Golden light bled through the stained glass windows into a worn but revered space. The wooden floorboards creaked as Baylor’s Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir walked to the front of the room. Everything seemed to stand still as Eric Witherspoon, the music director for Heavenly Voices, lifted his hand to cue the choir. Suddenly, the choir’s voices filled the former sanctuary at 2nd and Clay with joyful noise.
The Voices & Vinyl concert series, produced by the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP) team in partnership with Heavenly Voices, presents classic Black gospel music in a way that today’s audiences can relate to. Witherspoon, who served as director of the Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir from 2017-2019, selected six songs from the BGMRP’s online collection for Heavenly Voices to sing at this year’s concert.
“This is one of my favorite events to do every year,” said Witherspoon. “I love taking old songs and rearranging them to give them a different type of vibe that people might not be used to. It’s important to celebrate the roots of gospel music while also getting to put our own signature spin on these important songs.”
The music lineup for the evening included “I’ve Come to the Garden Alone,” “We Offer Praise,” “He First Loved Me,” and more. The BGMRP contains over 3,000 items in its digital collection and holds treasured songs from the “Golden Age of Gospel Music,” which spanned roughly from 1945-1975. For those who haven’t heard the classic songs in the collection, Voices & Vinyl offers an immersive experience into the BGMRP.
“We started Voices & Vinyl in 2015 as a way to get students involved in exploring the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project,” said Eric Ames, the Outreach Liaison for Baylor Digital Collections and coordinator for Voices & Vinyl. “We wanted to give Baylor students a way to experience these classic gospel songs – written and recorded almost 50 years before they were born – in a way that was immediate, relatable, and exciting.”
The Voices & Vinyl concert, which usually takes place on Baylor University’s campus, moved to 2nd & Clay this year to make the event more available to the Waco community, giving the concert a renewed sense of spirituality. 2nd & Clay occupies the building founded as St. James Methodist Church in 1874 by a freed former slave; it became one of Waco’s iconic African-American churches, providing a place of worship for the African-American community.
“This concert is exactly the kind of event we hope to host at 2nd & Clay,” said venue owner Lane Murphy. “It’s an amazing way to honor the building’s history while finding a new, modern use for the space.”
The space was filled with a sense of awe and wonder as the Heavenly Voices choir sang song after song. The rearrangements made the songs “familiar, yet new.” Just like the reconstruction of St. James Methodist Church into 2nd & Clay, the rearrangements of these classic gospel songs gives a soulful rebranding to an American music genre.
“Every year, we’ve seen Voices & Vinyl grow from its original concept into something bigger and more impactful on the audience,” said Ames. “Taking it off campus this year was a risk, but it paid off with a moving experience in a sacred space and a large audience of people from across the Waco community. That’s what we’ll look to build on for the 2020 concert.”
This story originally appeared in the 2019 Baylor University ITS & Libraries Magazine. To join our mailing list for future editions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.