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Blakely “Old Shady” Durant


Blakey Durant, better known as “Old Shady," died on this date in 1884 in the city of Grand Forks, Dakota Territory. Old Shady was an early composer and singer of one of the country’s most stirring and popular war songs.

Blakey Durant was born in Fort Madison, Mississippi in 1826. As a child he and his family immigrated to Texas. After the death of his father, Blakey and his mother moved to Cincinnati. Unfortunately, in 1833, there were no public schools available to children of black Americans. Blakey would need to rely only on a “practical education.”

Soon after marrying, the Civil War broke out. Old Shady joined as a private in the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His first assignment was as a cook for the officer’s kitchen staff. In this capacity, Old Shady was able to daily rub shoulders with important Union officers, not the least of which was General William T. Sherman.

Old Shady was by now, known among the Union officers for his cooking and catering skills. But his renown among these offices wasn’t only for his cooking, but for his singing.

After the Battle of Shiloh, Old Shady again ran into General Sherman while catering as part of General McPherson’s kitchen staff. Because General Sherman was a close friend of General Grant, Old Shady was assigned for several months to Grant’s mess. It was during this time that almost nightly Old Shady was asked to sing for the generals and their guests.

It was perhaps with these types of performances in mind, that General Sherman later wrote, “no truer song of gladness ever ascended the lips of man than at Vicksburg, when “Old Shady” sang for us in a voice of pure melody, this song of deliverance from the bonds of slavery.” He became a favorite of General Sherman, and was even mentioned in the general’s post-war book “Memoirs of War” in 1888.

After the war, Old Shady returned to Ohio and took up steam boating. He eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. While there, he saw General Sherman again, but much to Old Shady’s disappointment, he was not able to speak with him. In 1884, now living in Grand Forks, Old Shady was excited to hear that his old general would be passing through town.

At the railroad depot, this time Old Shady was able to get close to the general and greet his old commander. General Sherman at first didn’t recognize his old ‘singing cook.” Once it struck him who he was, Old Shady reported that the general nearly “shook me to pieces.” This would be the last time Old Shady ever saw Sherman alive. He even took time to attend his favorite old general’s funeral in St. Louis, Missouri.

So how did Blakey Durant earn his nickname?

Well, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the song that he often sang for General Sherman and his guests was the Civil War favorite, “Old Shady.”

by Dave Seifert

Sources: Lounsberry, Colonel Clement A., “Early History of North Dakota, Essential Outlines of American History,” Liberty Press, Washington, D.C., 76 New York Avenue, N.E., 1919. pg. 510-512.