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The University of Texas at Austin


Study of American Spirituals

In 2005, the Briscoe Center established the Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals to promote scholarship, performance, publication, and the collection and preservation of historical materials related to the American spiritual and American music in general. Fund-raising is underway to reach the stated goal of $3 million. When completed, the endowment will make the Briscoe Center’s historical and cultural music collections, which were built through the efforts of the University’s faculty, staff, and students over a period of more than seventy-five years, more readily accessible to the public. It will enable the Center to continue to build and strengthen this invaluable archive.

Left to right: Dinard Smith (Barbara Smith Conrad's brother), Barbara Smith Conrad, and Hall Johnson, 1970. Bess Pruitt Records

Left to right: Dinard Smith (Barbara Smith Conrad's brother),
Barbara Smith Conrad, and Hall Johnson, 1970. Bess Pruitt

Among the Briscoe Center's music holdings include the Texas Folklife Resources Gospel Music Collection, the John Henry Faulk Field Recordings Collection, the William A. Owens Collection, and the John A. Lomax Collection.

Major benefactors of the endowment are UT Distinguished Alumnus Bob Inman and his wife, Nancy who provided initial seed funds for the project and Briscoe Center Advisory Council members Alfred and Meta Hausser, and Dr. O. Howard and Rachel Frazier. Jack Blanton, Beryl Milburn, John Hubbard, and the McCombs Foundation have also given financial support.

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad, also a UT Distinguished Alumnus, serves as artistic adviser for the fund-raising initiative. She has performed with the most distinguished opera companies in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera Company and the Vienna State Opera. Her musical prowess was shaped by the Negro spirituals of her church in Center Point, Texas and inspired this important project to preserve a major American musical heritage. Ms. Conrad describes the ties between spirituals as sung on the concert stage and an opera as having the same demands. The differences are in their histories and languages.

The Negro spiritual rose out of the experiences of African-American slaves, and grew into a world-renowned symbol of an entire community through the skill of gifted composers, arrangers, and performers such as H.T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The concerts of these and others educated in the traditions of spiritual music commanded sold-out audiences, and attracted listeners from all ethnic and racial groups. This music, once so vital and universal, has fallen into near obsolescence, and is at risk for an irreparable break in continuity as the last of the singers educated in this style near the end of their careers as teachers and performers.

Barbara Smith Conrad studied and performed spirituals with composer Hall Johnson. In 1994 she recorded the cd, Spirituals with the Convent Avenue Concert Choir on the Naxos label. She continues to perform and is dedicated to keeping this art form alive for the next generation. Much of her work today is aimed at teaching, mentoring, and passing on the legacy of her parents, grandparents, and her extended family in Center Point.

The documentary When I Rise: The Story of Barbara Smith Conrad was produced as a fundraising tool to complete the Briscoe Center’s Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals. With the Negro spiritual at the heart of Barbara Conrad’s indoctrination and love of music, the film will bring national attention to this important aspect of America’s musical history.