Music in the Archival Sphere

Music is an intricate part of every human culture, including not only the production and enjoyment of sound itself, but the place it has in shaping memory and the tone of everyday life.

Song sheet from a 1948 YFC rally in Nimes, France. (CN48, Folder 14-50)

While an expression of art, music can also be a demonstration of deep-held values, hopes and fears, both for individuals and communities. As one of the central missions of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections includes preserving the history of evangelism and evangelical Christianity, we have sought to document the music of evangelism, in all its variety and multitude.

Music in evangelism? I think it has a very great part. It’s not the ministry because there is nothing that takes the place of the Word of God. But I think it’s a supporting ministry in the sense that music is…has always been a part of…of the joy of the Gospel. People want to sing. People want to sing and give an expression to their praise.

Excerpt from Collection 50, Oral History Interviews of Merrill Dunlop, T3.

First of all, and most distant from the actual experience of music, there are the documents that surround the creation and performance of music. This might be a program for a concert or a church service or a hymn sing or a hootenanny or a youth rally or an evangelistic meeting. It might be song sheets handed out for a particular event or newspaper clippings. The Archives has thousands of such permanent artifacts of ephemera sounds. The Records of Moody Church (Collection 330), for example, has a wide variety of programs for different kinds of events. But these kind of documents can be found in many of our collections.

Programs from musical events at Moody Church in Chicago. (CN330, Folder 53-7)

Next, we have the evidence of the creation and production of music – sheet music, lyrics, songbooks, all the tools of creating and making. Fanny Crosby (1862-1915) was blind and so never wrote a single lyric in her own hand. But she was one of the most famous poets and hymn writers in 19th century America and we have in Collection 35 thousands of the lyrics she dictated.

Lyrics dictated in 1869 by Fanny Crosby. (CN35, Folder 1-3)

Fanny Crosby’s life briefly overlapped with that of George Beverly Shea (1909-2013) who also composed hymns but was best known as a performer – on radio, at evangelistic campaigns, and in concerts. His papers (Collection 541), which were opened to the public in November 2021, contains hundreds of his handwritten sheet music for his performances, which sometimes included a variety of other vocalists and musicians.

Smith with other leaders of the Youth for Christ movement, ca. late 1950s. From left to right: Percy Crawford, Robert C. Cook, Oswald Smith, Walter Smyth. (Photo File: Smith, Oswald J.)

Collection 322 is the archives of another long lived composer, Canadian evangelist Oswald Smith (1889-1986). It contains several audio tapes of Smith describing the background and meaning of dozens of his compositions. Click on the righthand photograph to listen to one of these recordings, in which he describes the origins of his hymn, “The Glory of His Presence.”

Another collection of note is CN 50: Ephemera of Merrill Dunlop. Dunlop was involved in evangelistic music most of his life, both as a performer and composer. His oral history interviews, quoted above, describe his views on music and his methods for the use of music in evangelism work.

A third type of document in the Archives is the account of the impact of music, the reactions of the people who heard it. In several oral history interviews people talk about the music they heard and what it meant to them. Here for example is Ray Schulenburg’s memories of Paul Rader and the musicians and vocalists of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle in the 1920s and 30s:

Group picture of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle musical staff, including Merrill Dunlop. Ca. 1930. (CN 38, Folder 9-53)

Well, I guess Rader felt that music was a big part of…of a service and of the Christian life…. We read in the book of Job [Job 35:10]. He giveth songs even in the night.” And even after the Last Supper when the Lord was being betrayed…he had the Last Supper up in his room, and they went out, and they sung a hymn [Mark 14:10]…. And God gives us song, and people like to sing, and they like to hear good singing. God’s given us, all of us, a song. Some of it, it’s a joyful noise, but others [laughs] a joyful song …. I heard Philip Sousa [John Philip Sousa, American composer and band leader] down in Orchestra Hall, and that’s an experience which I covet. But really…when I had listened to Rader’s band up there, I would say to myself, Well, I think…I think this band, they’re greater, they’re just as good as Phillip Sousa.” It wasn’t, but I felt that way. They were good…. It was beautiful. And then these two big grand pianos and this big organ and a big choir…. And the Three Graces would get up there and sing just above a whisper. They had soft voices. And you’d think it was two o’clock in the morning, it was so still in that place. Since Christ my soul from sin set free,” [pauses] Oh, ’tis heaven below” and so forth. Where Jesus is ’tis heaven.” They would sing lovely songs…. And I was in that chorus, a group of boys, maybe fifteen or so boys would sing Sunday afternoons …. But the music was good. And the organ solos and the piano duets, all of that. And vocal solos, and the congregational singing, and so forth. It was…I’ve never heard the like of it since, and don’t expect to until I get to heaven, hear the Hallelujah Chorus” up there.

Oral History Interview with Ray Schulenberg (Collection 270, Tape T1). Read complete transcript here.
A sampling of the labels of some of the phonograph records in the collections. From Collection 130, Ephemera of Homer Rodeheaver and Museum Accessions 79-305 and 89-490.
Bob Shuster holds up one of the transcription disks in Collection 541: Papers of George Beverly Shea. The collection contains many of these disks with radio programs of Shea from the 1940s.

And finally we have the music itself, preserved on wax and wire and plastic and tape and disk and little bytes resting in our hard drive. We even have radio transcription disks, which are metal plates covered with hot wax on which sound was recorded live during the early days of radio.

Beyond the sound recordings of many of the hymnists described above, the Archives also holds the Records of Global Recordings (Collection 36), with hundreds of recordings of indigenous hymns (and brief messages and Scripture readings in the indigenous language or dialect) from hundreds of different languages and cultures. 

But rather than use more words, let me play some of it for you. Click on the album below to listen to a clip from a recording made more than a century ago: Homer Rodeheaver, song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday in the first decades of the 20th century, sings his signature hymn, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” (From Collection 41).

Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do

Do not wait to shed your light afar

To the many duties ever near you now be true

Brighten the corner where you are

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