Gullah singer James Garfield Smalls is one of the four St. Helena Island singers featured on the Coastal Carolina University project.

Some long overlooked singers on St. Helena Island are finally getting their due, thanks to an unlikely partnership.

A few years ago, Eric Crawford was pursing a doctorate at Norfolk State University in Virginia, while Matt White was teaching music in Nashville and also recording in studios there.

Their paths soon crossed through Coastal Carolina University, and before long, they found themselves busy documenting the rich Gullah musical tradition at the opposite end of South Carolina's coast.

"I had no knowledge of Gullah or Gullah culture," White said when Crawford first approached him. "But I said that sounds kind of interesting. Let's see what happens."

They plan to celebrate their completed work next week, with a Friday gathering on the island to mark the release of "Gullah: The Voice of an Island," a CD and digital publication.

White teaches trumpet and directs Coastal Carolina's jazz ensemble, and he found the musical tradition, particularly its syncopation and call-and-response elements, unexpectedly rich.

"That was a really enlightening thing for me, musically," he said. "A lot of this music hasn't been written down or documented. It was just passed person to person."

The two began their work making professional recordings of Gullah spirituals during Penn Center's Heritage Days celebration in November 2012, and the project gradually mushroomed to include more types of documentation.

The university embraced the project, as its Athenaeum Experiential Press - a student-centered publishing lab - got involved, along with about a dozen students.

"At a certain point, it became less about Eric and I, and it really became more their project," White said.

The four soloists featured - Minnie Gracie Gadson, James Garfield Smalls, Rosa Murray and Joseph Murray -found the project exciting, and not only because they were paid.

"In a lot of cases, they haven't heard themselves recorded, what they sound like singing," White said.

The disc features about 44 tracks, including music and related dialogue about life on the sea island. "It has a very documentary sort of feel," White said.

Crawford said when he first became interested in documenting the spirituals, he emailed six or seven South Carolina universities to see if they would be interested in helping out. "Only one returned my email, and that was Coastal," he said. He soon was put in touch with White, who had just accepted a new job there.

While it's not certain, Crawford said he believes some spirituals - such as a Watch Night service call and response, a spiritual that marked the coming New Year - might have been recorded for the first time.

"There are a few that seem to be new, and that's important," he said. "I think what's also neat about this CD is they are a capella, which is how they were always done."

Crawford said part of the project's proceeds will go toward maintenance of praise houses on the island, small buildings where the songs were kept alive.

"It's a great lesson from a folk music standpoint about how music is retained and developed and how a community chooses which things it will keep," he said.

A related multimedia project already is in the works featuring Gullah residents closer to Coastal Carolina's campus, in Horry and Georgetown counties.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.