Since composer and baritone Harry T. Burleigh published the Negro Spiritual, “Deep River,” for solo voice in 1916, singers have performed this and similar art songs in concerts, recitals, sacred services, and vocal competitions. For a century, the powerful words and melodies of these American folk songs have proven to be fruitful sources for composers seeking to create music for classically trained vocalists to perform on stage and for recordings.
The Spirituals Database provides searchable information about Negro Spirituals set for the solo voice and recorded on over 4,600 tracks from more than 550 sound recordings. Launched in March, 2015, the database is part of The Art of the Negro Spiritual and carries on that project’s efforts to discover and share information about the Spiritual’s potential role in developing a singer’s repertoire.
The project’s goal is the eventual publication of a resource on Spiritual art songs that not only includes information available in The Spirituals Database, but identifies important details all too often missing from the recordings themselves.
The primary–but far from exclusive–audience for The Spirituals Database is the vocalist, the vocal coach/teacher or the accompanist who is looking for these recorded resources. These recordings serve as an opportunity for the singer, voice instructor or other musician to enhance their study of how Spirituals can be performed in a studio, concert, service or competition setting.
Even the composer, music historian, educator, librarian, researcher, or the enthusiast who simply wants to hear these great songs performed will have reason to seek out information about the wide range of recordings–including compact discs, rare or out-of-print long-playing (33 1/3 rpm) and 78 rpm albums, audio cassettes, 45 rpm discs, as well as demonstration recordings from Spirituals music score compilations and commercial recordings available only as streamed digital files–represented in The Spirituals Database.
The criteria used for the selection of recordings for The Spirituals Database is very straightforward:
- Commercially produced audio recording that contains at least one selection of a Negro Spiritual
- Setting composed in a manner intended for concert performance by a solo vocalist
Recordings may include vocal and/or instrumental accompanying forces–such as chorus, piano, orchestra, guitar, flute, violin, etc.; however, those forces are always secondary to the role of the vocal soloist in the listed performance. Also, the voice type (soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, countertenor, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, bass) of the soloist is included to assist searchers who are looking for recordings by a specific voice type.
Additionally, searchable tags are being placed on items to assist those looking for songs categorized under relevant Old and/or New Testament Books of the Bible and under several themes, including Christmas, Easter, Passion, Crucifixion, holiday, Communion, Baptism. Others will be added over time.
Soprano and researcher Randye Jones, the creator and compiler of The Spirituals Database, holds her Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education from Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and her Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from the Florida State University, Tallahassee. She has had additional graduate study in Vocal Literature at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Jones has gained recognition for her research of and published writings on African American vocalists and composers and as a performer and lecturer through her projects, The Art of the Negro Spiritual and Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music, as well as her past work through her online broadcast stations, Afrocentric Voices Radio and Afrocentric Sounds.
One of her more recent writing projects was an essay on tenor Roland Hayes’ 1940 recording, “Were You There,” which was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2013 (direct link to Were You There-Hayes Essay for Library of Congress NRR .pdf file)
She regularly presents lecture-recitals and concerts or has served as a panelist at events such as the Research, Education, Activism and Performance (REAP) National Conference on Spirituals, African American Art Song Alliance Conference, the National Association of Negro Musicians conference, and the Phenomenon of Singing International Symposium VIII in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Jones brings 25 years of library experience–including her current position as the media collections coordinator for the libraries at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa–to the task of maintaining The Spirituals Database.