Music for the Soul: One Young Woman’s Global Influence | Opinion

Put yourself in the shoes of Ella Shepherd. She is corseted and yet free, since seven years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It is the summer of 1871 in Memphis, Tennessee, and the weather is as oppressively hot as the murderous mood of the defeated Confederate rebels. Miss Shepherd is part of a newly formed collaborative group of African-American choral singers. They walk to the Memphis train station to return to Fisk University in Nashville. The choir was conducting a radical experiment: go on a singing tour to raise funds to save struggling Fisk University, a traditionally black institution founded in 1866.

A crowd of men follows the singers to the station. The hair stands up on Ella’s neck and arms. The KKK-sympathizing crowd, with no need for hoods, had hounded the young African-American choristers while taunting them with racial epithets. Desperate, the eight-member ensemble does the only thing they can think of: they start singing an a cappella hymn. The pack of humans is so affected by this that most drift away until only their leader remains. Tears streaming down his face, he asks them to sing the hymn again. Thus the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers were born.

Miss Shepard’s diary, news clippings, and ephemera are currently held in the archives of the Fisk Franklin Library and can be experienced first hand, as long as those hands are wearing white gloves. First I would look to see if Ella provided the name of the song they sang that moved the pack leader so deeply that he cried. We need more of this everywhere and all the time.

Imagine the choir’s hearts racing, the sweat pouring down their faces and backs, the lumps of fear in their throats, and the sheer courage it takes to begin singing in the face of almost certain violence or even death. There was white-on-black deadly danger wherever the Fisk Jubilee Singers went on their southern tours. Let’s just say that many people in the south at the time were big losers, continuing this tradition to this day. As partial proof, the Tennessee legislature sought to limit how black history could be taught, if it could be taught at all.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers began by studying traditional white repertoire, in part to prove that black people were just as capable as their white counterparts in standard musical selections. But what put them on the map was their embrace of traditional “Negro spirituals,” or what respected thought leader WEB Du Bois called “sorrow songs.” The Fisk Singers would sing for Queen Victoria, which in their day was the best audience for performers, and in the major cities of Europe. They sang folk songs that their forefathers and fathers had sung in the fields.

Spiritual people express much more than setting and maintaining a rhythm for laborious work. They also had a strategic use, as many had a “code” built into the texts that told other enslaved people what was happening in the main house or that escape was either imminent or underway. There were consequences not just for the enslaved person if and when she or he was caught running away, but for the entire community who lost whatever meager “privileges” they already had. Rations would be limited to starvation levels unless someone betrayed the others.

These songs brought comfort and sadness to the people who listened to them, making the harrowing conditions of the enslaved people a little “better”. Thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, most Americans recognize and can hum better-known spirituals such as Golden Slippers, Motherless Child, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Michael Row Your Boat Ashore. They have become part of the fabric of America itself.

Because of the so-called “fragility” of too many white people, mostly in the former Confederate states, what can be taught and learned is deliberately censored through the ruse of “Parental Rights.” Some white parents do not want the truth about slavery to be taught. It’s mind boggling that in these times we still have to deal with book bans that are outright fascist tactics fueled by Christian white nationalist beliefs.

If it weren’t for Ella Shepard and her courage, first as Fisk’s lead singer and eventually as their music director, archivist, chief arranger and matriarch, we wouldn’t know about our unique and rich musical heritage meant for every American. Miss Shepard broke ground not only racially, but in breaking through male-dominated pursuits of music and leadership, which was true then and is still true now.

The song “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton based on his conversion experience; he went from a sailor involved in the Atlantic slave trade to an abolitionist. I like to fantasize that Miss Shepard led the Fisk Singers in “Amazing Grace” on that fateful day when they were threatened by the mob. Her sheer courage and grace under threat can still save us all.

February, Black History Month, will be here soon. Make time now to hear the glorious baritone Michal Dawson-Connor sing a concert of Spirituals that he has organized. These arrangements bring these songs back to their rightful place, providing both comfort and sadness. You’ve never heard anything like it.

7:30 p.m., February 9, St. Andrew Catholic Church, 311 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena

Ellen Snortland teaches creative writing online and has a few rare openings in her classes. She can be reached at [email protected] to get more information about training and scheduling. New! If you would like to share other of Ellen’s writings, visit https://ellenbsnortland.substack.com and consider subscribing.

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