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Pruit Symposium Celebrates History of Black Sacred Music

Nov. 20, 2013

Jones Family Singers

The Jones Family Singers lift up songs of praise at the Pruit Symposium.


By Melinda Zanner, International Studies student

The Pruit Symposium returned to Baylor University, resounding with vibrant sound and passion. "Marching to Zion: Celebrating and Preserving Black Sacred Music" was held Nov. 8-9 at George W. Truett Theological Seminary on Baylor's campus.

The symposium centered on Baylor Associate Professor Robert Darden's Black Gospel Music Restoration project. The College of Arts and Sciences, along with the School of Music, Campus Diversity, the Libraries and Truett Seminary, all had significant roles.

Their development of the symposium brought to campus "the liveliest music Truett has ever heard," said Ella Wall Prichard, founder of the Pruit Memorial Symposium Endowment fund and former Baylor University regent.

The weekend included a panel discussion, "Onward Christian Soldiers: Celebrating Black Sacred Music," and musical performances by The Jones Family Singers and The Bells of Joy.

The panel was moderated by Robert Darden and included distinguished guests, Dr. Dwandalyn R. Reece, curator of Music and Performing Arts for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dr. Emmett G. Price III, associate professor at Northeastern University; and Dr. Birgitta Johnson, associate professor at the University of South Carolina.

"A once and a lifetime gathering of scholars," Darden said.

The panel delved into the depths and the importance of the restoration of black gospel music. The music shaped African American history and reveals to current day listeners a story rarely told elsewhere.

"I've always looked at music as a way to express and how to communicate who we are," Reece said.

Baylor Journalism, Public Relations & New Media Professor Darden has spearheaded efforts to preserve 78s, 45s, LPs, and the various tape formats issued in the U.S. and abroad between the 1940s and the 1980s. Baylor librarians have digitized the recordings in order to preserve and share the music with future generations. The collection remains active as pieces are continually added.

"Music is a higher form of communication than when we speak," Price said.

A Texas-based family, The Jones Family Singers started the weekend off with an energizing concert. They were led by Bishop Fred A. Jones, Sr., father, pastor and manager. The group has appeared on The National Sky Angel Network, Black Entertainment Television and on the Dr. Bobby Jones Show. They have performed throughout the U.S., Canada and the Bahamas.

The audience was on their feet throughout the night as music radiated off the halls in Truett. "This music just arouses the spirit for everyone involved, you can't just sit still," Reece said.

The Bells of Joy finished the symposium on Saturday with an invigorating performance. The original quartet of the Bells of Joy was formed in 1947. Their hit song "Let's Talk about Jesus" sold more than a million copies in 1951. The group has played across the U.S. and recorded five albums.

"What really makes the Bells of Joy unique is the fact that they have two original members still playing in the quartet," Darden said.

The Pruit Memorial Symposium Endowment Fund was founded by alumni Lev H. and Ella Wall Prichard in 1996. The fund was in the memory of Mrs. Helen Pruit Matthews and her brothers, Dr. Lee Tinkle Pruit and William Wall Pruit. The goal of the Pruit Symposium series is to bring to Baylor many different perspectives of Christian traditions.

"It's just a joyous occasion," Ella Prichard said. ""I am just so thrilled, and I don't know if the bar could be raised any higher."

Prichard's generosity has provided the opportunity for the scholars and performers of the black gospel music tradition to come together and celebrate its heritage.

"I'm very impressed with what's been done here and I hope institutions build a broader coalition of work in this area and help other places preserve their gospel history," Reece said.

The restoration project at Baylor exemplifies the work of the faculty and staff as they strive to preserve history.