Preserving the Voices of Black Gospel Musicians

Since Professor Braxton Shelley’s appointment to the ISM and Yale School of Music in July 2021, he has been collaborating with Libby Van Cleve, director of Yale Library’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) collection to establish a series of one-on-one interviews with leaders in gospel music. This project, which is part of the Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church (link sends e-mail), is helping to preserve the voices of key Black musicians. Over the last year, the collaboration has already borne much fruit.

When Shelley first began exploring the possibility of coming to Yale, he became intrigued with the prospect of forging connections between OHAM and the programmatic and preservational work he was doing with Black gospel. After conversations with Van Cleve, a significant commitment was made to add the voices of Black church musicians to OHAM’s Major Figures in American Music Collection.

While the opportunity to interview the major artists who come to campus on an annual and semi-annual basis is an exciting one, the chance to talk to many others who occupy this tradition as church music directors, choir members, and university faculty is even more beneficial. This bifocal approach brings Yale students into the OHAM project and to the ISM’s Program in Music and the Black Church. For example, the final assessment for last spring’s iteration of Shelley’s gospel class was neither a paper nor an exam. Instead, students ended the class by preparing for, and carrying out, an interview with a leading voice in Black sacred music.

Last April, fifteen music ministry leaders came to campus for a multi-day visit timed to coincide with Kurt Carr’s residency. Gathered in the common room in ISM’s Miller Hall, this working group offered advice about the new ISM program, shared their stories and challenges, reflected on their art, and participated in song and worship. The director of Choral Activities at Hampton University, the inaugural associate dean of Equity and Inclusion at the Eastman School of Music, and the ministers of music at the Potter’s House in Dallas, TX, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, TN, and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, were among the group’s members. Because of the new collaboration with OHAM, interviews with each of these individuals can be accessed on an ongoing basis in the Major Figures in American Music collection.

In mid-November, Van Cleve will conduct interviews with gospel artists Donald Lawrence and Vincent Bohanan when they visit campus for “A Celebration of Gospel.” Professor Shelley intends to continue making the interview a central feature of his gospel classes, including this upcoming spring, when he will teach “Women of the Gospel.” The class will culminate in a residency with the Clark Sisters, a pioneering group of musicians who Van Cleve will also interview.

Some of the members of April’s working group