Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Gospel features insights from Prof. Mark Burford

The new documentary explores the spiritual and artistic roots of gospel music.

By Megan Burbank | March 14, 2024

When PBS debuted a four-part series on Black gospel music from Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on February 12, Reedies may have seen a familiar face in the series’ lineup of insightful experts: R.P. Wollenberg Professor of Music Mark Burford [music 2007—]. Burford sees his participation in Gospel as “kind of a capstone” on his past scholarship, particularly his work on influential gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the subject of his award-winning 2018 book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field.

Burford met Gates while on sabbatical from Reed. In 2022, Burford was invited as a fellow to Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African American Studies, where Gates serves as director. Gates, Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center, was interested in including Burford in a new documentary on American gospel music, building on a lengthy filmography that includes Finding Your Roots, The African Americans, and The Black Church.

Burford appears in Gospel’s first two episodes, which focus on the historical roots of gospel, in what he describes as a “mosaic” of voices approaching the subject from a variety of angles and perspectives, whether drawing on experience as historians, performers, church leaders, or all of the above. The result is a documentary that feels expansive and inclusive, with a clear sense of community and lineage.

“I think part of that community was because it’s both about gospel music, and it’s about Black preaching,” says Burford. “So you have people who were ministers, talking about the craft of the Black sermonic tradition and preaching and also performers. There’s tons of performers in the documentary, too, so I thought it was really nice to have scholarly work in dialogue with more practical, more direct practitioners, who are involved with preaching and gospel performance in addition to the scholars that I know who work on this music as well.”

Burford found this holistic lens and respectful tone refreshing, because, “I do think that Black culture sometimes gets treated as if it’s something that just kind of surges up organically, and gospel music is kind of emblematic of this amorphous thing called ‘Black culture.’ But it’s nice to see that there is a history, there are institutional practices, there are techniques, there are relationships.”

Gospel centers this complexity, especially in its discussion of the divide between gospel artists who maintained religious themes in their work throughout their careers, and those who pursued crossover appeal in more secular musical forms. “There is a range of ways in which people could participate in gospel, which I think testifies to the capaciousness as opposed to the reductiveness of the art form,” says Burford.

The result provides rare insight into remarkable moments throughout American musical history that resonate in the work of contemporary artists today. It also provides an essential lesson in Black history, says Burford. “Black history really matters to me,” he says. “I think that students don’t get very much exposure to that at all. So any opportunity to learn some small part, hopefully an increasingly large part of Black history, is really productive. So hopefully, this documentary plays a role in that.”

Lately, Burford’s research has pivoted somewhat from the scholarship he drew on for Gospel, but it remains focused on the intersection of music and Black history. He’s now working on research into W.E.B. DuBois and music, with a focus on DuBois’ editorship at the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis.

As he explores a new area of academic focus, Burford hopes Gospel will open viewers’ eyes to the rich tradition and expansive canon of artists who’ve made gospel music the robust genre it is. Though gospel is popular, he says, “realistically if you ask the average person, they couldn’t name one gospel artist, maybe Mahalia Jackson, so it’s a style that’s often without exemplars.”