Blakely Durant was an unlikely celebrity. The humble and quiet black man had been born into the antebellum south in 1826, near Natchez, Mississippi. The son of former slaves, Blakely moved with his family first to Texas, then north to Cincinnati, hoping to escape the dangers of the south. Even in Cincinnati, there were no schools open to African Americans, and Durant continued to face discrimination. He eventually grew up, got married, and moved to a farm in Mercer County, Ohio. When the Civil War broke out, Durant volunteered for the 71st Ohio infantry, under the command of General William Sherman.
Durant was made a cook, which he excelled at; he was frequently asked to cater dinners for the Union officers. One evening, General Sherman and some other officers heard Durant playing his old guitar and singing a soulful tune. The song had been written by an Ohio schoolteacher in 1861, and was known locally as “The Day of Jubilee.” The first few lines of the song went:
Yah, yah, yah, come laugh with me,
De white folks say Old Shady am free,
I spec’ de year of Jubilee am a-comin’…
Then away, then away, I can’t stay…for I am goin’ home.
The Union officers believed Durant wrote the song, and began calling the cook Old Shady. Durant traveled with Sherman to Shiloh, and all the way to Vicksburg. He was often asked to sing for the officers and their wives. When the cook lost his guitar while retrieving the regimental colors during the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, several of the officers bought him a brand new one. In 1888, Sherman wrote a sketch of Old Shady in his published memoirs, claiming that his singing often brought tears to the eyes of many Union officers.
After the war, Durant moved with his wife and children to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Sherman later wrote that he believed Durant had moved as far north as possible for safety reasons, without leaving the United States he had fought for. In Grand Forks, Durant was a local celebrity, known widely as Sherman’s “singing cook.” Sherman even came to visit him, and Durant traveled to St. Louis to attend the General’s funeral. Old Shady passed away in Grand Forks on this date in 1894, and his obituary appeared as far away as the New York Times.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Galbreath, C. B. 1998 “Song Writers of Ohio: Benjamin Russel Hanby,” Ohio History, Vol. 14: pp. 180-215. Ohio Historical Society: Columbus, OH.
Hartwick, C. M. 1894 “Midland War Sketches III: Old Shady, the Composer and Original Singer of One of our Most Stirring and Popular War-Songs,” The Midland Monthly Magazine, Vol. I-II: pp. 454-456.
Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Liberty Press: New York: pp. 510.
Pearson, Ethelyn. 2000 It Really Happened Here: Amazing Tales of Minnesota and the Dakotas: p. 37. McCleery & Sons Publishing: Gwinner, ND.
“Gen. Sherman’s ‘Old Shady’ Dead.” The New York Times, September 20, 1894.