Claudrena N. Harold, author of When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras, is a professor at the University of Virginia, where she teaches courses in labor history, African American History, and Black Studies.
Get to know Claudrena in this Q&A and then join us on Monday, March 15 at 7 PM EST as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book to hear her discuss her work in Reading Under the Influence: Music, History & Race.
Festival: What motivated you to become a writer and scholar?
Harold: No single event led me to the academy. Thanks to family members and wonderful teachers, I was introduced to the words and ideas of James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Wiley, along with black magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Essence, at an early age. Fortunately, my love and passion for black history deepened during my undergraduate years at Temple, where I was a scholarship athlete. Living and studying in Philadelphia during the 1990s was exciting. So by my second year at Temple, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD and a career in academia.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
James Weldon Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kandia Crazy Horse, Kevin Jerome Everson, Donny Hathaway, W.E.B. Dubois, Aretha Franklin, Greg Tate, Gil Scott-Heron, James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Miles Davis, Meshell Ndegeocello, the Winans, and most importantly my uncle David Crawford.
In the 1960s and 1970s, my uncle David worked as a songwriter and producer for Atlantic, ABC, and Warner Brothers. Primarily known for songs like Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man,” Jackie Moore’s “Precious, Precious,” Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free,” B. B. King’s “I Like to Live the Love,” and the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s “Mighty High” and “Time,” he honed his musical skills in the church. In 1964, he first entered the music industry as a radio announcer for WOBS in Jacksonville, Florida. Shortly after moving to Atlanta’s WAOK, Uncle David signed with Atlantic Records as a staff writer, producer, and musician, working with the likes of Wilson Pickett, the Dixie Flyers, the J. Geils Band, Dee Dee Warwick, and his first cousin Jackie Moore.
What was your favorite part about writing your book?
The research process, which was complex and ever-evolving. To reconstruct this history, I relied on a variety of sources: released and unreleased music, oral histories, newspapers and magazines, comic books, concert memorabilia, artist biographies and autobiographies, and some of the administrative papers of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA). One particularly valuable resource was the gospel industry’s hardcore fans, particularly those who endured my questions during the GMWA’s fiftieth annual convention, held in Atlanta during the summer of 2017. Conversations with elders at the historic gathering not only shared stories of iconic figures like James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar but also stressed the importance of understanding the network of churches, record shops, radio stations, and black businesses that nurtured these talented individuals. In their reflections, longtime GMWA supporters reinforced the importance of engaging gospel music’s living archives—the people, churches, mom and pop record stores, and studios still standing despite economic hardships, gentrification, and loss of members.
Although digging through archival materials in research libraries and hunting down out-of-print albums in record shops still consumed a large amount of my time, I found myself more interested in visiting historic spots like Nashville’s Woodland and Quad Studios, where Shirley Caesar worked with country producer Tony Brown in the 1980s; the Elder E. E. Cleveland’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California, where Walter Hawkins recorded his brilliant 1975 Love Alive album; Milton Brunson’s Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago, where the Thompson Community Choir recorded some of the best records of the 1980s; and New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, where black and white Christians flocked to see Andraé Crouch during the height of his popularity. Several black-owned record stores also became critical research sites: Reid’s Records in South Berkeley, DJ’s in Jacksonville, New Sound Gospel in Chicago, Barky’s in Richmond, and God’s World in Detroit.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
A constant for me is Vincent Harding’s book, There is a River. There’s one section that resonates deeply:
“Affirming objectivity and subjectivity as equally necessary to any compassionate rendering of our flawed and splendid human strivings, I have tried honestly to tell the story and to provide a rigorous analysis of the long black movement toward justice, equity, and truth. At the same time, identifying fully with the subjects of my study and the substance of their hope, I have freely allowed myself to celebrate. For I could not possibly remain silent and unmoved in the presence of the mysterious, transformative dance of life that has produced the men and women, the ideas and institutions, the visions, betrayals and heroic dreams renewed in blood that are at once the anguish and the glory of the river of our struggle in this land.”
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
It is my hope that the reader leaves with a deeper appreciation of the beauty and power of gospel music, and how that art form has shaped so many aspects of our culture.
Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.
If you don’t mind, I would prefer to highlight how black newspapers and monthlies—many of which I read in the public library or in the homes of family and friends—changed my life.
Publications like Ebony and Jet shaped my ideas about history, politics, art and aesthetics, religion, and sports. The articles and visuals just spurred my imagination. Black-owned publications definitely shaped my approach to music.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, when my passion for gospel music intensified, my engagement with the art form definitely bore the influence of ideas circulating in Jet and Ebony as well as Black-owned Christian magazines like Totally Gospel and Score/Gospel Today.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
John Thompson’s I Came as a Shadow. I like biographies and sports histories.
What are you working on next?
Just finished my ninth film collaboration with Kevin Jerome Everson and I’m wrapping up an administrative history of the Booker T. Washington National Monument.