Sounding Spirit Receives $349,929 NEH Grant to Create New Hymnody Index

Sounding Spirit Receives $349,929 NEH Grant to Create New Hymnody Index

Sounding Spirit Collaborative director Jesse P. Karlsberg has received a fourth grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to begin an initiative that promotes engagement with hymnody in southern vernacular sacred music books. This $349,929 grant from the NEH’s Humanities Collections and References Resources program supports the indexing of hymn tunes, texts, and associated authors and composers in the Sounding Spirit Digital Library, a thematic collection of songbooks digitized by the Collaborative and slated for Fall 2024 publication. The planned reference resource, the Sounding Spirit Hymnody Index, will provide a single point of access to and support rich engagement with approximately 300,000 printings of hymn tunes and texts in over 1,250 significant books of vernacular sacred music from the southern United States published between 1850 and 1925. 

New NEH GrantsThe hymnody index will be integrated with the Sounding Spirit Digital Library and complement the Collaborative’s annotated facsimile editions of influential books of sacred southern vernacular music. The scholarly editions series is co-published by the University of North Carolina Press and ECDS and made possible by an NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations grant.

Over the next three years, Karlsberg’s multi-institutional team anchored at Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) will:

  1. Index a subset of the earliest published songbooks from the Sounding Spirit Digital Library, recording more than 100,000 instances of tunes, texts, and their composers and authors; 
  2. Publish the Sounding Spirit Hymnody Index in an open access digital resource that pairs search and display capabilities for tune, text, author, composer, and source information; 
  3. Recruit, train, and supervise a cohort of volunteer indexers familiar with vernacular hymnody to produce transcriptions edited and refined by our core project team; and 
  4. Develop and apply a robust data model for indexing hymnody that facilitates interoperability with complementary indices and links to the Sounding Spirit Digital Library.

Sounding Spirit’s indexing approach prioritizes interoperability among reference resources. In addition to publishing the Sounding Spirit Hymnody Index, the Collaborative will contribute indexed information to and Répertoire International des Sources Musicales, the most popular and established reference resources for hymns and musical sources. By collecting and sharing data compatible with these partners, scholars and practitioners will have broad access to all Sounding Spirit indexed hymnody. The index will also seamlessly connect to the high quality digital page images of every hymn and extensive songbook-level metadata collected for the Sounding Spirit Digital Library, showcasing the power of interweaving a reference resource with a humanities collection. 

Indexing hymn tunes and texts in the Sounding Spirit Digital Library will enable research and teaching that integrates the close reading of primary sources, music analysis, and study of humanities research data. Researchers will draw on indexed hymnody to study how the circulation of tunes and texts varied across time and space and responded to racial, denominational, and stylistic boundaries. Teachers will use the index to prompt student engagement with harmonic, textual, and bibliographic differences between versions of a hymn and broader humanities contexts. By comparing and contrasting arrangements of tunes across time and place, exploring versions of hymn texts in different languages, or contrasting different pairings of tunes and texts, students and scholars will explore historic events and topics including the Trail of Tears, the rise of the New South and Jim Crow, and immigration histories.

The audience for the index extends beyond scholars and teachers to include contemporary practitioners. Black, white, and Native American congregations that sing hymns, shape-note singers, participants in gospel convention and fan networks, and choirs and ensembles that perform spirituals will find these tunes and texts foundational to their contemporary practice. For church musicians, choral groups, and sacred music ensembles, the partnership with will offer ways to discover new settings of texts and tune arrangements. 

Jesse P. Karlsberg, Sounding Spirit project director, editor-in-chief, and ECDS senior digital scholarship strategist will advance this initiative in collaboration with associate editor and music bibliographer Erin Fulton and a new associate editor. Digital text specialist Sara Palmer and software engineer Jay Varner will contribute to Emory’s efforts alongside software developers from Performant Software and technical experts from FromThePage. The core project team will be joined by technical and editorial advisory boards comprising new and returning members.

In the funding announcement, NEH chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) describes the anticipated impact of the awards. “These projects show how the humanities help us understand ourselves and our world and will expand our nation’s cultural resources and foster learning in communities across the country.” Sounding Spirit is proud to count among the 238 education, preservation, research, and public programs selected for funding. At the outset of the funding period, Sounding Spirit will stage a series of physical exhibitions showcasing the digital library on which the index will be built. A spring 2025 convening at Emory University will feature performances, talks, and interactive singing sessions that encourage scholarship and public engagement with the digital library’s works that, thanks to this funding, will soon be indexed.

Ready? Set? Index!