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An Index to African-American Spirituals for the Solo Voice.

An Index to African-American Spirituals for the Solo Voice. Compiled by Kathleen A. Abromeit. (Music Reference Collection, 76.) Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. [xiii, 199 p. ISBN 0-313-30577-3. $65.]

African American spirituals have been performed on the concert stage since the nineteenth century, and many composers have arranged them for solo performance. Performers who come to this book hoping for a guide to such concert arrangements of spirituals will be disappointed, however, unless the arrangements appear in collections. As compiler Kathleen A. Abromeit explains in her introduction, the book is an index to spirituals in the various published collections held at the Oberlin Conservatory Library. Her work follows in the tradition of Index to Negro Spirituals, prepared at the Cleveland Public Library in 1937 (rev. ed. [Chicago: Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, 1991]), and African-American Traditions in Song. Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks, compiled by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990); the latter comprehensively indexes spirituals published in a variety of sources befor e 1920. Abromeit indexes spirituals in sixty song collections; some of these are included in the two earlier works, but she adds many recent publications.

The book's title does not clearly indicate the nature of the collections indexed. Among those included are three major denominational hymnals published for African American congregations. None are scored for solo voice--solo scoring is the main criterion for inclusion stated in Abromeit's introduction--though soloists can certainly use them. Erskine Peters's Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual (West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993) is indexed, although it contains texts only. Important concert collections by Harry T. Burleigh, Clarence Cameron White, Hall Johnson, Eve Jessye, and others are included. Given the variety of collections indexed, a title that described the book's strengths, rather than one that raises false expectations, might have served better.

Because this index is based on the collection of one library, its coverage is idiosyncratic rather than comprehensive. It covers spirituals from a variety of sources, including at least one compilation for children, a spiritual collection published in South Africa, and spirituals in the general folksong collections by Alan Lomax and John A. Lomax. Yet there is at least one rather surprising omission: J. B. T. Marsh's Story of the Jubilee Singers and Their Songs, published in 1876 and in various editions thereafter. Abromeit does index an earlier Jubilee Singers collection, Theodore V. Seward's Jubilee Songs of 1872, but contrary to her note in the bibliography, Marsh does more than reprint Seward's music. By the 1890s, Marsh had added over sixty songs to his compilation, many of which Abromeit indexes from other sources. There are no modern reprints of the later editions of Marsh's collection, so it may have been omitted on grounds of practicality. All editions are included in Southern and Wright's African-A merican Traditions.

The hook consists of a bibliography of sources, followed by title, first line, variant title, and topical indexes. In the main title index, each song is represented by a uniform title in standard English; cross references are provided from the separately indexed variant titles and dialect versions. This is a good plan. A uniform title allows all locations of a song to appear together regardless of variations among the published versions. It minimizes problems of variant spelling and avoids the numerous cross-references among variants that complicate the use of the Cleveland index.

The sources for each title are shown by three-letter codes, each of which is followed by a page number and a further series of code letters that provide more information--whether there is an accompaniment, for example, or historical commentary. This format appears to have been taken directly from an underlying database, with little attempt made to expand it to readily understandable form. Consequently, the user must flip between the title entry, the bibliography, and the introduction to interpret the information. Unfortunately, most users demand information in a form they can immediately understand, and many do not read the introductions to reference books. The average user may need assistance navigating this index.

The index of first lines is a helpful feature not found in the Cleveland index. It includes the line that begins each song in each source, though it would have been more useful if both choruses and verses had been included as well. The topical index is the type commonly found in hymnals. Here Abromeit assigns each spiritual to one of twenty headings such as "Aspiration." "Deliverance,' and "Death": other topics indexed, such as "Christmas" and "Easter," are possibly more useful.

Abromeit's index clearly targets performers and does not lend itself well to other uses; "Freedom" is not in the topical index, for example, though spirituals are often source materials for undergraduate papers on slavery or civil rights. Abromeit does not provide original publication information for reprint sources. But these criticisms are minor, as the index does what Abromeit intended. It is an essential guide to spirituals in collections published since the 1930s, and libraries will want to have it.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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