I want to honor Ella Sheppard as we celebrate Women’s history month. As choir director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, she arranged the sound of the African American Spirituals to be sung in a European choir format to save Fisk University. Last week in my blog post I talked about the history of the spirituals . Today I want to expand on that and talk about the transformation of the spirituals into a European performance art form.

When the Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land in 1865, our American culture underwent major transformation. That would also become true for the spirituals. Interestingly, as our nations ideals of ‘freedom for all’ were again lost by enforcing the unjust laws of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the spirit of America was not lost with the freedom cries in the new American musical genres of blues and jazz, which began to break into the music scene little by little. And as we know these new American musical genres found their inspiration and foundation in the original sound of the African American spirituals the first original musical art form in our new nation .

In 1871, quite by chance, the original sound and intention of the spirituals themselves would be dramatically transformed into a European musical performance art form dropping their original American sound which had included a call and response. As it happened, Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, provided educational opportunities to former slaves and free blacks. However the school was facing dire financial problems, and as a way to generate funding for the school, the school treasurer George White (a white man and a Yankee and a lover of music) proposed the idea to form a choir with students, that he would take on tour across the country singing European songs and music he had composed to raise money for the school. Unfortunately, this plan did not work, the choir barely made enough money to make it to the next town to perform, as town folk didn’t accept the all black choir singing those songs. They were unwelcome, hungry, exhausted from touring and one night backstage before a performance the choir members went back to their roots and sang a spiritual amongst themselves to find comfort and peace for themselves, which was the original intention and purpose of a spiritual to begin with. A spiritual was a way to have your own conversation with God to find answers to your prayers and feel the freedom and safety in knowing God heard your cry as you sang it.

As fate would have it, the audience heard them and were deeply moved by them and asked to hear more. George White saw the response of the audience who heard his choir of 9 (7 former slaves and 2 free blacks) and he determined it would be a better idea to use the spirituals in his act, rather than the European songs he had directed his choir to sing previously. So, under the direction of Ella Sheppard, a former slave herself and as choir director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, she began the task of transforming the spirituals into the choir format. With great trepidation and deep concern for the integrity of the spirituals which for the slaves who created these songs, there had been an unspoken but widely known understanding that these songs were sacred and secret amongst themselves. Sheppard finally made the painstaking decision to transform them into a choir format to save the university. With that, the Jubilee Singers, this nine member student choir, brought the spirituals to a world audience, which allowed them to send money back to the university during tours and saved the university from closing its doors permanently .

It is important to note that any written musical arrangement of a spiritual is not authentic to the original intention of this musical genre, since by definition spirituals are passed on orally. But Ella took great care when reinterpreting these songs, and her love for the spirituals was unwavering. In spite of their transformation, the fact still remains the spirituals are an original music, born here in the “new world”. Take a look at this video, and don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel for more upcoming exciting videos on the spirituals!

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