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White House Black History Month concert features Emory experts
James Abbington (left) and Jesse P. Karlsberg

Faculty members James Abbington (left) and Jesse P. Karlsberg provided expert commentary during Sunday’s White House “Soul of the Nation” gospel concert.

Emory faculty members James Abbington and Jesse P. Karlsberg provided expert commentary during Sunday’s “Soul of the Nation” concert, produced through a partnership between the White House, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and TV One.

The online event featured remarks by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and was hosted by singer-songwriter Juan Winans. Performers included gospel icons JJ Hairston and Tamela Mann, as well as the Morehouse Glee Club.

The NEH reached out to Karlsberg based on his work as program director of two NEH grants associated with the Sounding Spirit project that he leads in the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. Through their commentary, Karlsberg and Abbington helped shed light on the context and history of the gospel songs and spiritual performances that the concert featured.

Abbington is associate professor of church music and worship in Candler School of Theology, where his research interests include music and worship in the Christian church, African American sacred folk music, organ, choral music and ethnomusicology.

Along with his roles at Candler, where he has taught since 2005, Abbington is executive editor of the African American Church Music Series by GIA Publications. In addition to writing and editing, he has produced numerous recordings under GIA.

As one of the nation’s most respected choir directors, musicians and authors, Abbington is a popular speaker, performer and conductor at universities, conferences, symposiums and churches around the world. He also serves on the advisory board for Sounding Spirit.

In this recent video, he discusses the differences between traditional and traditionalism and how both affect music in the Black church. Secular music, broader Black culture, European hymns and even a genre created to disparage Black people are all part of the story — as are Abbington’s masterful musical illustrations. (Ending music is "Worship Melody" by Eman's Track).

Karlsberg serves as senior digital scholarship strategist in the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and is an associated faculty member in the Department of Music. He is the editor-in-chief and project director for Sounding Spirit — a one-of-a-kind, historic, sacred songbook library that he first began developing as a doctoral student at Emory.

The collection, which is online, encompasses a host of musical genres: spirituals, gospel, hymns, and shape-note singing. Many of the songs offer glimpses into the roots of America’s current racial dynamics, speckled with sentiments ranging from white supremacy to the longing to be free to the lure of home.

With a renewed infusion of funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Karlsberg is working with a multi-institution team to untangle this unique and intricate slice of American history while adding more than 1,250 books of sacred music, published between 1850 and 1925, to the digital library. Karlsberg also leads another Sounding Spirit project: a series of digital scholarly editions of sacred Southern songbooks, co-published by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and the University of North Carolina Press.

In the latest edition of the “I am an Emory Researcher” series, Karlsberg discusses how his own interest in sacred harp singing inspired his research into sacred music published from around 1850 to around 1925, and his hope that the Sounding Spirit project is a step toward a more inclusive understanding of American music and sacred music.

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