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Toni Anderson, Music Historian, on
Ella Sheppard

Toni Anderson Who is Ella Sheppard?

Anderson : Ella Sheppard is perhaps, in my opinion, the most important member of the troupe. She came to Fisk University when she was quite young, with all of her belongings in such a small box that the students joked her and called it her pie box. And so she came to school to get an education. She had taught some piano lessons. She had taken some piano lessons and some voice lessons, so she had some musical training. And she was one of the first members that joined and was part of George White’s choir. Within just a very short time, George White saw how capable she really was, and began to rely upon her to help drill the singers and rehearse. She was the accompanist for the group. She’s the only member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers that participated from the day one until the final campaign.

Ella Sheppard was an incredible woman, not only in her personality but in her musicality. She was obviously musically capable, because she handled so much of the responsibility of arranging all of the spirituals during this time of evolution in the concert programming. But she was also incredible in that she was able to handle George White, who was very gruff and blunt and opinionated and stubborn, unyielding. And in the midst of all of this, not only was she able to translate his ideas into reality in terms of music, but she was also able to just deal with him in a very loyal way. And what’s amazing about it is that she was probably 22, maybe 23 years old when she left with the singers. She was a very poised and dignified, strong black woman.

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