What can a trove of overlooked and sacred songbooks from a century ago tell us about how people navigated race, religion, and place — and can it help reconstruct our national conversation about those topics now?

It’s an ambitious question and one among many that Emory researcher Jesse P. Karlsberg hopes to answer as he expands the digital footprint of Sounding Spirit. He first developed the one-of-a-kind, historic, sacred songbook library as a doctoral student at Emory; he now serves as senior digital scholarship strategist in the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and is an associated faculty member in the Department of Music.

Jesse Karlsberg working with a colleague

The collection, which is online, encompasses a host of musical genres: spirituals, gospel, hymns, and shape-note singing. Many of the songs offer glimpses into the roots of America’s current racial dynamics, speckled with sentiments ranging from white supremacy to the longing to be free to the lure of home.

What most intrigues Karlsberg is how this music encouraged people to cross boundaries that were typically taboo and the lessons it holds for us today.  

“Transport yourself back to West Georgia in the 1850s. These songs were in the air, sung in the fields, in churches,” he says.

“While some were created under oppressive conditions, they wove a shared cultural fabric that extended across racial lines. Sounding Spirit is an invitation to mine these texts for the ways diverse peoples and communities made meaning together, whether through conflict, expropriation, or collaboration.”

A renewed infusion of funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities will enable Karlsberg and a multi-institution team to untangle this unique and intricate slice of American history while adding more than 1,250 books of sacred music, published between 1850 and 1925, to the digital library.

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Jesse Karlsberg at Oakland cemetery
Jesse Karlsberg with one of the songbooks in the library

Based at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, the project offers Karlsberg an opportunity to marry his two loves: history and collecting. As a child in Boston, he spent summers gathering up sand dollars, progressing to bottle caps, stamps, and old music books as he grew older.

Now a scholar of American music and a Sacred Harp singer, Karlsberg says the books they are archiving were once printed in the hundreds of thousands but are rare to find in libraries these days. “Even though this music was taking place in the backyards of many educational institutions, it just wasn’t on the radar of scholars.” 

By creating a forever home for these songbooks, Karlsberg says the digital library is taking the first step toward telling a more inclusive and complicated story of American music and sacred music. “In prioritizing works to include in the digital library, we’ve done our best to rectify imbalances in historical collecting efforts by institutions across the country. Works will include those edited by or containing music sung by Black people, authored by women, and in a range of languages,” he says.

The sacred songbooks included in the digital library were created against the backdrop of pivotal historical events: from the Civil War to the rise of the New South to the early waves of the Great Migration and the ascent of Jim Crow. The songs reflect an expansive definition of the U.S. South and its diasporas, as well as a wide range of denominational affiliations.

The collection includes hymnals that were made for the purpose of missionizing the Oklahoma territories, including Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee populations. It also features the very first printed collection of spirituals sung by enslaved Black people.

Karlsberg also leads another Sounding Spirit project: a series of digital scholarly editions of sacred southern songbooks, co-published by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and the University of North Carolina Press.

Even as Sounding Spirit’s contribution to understanding history is important, Karlsberg says the project will gain significance for harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) to enable more sophisticated optical music recognition. Researchers from computer science and natural language processing will partner with historians and musicologists and use these new technologies to obtain textual and musical information from songbook page images.

“When you have a bunch of blocks of text on a page, how do you know what order they come in? Well, that’s a simple problem for a singer, but quite a difficult challenge to do automatically,” says Karlsberg. “But AI has opened up new, exciting strategies for extracting this information. This project will enable us to improve existing methods and develop new approaches in that space and share our learnings widely.”

Atlanta as the project’s anchor city seems fitting given that it was at the heart of these genres of music and continues to remain a hub. “We have the singing ensembles at Morehouse and Spelman and the annual Sacred Harp singing conventions that are held across the city. So, this is the place to do this kind of research. So many people in Atlanta today have a family history or some connection to these works.”

As a musicologist, Karlsberg is interested in ways the project could spawn new kinds of creative expression by attracting contemporary musicians and members of communities that have ties to these songs. “We are excited about creating spaces where people can encounter anew ­— with each other and across lines of difference — some of these shared histories and see what comes of that. So, in those ways, there are definite public and communal dimensions to this work.”

He hopes that by convening singing communities, the project can provide a nuanced platform for dialogue. “If we can draw on the deep reservoir of power that comes from the meaning of these songs to so many people, we can help forge some sort of limited connection and, maybe, offer people a way to stay in conversation.”

About this story and series: Produced and written by Rajee Suri. Video by Damon Meharg. Design by Elizabeth Hautau Karp.

Jesse Karlsberg
Jesse Karlsberg in the library
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