Uncle Wallace Willis (sometimes Wallis Willis) was a Choctaw freedman living in the Indian Territory. He is credited with composing several Negro spirituals. Willis received his name from his owner, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi, the ancestral home of the Choctaws. He died, probably in what is now Atoka County, Oklahoma, as his unmarked grave is located there.
Prior to the Civil War, Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were sent by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy where the superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing. In 1871 Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers and thought the songs he had heard the Willises singing were better than those of the Jubilee Singers.
He furnished them to the group which performed them in the United States and Europe. Many are now famous. It is said that Dvorák used the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his “New World Symphony”. The tune was also recorded by Eric Clapton and is a popular song with supporters of the England rugby union team.
It is sometimes claimed that the composer of the songs credited to Willis is unknown, but no record exists of any of them prior to the performances by the Jubilee Singers.
- “I’m A-Rollin'”
- “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
- “Steal Away To Jesus“
- “The Angels are Coming”
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