the famous singing group.
Recently I have started to take another look at some information gathered after a long hiatus (~20 years). The inspiration has been the recent availability of Bessie Campbell’s scrapbook that has surfaced on the Australian National Library website.(1)
There are articles written on Bessie Campbell detailing her learning the basics of the banjo from Hosea Easton, the black minstrel performer that was present in Australia over a long period in the late 19th century until his death in Sydney on the 23rd June 1899.(2)
Hosea Easton came to Australia in 1877 with Charles B. Hicks Georgia Minstrels.
Bessie wrote to the “S. S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal” detailing her experiences in February-March 1897. (3)
There are also numerous reports in the journal by Walter J. Stent the creator of the local American Banjo Club. Bessie Campbell’s scrapbook has a number of letters from Walter Stent including images of his studio in Sydney.
Stent’s 1896 book entitled “Progressive Studies for the Banjo – A Clear Exposition of the American and English Systems” is also available for viewing online at the Australian National Library website. (4)
Hosea Easton on steps of Lydia & William Williams Napier home c.late 1888
Courtesy of the E. R. Williams Collection - Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington, N.Z.
Chas. B. Hicks courtesy of the Irene Cox Collection – Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington, N. Z.
Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott (5) have written a quite detailed account of the McAdoo Fisk Jubilee and Georgia Minstrel troupes, they were a highlight not only due to their singing but also because they were one of the earliest companies to show films using the Edison Kinetoscope as well as exhibiting the Edison phonograph.
The West Australian November 1899
Since the demise of O.M. McAdoo in July 1900, various “Fisk Jubilee Singers” have had a presence in Australasia up to around 1936 as previously written.(6)
A number of the Fisk Jubilee Singers overseas performers either settled in Australia or New Zealand to be members of the always-changing group.
There were additions of various overseas performers and local artists such as Claire (Clare) Solly etc. Local singer and actor Marshall Palmer would manage the “Fisk Jubilee Singers”, who with his wife Vi had a long association with the group.
Marshall Palmer promotion card c.1910 Courtesy of Nugrape Records
Marshall Palmer in 1952 Courtesy of Nugrape Records
As is indicated the Fisk Jubilee Singers were not limited to being mere vocalists.
Around February 1910, a new version of the troupe was created featuring 10 performers: Prof. C. A. White as musical director (organ & piano), Miss Bertha Haynes Miller (soprano), Miss Alice Baptiste (mezzo-soprano), Miss Belle F. Gibbons (lady baritone), Miss Beatrice Caire (contralto), Miss Flo Dixie (contralto and banjo soloist), Mr. Sidney (Sydney) Haynes (tenor), Mr. Arthur Haynes (basso), R.H. Collins (tenor) and E. R. Martin (basso and guitar soloist). See photo below.
The Referee newspaper from the 23rd February 1910 stating:
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers, inaugurate another New Zealand tour at the Wellington Town Hall. The singers who arrived by Sydney boat on Wednesday, are sure of a hearty welcome. Mr. H. N. Woon, at one time sporting editor of the “Manawatu Times” and recently of the “New Zealand Times” has resigned his position to become advance agent for the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
Evening Post 5th February 1910
Fisk Jubilee Singers on their New Zealand c March 1910 tour.
Courtesy of the Irene Cox Collection – Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington, N. Z.
As can be seen from the pictures available in the Bessie Campbell scrapbook, it is clearly Bessie Campbell under the pseudonym of Florence (Flo) Dixie performing with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It is also evident from the Gary Shearston article on Bessie Campbell reprinted in the “Musical Traditions” magazine, Issue No. 7 mid 1987. (7)
A number of The Fisk Jubilee Singers had previously been members of the McAdoo troupe.
With the creation of the troupe it was not obvious to the local population that the troupe had a local Australian performer in Bessie Campbell, with the Otago Witness from the period stating:
Wellington, 25th February: & The Fisk Jubilee Singers (who are really All Black) the latter company has been doing fine business in the concert chambers of the Town Hall….
- Otago Witness 2nd March 1910
“Music Lovers in Dunedin can assuredly look forward to a genuine musical treat on Good Friday night, when that talented combination of coloured Americans, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, will re-appear after an absence of several years.”
- Otago Witness 16th March 1910
Reviews indicated the quality of Bessie Campbell’s contribution to the success of the troupe.
Hawra and Normnaby Star 30 May 1910
Evening Post 21st February 1910
The troupe on opening in Wellington went on to tour the south island with a report in one newspaper:
“Wellington, 4th March: The Fisk Jubilee Singers at present touring the South Island to medium business. The Wellington season was only fairly successful.”
This was in contradiction to a report in The Referee from the 23rd March:
“Southland is at present being exploited by The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who are having large audiences. The singers made their re-appearance in Dunedin on Good Friday Night.”
The troupe went on to tour the North Island with mixed reviews. At a similar period Marshall Palmer was receiving good reviews for his vocals at the Gaiety Theatre, Melbourne, as previously indicated he would become a manager of one of the Fisk Jubilee troupes.
Florence Dixie went on to be highlighted in various advertisements with E. R. Martin as a soloist as indicated in the following Wellington Evening Post advertisement from the 11th August 1910.
Subsequent reports of the troupe only gave business as fair and the company returned to the South Island for further concerts. Later reports have the troupe opening a season in the Huon district Of Tasmania being represented by Fred Henningham.
It is not clear whether Bessie Campbell was still a member of the troupe at this stage and the last mention is made of the troupe states:
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers are touring north-western Tasmania.”
- Otago Witness 7th December 1910.
There is no other record I know that further links Bessie with the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
I hope this adds some small amount to the history of early Australian music and that further research is able to bring forth further details.
(1) Bessie Campbell, Banjo Queen: A collection of music programmes.
(2) Hosea Easton death certificate
(3) Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal
(4) Walter J. Stent’s book “Progressive Studies for the Banjo”
(5) “Out Of Sight - The Rise Of African American Popular Music 1889-1895”.
- Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff. University Press Of Mississippi.
(6) “Minstrelsy in Australia : A Brief Overview.”
(7) “Bessie Campbell: Australia’s Queen of the Banjo” by Gary Shearston, Australian Tradition magazine, October, 1966.
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