October 6, 2021, marked the 150th anniversary of the first tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a vocal ensemble who widened the definition of American music during the late 19th century with their renditions of Negro spirituals. This group of nine singers, of which all but two were former slaves, were largely in their teens when they embarked on this tour. They faced many hardships during that early tour, but their legacy is far-reaching as they were significant in transitioning the songs of slave praise houses (churches) and the fields into an idiom of choral ensemble music that is still performed today.
Did you know Cincinnati has a direct connection with the Jubilee Singers and this historic 1871 tour? Yes, it’s true. There are strong and important correlations between the history of the Jubilee Singers, the emergence of the spiritual, and the Queen City. The first points to Cincinnati’s identity as a border city, overlooking the Ohio River, which provided a geographic and ideological barrier between the slave states of the South and freedom in the North. As a major industrial city, Cincinnati was home to a large diverse population that fostered different religious practices, cultural and musical traditions. By 1829 that population also included over 2,000 Blacks. Over time the city also embodied the tensions that existed between the pro-slavery sentiment and the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. Its proximity to the Ohio River made it a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Enslaved people that crossed the river were assisted by local people including Levi Coffin, John Rankin, and John Parker. The spirituals, songs that were created out of the conversion of enslaved people to Christianity served as the language that linked these abolitionists with escaping slaves. Messages that mapped routes, “captains” (named used for abolitionists) and survival strategies were wrapped into lyrics that drew on the heroes and stories of the Old Testament.
Years later when the Jubilee Singers embarked on this historic tour they followed the path of the Underground Railroad, stopping first in Cincinnati before heading north to Columbus, Oberlin and eventually New York.
The second connection that existed between Cincinnati and the Fisk Jubilee Singers involved singer/arranger/pianist Ella Sheppard (left, 1851-1914). Sheppard served as the rehearsal director, arranger, and vocal coach for the Jubilee Singers, but she also spent her formative years in Cincinnati. She was born on Hermitage plantation outside of Nashville, TN in 1851. Her father, Simon Sheppard, purchased his freedom through contracted work. When Ella was around four years old, her father purchased her freedom for $300. But their master would not allow for Ella’s mother, Sarah, to be freed. She was eventually moved to a plantation in Okolona, Mississippi and was not reunited with her child until years later.
Ella and her father remained in the Nashville area, but he struggled financially, and his debts grew. Afraid that Ella and new wife Cornelia would be taken by creditors, Simon brought the family to Cincinnati in 1861. Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the nation and home to a large black population, which by 1829 was over 2,000. It was here in the vibrant cultural scene of Cincinnati that Ella developed her skills as a musician, studying piano and voice.
When Simon died of cholera in 1866, Ella supported her family with her musical talent. She played for small functions, and gave music lessons. In time she earned enough money to move back to Nashville to attend the Fisk Free Colored School in hopes of training to be a teacher.
The Fisk school struggled financially during these early years and the 1871 tour of the Jubilee Singers was initiated as a fundraising campaign. It ultimately ignited a cultural revolution that illuminated to audiences the lived experiences of enslaved people and the authentic music that developed out of it. What the Jubilee Singers performed differed vastly from the songs of popular minstrel shows. Initially they performed a combination of traditional European choral music and a few settings of spirituals, but as it became clear that the latter resonated more strongly with audiences, the Jubilee Singers focused more on the singing of those slave melodies. (Read what Shepperd wrote about these songs here)
The popularity of the group grew and eventually took them to Europe where they sang for Queen Victoria and her court. She had her court artisans capture the group in a painting that hangs today in Jubilee Hall on the campus of Fisk. If you’re wondering how the tour went? It was a financial success raising $20,000 for the school. The Jubilee Singers embarked on several more tours and raised over $150,000. Ella Sheppard eventually retired from the group and spent her final years as an activist, wife, and mother. But her influence on American and European music should not be ignored, as they represent one of the earliest examples of a black woman operating in the role of composer and arranger. Sheppard not only sang with the Jubilee Singers, she also transcribed spiritual melodies into notation, and created the arrangements that reflected the influence of Western European classical music. We cannot talk about the Negro spirituals that are sung today in churches, schools, and communities by people of all different ethnic and cultural identities without reflecting on the early contributions of Ella Sheppard.
Most people identify the spiritual with the sadness and brutality of slavery, but I challenge you to listen to them more deeply. Spirituals are songs of resistance, that express a sentiment of hope, faith, and persistence, just as much as many of them are sad in nature. More importantly, they serve as an important historical artifact that documents America’s evolving identity. So, the next time you hear “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Go Down Moses” or “Wade in the Water,” think about how these songs framed part of Cincinnati’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad and a major cultural outpost in the decades following the Civil War.