Interview with gospel great Kurt Carr leads expanded collection focus on Black church music

  • woman and man seated facing each other in a conference interview setting with videographer recording nearby
    Libby Van Cleve interviews Kurt Carr (Dan Renzetti photo).
April 21, 2022

In another step toward the full reopening of Sterling Memorial Library, Libby Van Cleve, director of Yale Library’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) program, conducted an interview with gospel music luminary Kurt Carr on April 20—the first such in-person, on-site interview since the COVID shutdown. The interview is also a milestone in the ongoing evolution of a key music library collection to support Yale’s new interdisciplinary program in Music and the Black Church, directed by minister and musicologist Braxton Shelley.

Carr and his Kurt Carr Singers performed on Friday, April 22, at the Divinity School, as part of In the Sanctuary: An Inaugural Symposium on Music and the Black Church. View the performance and the symposium on YouTube.

Carr, a Hartford native, began attending church services at the age of 13 and soon became active in his church’s musical programs. He studied classical voice and piano at the University of Connecticut and was mentored by the gospel legend James Cleveland. In addition to his own recordings and work as the creative director for the Los Angeles-based West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Carr actively promotes other acts on his GospoCentric record label. Known for his musical versatility, he has performed in a wide range of settings, from storefront churches to European cathedrals, and at the White House, the Kennedy Center, Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall.

“In our interview, he pointed out that virtually every Black vocalist gets their start in church music,” said Van Cleve. “All of his singers are deeply spiritual and see their music as ministry. We talked about it what it means to perform sacred music when all the musicians share the same deep beliefs. We also talked about the journey of Black music over time, literally from slavery to the White House. It was a privilege to have this opportunity to explore his history and motivations.”

Videotaped in a seminar room of Gilmore Music Library, Carr’s interview will become part of the library’s Major Figures in American Music Collection, which comprises more than 1,400 recorded interviews—dating from 1970 to the present day—with noted American composers, performers, and other significant musicians.

While the majority of OHAM’s interviews are conducted in New York or at the interview subject’s location, the opportunity to interview in the library adds another dimension, Van Cleve said.  “Sterling Library is a hallowed hall that resonates with depth and rigor and respect for intellectual inquiry. It’s almost a sacred space in its own right,” she said.

Before the interview, Carr stopped at the new Hanke Exhibition Gallery in the Sterling nave to look at some of the music-related objects on display: James Weldon Johnson’s manuscript of the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing;” the music manuscript by J. Rosamond Johnson; and a metal souvenir version of “The Harp,” a monumental sculpture created by Augusta Savage, inspired by the anthem and exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The objects are part of the Hanke Gallery’s first exhibition, Points of Contact, Points of View.

“It is wonderful to see this,” said Carr, who has created his own arrangement of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” colloquially known as “the Black national anthem,” which he performed at Yale.  One of Carr’s motivations for developing his arrangement, he said later, was to help keep the song alive and vibrant in the Black community.

An Evolving Collection

The Major Figures in American Music Collection began with the study of classical music composers, but, in response to faculty and student interests, soon expanded to include leading jazz figures as well. The collection notably features multiple interviews with celebrated musical figures, such as Aaron Copland, John Adams, Julia Wolfe, Willie Ruff, and David Lang.  Interviews were often conducted at various stages of the artists’ careers, providing a unique insight into their life and work over time.

“Now, with the arrival of Braxton Shelley and the establishment of the Music and the Black Church program, we see a real need and interest in expanding our work with key figures in Black religious music,” Van Cleve said.

This semester, Van Cleve provided an introduction to oral history interviewing techniques for Prof. Shelley’s students, who will interview leading figures in Black church music for their final semester projects. The student interviews will also be preserved in the library’s collection.

For More Information

All interviews in the Major Figures collection can be streamed online using the Aviary platform. Watch a video guide to setting up an Aviary account. For information on how to access the interviews, view interview tables of contents, or request interview transcripts, see the collection guide

Read about the Interdisciplinary Program on Music in the Black Church. Read about the exhibition, Points of Contact, Points of View: Asking Questions in Yale Library Special Collections, in the new Hanke Exhibition Gallery.

–by Patricia Carey

Photos by Dan Renzetti

This story was updated on April 25 to change the announcement of the April 22 performance to a performance that occurred in the past and add links to the recorded events.