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 6,300 tracks from over 675 sound recordings. Launched in March, 2015, the database is part of The Art of the Concert 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 concert spiritual that not only includes information available in The Spirituals Database, but identifies important details all too often missing from the recordings themselves.
The resource, entitled Recorded Solo Concert Spirituals, 1916-2022, is scheduled for publication in May 2023. More information about this book is available at http://www.artoftheconcertspiritual.com/recorded-solo-concert-spirituals-1916-2022/.
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 have been added to 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.
Overall, The Spirituals Database‘s goal is to support the book, Recorded Solo Concert Spirituals, 1916-2022. Some features in the book are not available on the site. This includes evaluation of the use of dialect in performance and a developing assessment of composers when this information is not included on the recording or resource used (site designation is “Composer not identified”)–currently over 300 tracks assessed as Burleigh settings and over 300 assessed as Lawrence Brown’s. Book also includes specific Biblical verses rather than solely chapter listing. NOTE: the site is a “living” resource that will continue to grow even beyond the limits of the book. This means that as new recordings are found and added, the new items will be listed as “NIB” (Not in Book). The site will also reflect missing information that has been found beyond the publication of the book.
Soprano, author, and researcher Randye Jones, the creator and compiler of The Spirituals Database, is a native of Greensboro, North Carolina. She had her first exposure to Negro spirituals—and German hymns—growing up in her home church. She received her bachelor’s degree in music education from Greensboro’s Bennett College, studying with Mary Jane Crawford, and her master’s degree in vocal performance from the Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she studied with Barbara Ford and Enrico di Giuseppe. She continued her studies in vocal literature at the University of Iowa, studying with Stephen Swanson. While at Florida State, Jones expanded her musical interests to include both music research—especially related to vocal music by African American musicians—and music librarianship. She became a music cataloger at the university, followed by additional library work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Jones currently catalogs and manages the media collections for the libraries at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.
Jones authored her first book, So You Want to Sing Spirituals, as part of The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) series, So You Want to Sing. Published with Rowman & Littlefield in 2019, the guide looks at the history of the concert spiritual and at effective approaches for introducing the songs to the vocal music community. Her second book, a compilation describing more than 5,000 track recordings entitled Recorded Solo Concert Spirituals, 1916-2022, is scheduled for publication by McFarland and Co. in June, 2023. She also serves as a member of the NATS/Rowman & Littlefield Editorial Board.
As a researcher, Jones has been a pioneer in the production of websites featuring the achievements of African American vocalists. She created the website Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music, which launched in 1998, , as well as her past work through her online broadcast stations, Afrocentric Voices Radio and Afrocentric Sounds. In 2015, Jones launched the Spirituals Database, a site with information on more than six thousand concert spiritual recording tracks by an international array of singers. She has also published several online articles, including “The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual” and essays on tenor Roland Hayes’s recording, “Were You There,” and Marian Anderson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” recordings which were selected for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Jones recently served as the Humanities Scholar, consulting for the musical production, Dear Mr. Duncan, based on baritone Todd Duncan.
In addition to her activities as a recital and lecturer, Jones has presented at Growing The Voices: Festival 500, the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) conference; the Research, Education, Activism, and Performance (REAP) National Conference on Spirituals; the Harry T. Burleigh Society, the Tennessee Chapter of NATS, the African American Art Song Alliance (AAASA) and the Music Library Association (MLA) conferences. She was interviewed for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2016 documentary, Spirituals: The Foundation of Popular Music.
Of the honors for her work, Jones most recently received the 2021 Florence Price Award for Advocacy, 2022 MLA Citation for a lifetime of contributions to the research of the Negro spiritual and advocacy of paraprofessional member participation within the organization and AAASA’s 2022 Willis C. Patterson Research Award.
Jones brings more than 30 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.
More information is available at http://randyejones.com.