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Emory project to provide wide access to influential American songbooks

Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) senior digital scholarship strategist and director of the Sounding Spirit initiative Jesse P. Karlsberg is photographed with a facsimile edition of one of the songbooks he edited and published with the Pitts Theology Library in 2015.

The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) has received a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for its project, “Sounding Spirit,” an initiative to publish digital and print editions of widely popular but currently inaccessible books of American Protestant music from 1850-1925.

The three-year grant from the NEH’s Scholarly Editions and Translations program will fund the editing and production of editions of five songbooks of gospel music, spirituals, shape-note music and lined-out hymn singing.

“These 19th-century Southern music genres had a profound influence across American music and culture, and are at the root of American jazz, soul, country and rock music,” says Jesse P. Karlsberg, ECDS senior digital scholarship strategist and director of the project.

Yet these works weren’t appreciated or sought out by scholars until recently. “Many of these books circulated widely and were popular and influential works, with dozens of printings and hundreds of thousands of copies,” says Karlsberg. “But you can pick a 15-square-mile part of Georgia at random and find more of these books in attics than in the world’s libraries.”

Karlsberg’s research on the roots of American music, begun as a PhD student at Emory’s Laney Graduate School, led him to these works—and to the gap in modern scholarship on their importance. “We need to make these works widely available again, and model what interacting with these books can look like.”

The editions, richly annotated with text and multimedia, will be built using Readux a platform created by ECDS for browsing, annotating and publishing digitized books.

The digital and print editions will be co-published by ECDS and the University of North Carolina Press as part of a new open access publishing partnership. 

The songbooks included are mainly drawn from the English and American Hymnody and Psalmody Collection at Emory’s Pitts Theology Library, one of the largest such collections in North America.

Karlsberg will serve as editor-in-chief of Sounding Spirit. ECDS’s Allen Tullos, Sara Palmer, Jay Varner, Yang Li, and Robert A. W. Dunn also will contribute expertise, and will be joined by a new Sounding Spirit managing editor, whose hiring will be funded by the grant. 

Sounding Spirit songbooks are drawn from different religious groups, and include the work of black, white and Native American contributors. Each songbook represents music using different music notation and book designs, shedding light on the relationship of music forms to identity.

Work on three Sounding Spirit volumes is currently underway:

  • “Jubilee Songs” (1872), the first published collection of spirituals sung by the pioneering Fisk Jubliee Singers, who popularized spirituals through performing them across the United States and beyond. 
  • “Class, Choir, and Congregation” (1888), a tremendously popular gospel songbook during a period when the then-new genre was booming in popularity.
  • “Original Sacred Harp” (1911), edited Karlsberg, an edition of the most well-known shape-note tunebook. Browse Original Sacred Harp on Readux.

Sounding Spirit is one of 218 projects receiving funding this cycle, and one of two projects involving ECDS and Karlsberg. According to NEH chairman Jon Parrish Peede, Sounding Spirit and the other projects funded by the NEH “strengthen and sustain the cultural life of our nation and its citizens.”

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