Library helps add new voices to Music and the Black Church program

  • Black man with close cropped beard and hair wearing brown and metal glasses looks into camera. He wears a blue jacket, white shirt, and purple tie.
    Braxton D. Shelley, founder of Yale's interdisciplinary program, Music and the Black Church
October 3, 2022

Minister and musicologist Braxton D. Shelley, faculty in the Department of Music and at the Institute of Sacred Music, and Libby Van Cleve, director of Yale Library’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM), have teamed up to launch a series of one-on-one interviews with leaders in gospel music. The OHAM interviews complement Yale’s new Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church. Shelley founded the program, which is based in the Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), when he arrived at Yale last year. The program engages students and scholars in the Department of Music, the School of Music, the ISM, the Divinity School, and the Department of African American Studies.

The first interview in this new initiative took place in April 2022 when Van Cleve spoke with Connecticut native Kurt Carr, composer, performer, and winner of four Stellar Awards for his achievements in the gospel music industry. Carr was visiting Yale to participate in the program’s day-long symposium “In the Sanctuary: An Inaugural Symposium on Music and the Black Church.” Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers later performed to an enthusiastic full house at the Divinity School.

Before the symposium took place, Van Cleve visited Shelley’s class, “The Gospel Imagination” to train students in oral history interview methods so they could conduct interviews after the symposium. With these techniques, students were able to interview some of the most influential but previously neglected figures in American music, both to document their unique roles and gifts and preserve their legacies. As Leo Davis Jr., minister of music at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, told a student in his interview, “Our experience is so vast, and I just hope we don’t lose it.” Van Cleve’s interview with Kurt Carr and all ten student interviews are available online for streaming

In November, Van Cleve will be interviewing Richard Smallwood, described by the Washington Post as “one of the most successful gospel singers in America.” Smallwood—writer, singer, and pianist—has been nominated for Grammy Awards 8 times and has recorded 14 albums, 3 of which were No. 1 in the gospel category in Billboard magazine. Smallwood will be performing at the Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven on Nov. 17. Van Cleve will also interview Vincent Bohanan, founder of the Brooklyn-based Sound of Victory Fellowship Choir, whose choir will also be performing on Nov. 17. These two interviews will be added to OHAM’s core unit, Major Figures in American Music Collection, which comprises more than 1,400 recorded interviews, dating from 1970 to the present day, with noted composers and musicians. 

Read more about Van Cleve’s interview with Kurt Carr in Library News and about the Interdisciplinary Program on Music in the Black Church. Register for the free Smallwood/Bohanan concert, “A Celebration of Gospel,” Thurs., Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.

Many of the interviews in the library’s OHAM collection can be streamed online using the Aviary platform. For information on how to access the interviews, view interview tables of contents, or request interview transcripts, select the tab “Accessing OHAM” in the collection guide

—Deborah Cannarella