America’s cultural heritage and musical arts are deeply rooted and connected to the black spirituals which were created in the cotton fields of the Old South by slaves. During slavery the spirituals helped the slaves secretly communicate routes on the UGRR, heal their pain and record their history among many other things. But today I want to discuss why there has been so much confusion and misunderstanding of the black spirituals themselves. In my view, there are two simple, deeply heartfelt and life changing events that took place in American history that continue to cause misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the facts surrounding the spirituals. The first event began with the emancipation of the slaves in 1865 followed a few years later by Fisk University with the formation of the Jubilee Singers by the university treasurer George White, as a last ditch effort to save the university from financial ruin and to keep the university from shutting its doors.
The first event that changed the spirituals was the Emancipation Proclamation becoming the law of the land in 1865. Now freed men and women leaving the oppression of slavery behind, the slaves simply wanted to rid themselves of anything that reminded them of slavery and that included the spirituals. No one can fault them for that. But because of that, the spirituals began to be sung less and less and with less religious overtone, less secrecy, and less expression of the individual human spirit needing to tell his or her story, the spirituals began to slip away. The music began to transform itself into legitimate musical art forms we now call jazz and blues.
Secondly, several years after the emancipation of the slaves the spirituals would come back alive and become world renown. Now that the slaves were free, they were forced to find jobs to make a living for themselves. Many migrated North to find jobs, get an education and many stayed in the South as sharecroppers doing the work they had done for years. In Nashville, TN there was now a university where black students could attend to get an education. Fisk University was a fine institution, only it lacked funds and was in a dire financial situation, it was facing closure due to the lack of funding for the school. In an attempt to save the university, George White, the universities treasurer, a white man, a lover of music and a Yankee desperately needed to raise funds. So he put a group of 9 (7 former slaves and 2 free blacks) together to form a choir that he hoped to take on the road to make money for the university. Mr. White appointed Ella Shepherd (a former slave herself) as music arranger and choir director for the tour group known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The choir began to sing in small towns across the South. The music venue Mr. White chose for the Jubilee Singers was a collection of European melodies and songs written by George White. In a word, they bombed, and barely made enough money to get to the next town. However, one day as exhaustion, hunger and longing to go home had set in for the singers, they sang a spiritual just to comfort themselves but when the audience heard it, that changed everything, finally people wanted to listen. It was in that moment the spirituals would be changed forever, because in order to sing the spirituals in a choir, it would forever change the dynamics of the spirituals original intent and sound. The spirituals for the slaves were secret and to take them out of context and present them in a choir had never been done. The responsibility of including spirituals in the genre fell squarely on the shoulders of Ella Shepard. Ella painstakingly and with great trepidation and deep concern for the integrity and secrecy of the spirituals and her concern that the change might dishonor the slaves who created these songs, finally made the decision to transform the spirituals into a choir format in order to save the university. What was needed now, she felt, was saving the university. It was necessary and the only way to give opportunities to former slaves to acquire an education, so they could better equip themselves to become productive and prosperous citizens.
It is a fascinating story and one history owes a deep amount of gratitude to these singers. For had it not been for Ella Shepherd and the Jubilee singers the spirituals might have been lost forever. Ella Shepherd’s story and the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is a profoundly important one in American history.
Today in America there are only a handful of us who continue to sing the spirituals in their original form and intent, and mostly the spirituals are arranged in the choir format similar to the Fisk Singers and sung in the European operatic style with accompaniment /orchestra not performed or preserved with the original intent or sound.