Song books

Digital project brings notes to life

Jesse P. Karlsberg

The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) has received a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for its project, Sounding Spirit, an initiative to publish digital and print editions of widely popular but currently inaccessible books of American Protestant music from 1850 to 1925.

The three-year grant from the NEH's Scholarly Editions and Translations program will fund the editing and production of editions of five songbooks of gospel music, spirituals, shape-note music, and lined-out hymn singing.

"These nineteenth-century Southern music genres had a profound influence across American music and culture, and are at the root of American jazz, soul, country, and rock music," says Jesse P. Karlsberg, ECDS senior digital scholarship strategist and director of the project.

Yet these works weren't appreciated or sought out by scholars until recently. "Many of these books circulated widely and were popular and influential works, with dozens of printings and hundreds of thousands of copies," says Karlsberg. "But you can pick a fifteen-square-mile part of Georgia at random and find more of these books in attics than in the world's libraries."

Karlsberg's research on the roots of American music, begun as a PhD student at Emory's Laney Graduate School, led him to these works—and to the gap in modern scholarship on their importance. "We need to make these works widely available again and model what interacting with these books can look like." The editions, richly annotated with text and multimedia, will be built using Readux, a platform created by ECDS for browsing, annotating, and publishing digitized books.

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