PITTSBURGH — The gospel music of composer Charles Henry Pace is scattered in boxes, dirty and hard to read, packed and unorganized for more than 20 years — and unfulfilled.
Frances Pace Barnes, the daughter of a pioneering music publisher who remembered how he turned hums into songs, knew the boxes contained fragments of her family’s past. But she didn’t expect that those rotting plates and papers would reveal important parts of the history of gospel music.
“I didn’t know it was going to be a legacy,” Pais Barnes said.
Her father, it turned out, was one of the first African-American gospel music composers in the United States and the owner of the country’s first independent black gospel music publishing company.
Today, the University of Pittsburgh is restoring his work from the 1920s to the 1950s and cementing his place in the genre’s history. It was the curiosity of music historian Christopher Lynch that launched the Charles Henry Pace Conservation Project.
“As Pittsburghers, that’s something we can be proud of,” Lynch said with a laugh. “Charles Pace is an amazing figure in the history of music.”
Long after Pace’s death in 1963, his music store (originally known as Zion’s Old Ship and later renamed the Charles H. Pace Music Press in the Pittsburgh Hills) was sold, and with it his archives. Sold. Eventually, the materials were auctioned off, and the university’s library system purchased them in 1999.
The 14 crates sat for more than 20 years until Lynch, who is also program coordinator for the university’s American Music Center, discovered the significance of their contents.
Lynch, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2017, was inspired to decide after visiting the Hill District, the city’s first black cultural and arts center, and learning that a park in the area would be dedicated to Pace’s wife and community. Go visit these parks activist Frankie Pace.
But his task is big. In 2021, he began organizing, cleaning and deciphering the 250 plates and some 600 photographs detailing Pace’s legacy.
“I quickly realized ‘Oh, we’ve got something here,'” Lynch said.
Although the roots of the genre can be traced back to 19th-century spirituals, the lineage of modern gospel music heard in black churches today includes works by musicians and composers who emerged in the 1920s.
These pioneers included Thomas Dorsey, who is often referred to as the father of gospel music and “gives the impression that he almost single-handedly invented the style,” Lynch said.
But after delving into Pace’s early work, he says it’s around the same time, if not years before Dorsey. This helps historians piece together the group of musicians who propelled gospel music into popular culture.
During this period, African-American gospel music composers did not have access to the big publishing houses, so Pace learned to make his own. Lynch said an important part of the archival work is recovering the actual history and giving credit where it is due, because many of Pace’s most recorded songs, including “If I’m Lifted,” are rarely credited to him, while is classified as a “traditional” song. “
Pace started his first publishing company in Chicago, where he worked on Dorsey’s early music. He also formed the Pace Jubilee Singers, one of the first black groups to record gospel music and perform it on the radio. Shortly after meeting his wife, the couple moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, where Pace introduced gospel music to the Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1936 as music director, and later opened their shop in the Hill District.
The couple formed Pace Choral Union, a gospel choir with 75 singers at its inception and 200 at its peak. They helped establish gospel music throughout the city, performing at churches and events in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, and performing weekly on the radio.
“I didn’t really realize how talented my dad was until I was a lot older,” said Pace Barnes, who grew up working in his shop.
The storefront doubles as an office and sells gospel music and church literature. Artists who can’t make their own music can come to Pace with ideas. He would compose, then print and publish the songs.
The storefront became a hangout for some big names, traveling musicians like Louis Armstrong and WC Handy.
Pace was one of the few people who knew how to fully print sheet music using negatives and metal plates mounted on scrap wood.It’s Crucial to the Expansion of Gospel Music in the U.S.
“Think he basically did it in the ’30s, ’40s behind a store or in his house…” Pace’s grandson, Frank Barnes, said in awe.
Frankie and Charles were also able to establish an extensive geographic distribution network of 301 stores in 29 different states. They also have a consistent list of over 2,510 email subscribers who order directly from him.
“He was one of the early evangelists of gospel music,” said American historian Kimberly Ellis, founding executive director of the Historical Hill Institute and currently working on Frankie Pace’s oral history project. “It means he’s spreading the good news from coast to coast through his music. It’s fantastic.”
In addition to co-owning a music store and singing in the Pace Gospel Choir, Frankie Pace has earned a reputation as a powerful community activist. She worked with various groups to improve education and housing conditions, and co-founded a committee that advocated for mandatory community investment in any future development in the Hill District.
Glad that Charles Pace will be placed in his proper context, Ellis also hopes that making the music public will help “change our understanding of history”.
The work has changed what Pace’s grandson now knows about his family’s history. He grew up in Chicago knowing little about his grandfather, who died six years before he was born. Worried about upsetting his mother, he often resisted the urge to ask questions about him.
“It’s easy to lose things,” he said. “Whether it’s an artifact like a plate, or the story of someone like my grandparents.”
Barnes and his mother are pleased that the Pace archives will remain at the university, giving future generations the opportunity to learn about their patriarch. More immediately, the city will honor the legacy of Charles and Frankie Pace with a free concert on Saturday featuring music composed by Pace and the reopening of Frankie Mepes Park.
“This is history, and we’re going to make history again,” said Herbert VRP Jones, director and founder of the Tradition Gospel Choir of Pittsburgh, who will be one of the night’s key performers.
Francis Pace Barnes, who hasn’t been to Pittsburgh since her mother died in 1989, will go with her son to hear her father’s music at the church where he once worked.
“I was looking forward to hearing songs I hadn’t heard in 40 years,” she said.
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