Bob Darden has long lamented that black gospel music has been denied its rightful respect as a pillar of American music and civil rights history.
Now, the music the Baylor University journalism professor has scoured the nation to collect is about to take up a new permanent address on “America’s front yard.”
The vast Royce-Darden Collection of black gospel music at Baylor University will be part of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture now under construction on the National Mall in Washington D.C., museum officials confirmed this week.
The specifics are still in flux, but museum officials are envisioning an old-fashioned “record store” exhibit where visitors can interact with historic black music, including a gospel music listening station.
The museum is scheduled to open in fall 2015.
Since Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project started in 2006, university librarians have digitized and archived 8,381 songs from thousands of records. Most are obscure records from the 1940s to the 1980s that otherwise would have been lost to history.
Now they are preserved as high-resolution 40-megabyte files that will be much more durable than the original wax and vinyl.
Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the new African-American museum, was impressed as she toured the digitization lab this week at Baylor’s Moody Memorial Library.
“I think it’s a tremendous resource,” said Reece, who was visiting Baylor this week for the Pruit Symposium on black gospel music. “I marvel at things like this. We always bemoan the fact that history isn’t being preserved. It takes resources, and Baylor has put forth the effort. . . . Thank God someone is doing it.”
Reece said the archive will help future generations understand the development of black gospel and its cultural influence.
“It is American music,” she said. “It is the roots of so many styles: R&B, rock ’n’ roll, really all American pop music.”
Darden said the association with the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest cultural complex, will raise the visibility of the gospel music project. He hopes that visibility will bring in more gospel music treasures as well as donations to expand the effort.
He said he would like Baylor to have portable equipment that would allow researchers to travel to digitize rare records or even record live in churches.
Darden credits the Baylor library system and donors for making the archive a reality. But it was Darden’s vision and dogged persistence — some might say obsession — that gave the project birth.
For years, his vinyl collecting has led him to record stores, churches and neighborhoods around the country, including notorious ghettos in cities like Chicago.
He said he was increasingly “angry” that black gospel recordings were passing into oblivion and that so little scholarly attention was being paid to the genre. Darden said there was no comprehensive scholarly book on black gospel history before his 2004 book, “People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music.”
Darden estimated that 75 percent of gospel records from the 1940s to the 1970s have been lost, but the archive will allow future generations to understand the power and beauty of this music.
“If I’m true to this — gosh, this sounds like a religious fanatic — then it will be blessed,” he said. “I think I’m doing something honorable if the music is being saved, for whatever purpose down the road. It will be available forever.”
Darden, 59, said he was hooked on black gospel music since he was a small child listening to Mahalia Jackson’s Christmas album.
He served as entertainment editor at the Tribune-Herald in the 1970s and 1980s and wrote the gospel music column in the 1980s and ’90s for Billboard magazine. After earning research credentials as an English and journalism academic, he felt ready to tackle a history of black gospel music.
“People Get Ready” won him attention in the New York Times and National Public Radio, which in turn helped attract donations to the collection.
You don’t have to be a scholar or connoisseur to find the music captivating. Most of the collection has restricted access because of copyright uncertainties, but the public can hear the songs in a listening room at Moody Memorial Library or check out more than a dozen full songs for free on iTunes U.
The sound of the gospel songs can be by turns strange and familiar, a stained-glass window into mid-century black America.
“Lord Save Me,” recorded by the Soulful Sons of Zion sometime in the ’60s, sounds like a lost Otis Redding classic that happens to be about Jesus.
An early 1960s a capella version of “The Old Ship of Zion” by the long-forgotten Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Md., glows with a quiet intensity.
In the second verse, the lead singer declares three times, over a crescendo of doo-wop-style backing vocals: “There’s nothin’ but love in God’s water.”
Darden finds poignancy in that the song was recorded in a time of great racial strife in that part of Maryland.
“That’s the single song that moves me more than any in our collection,” he said. “In the teeth of all that was going on, they could go in and sing, ‘nothin’ but love in God’s water.’ As if to say, ‘You could do your worst, but I’m still standing.’ We have the only known copy of that in the world on a single, battered 45. The first time I got it, I broke into tears.”
Darden has finished the first of a new two-volume history of black gospel music in the civil rights movement, tentatively titled, “Nothing But Love in God’s Water.”
Darden said because there’s so little scholarship on gospel music, the importance of that music to the civil rights movement has been largely forgotten.
“What I’m trying to prove with this book is that rather than being a nice sideline, singing was essential to the movement,” Darden said.
He said he himself was surprised to discover that the B-sides of many popular gospel records contained topical civil-rights songs with titles such as “Ain’t No Segregation in Heaven.”
During the nonviolent protests of the 1950s and early ’60s, protesters would spend up to two hours a day singing, and Darden was on a quest to find out what the songs were and what their function was.
Many of those he interviewed described certain songs as “anointed,” having special power as spiritual weapons against oppression. Among these songs were Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
“What they talk about is that there is an indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes in when you sing this kind of song with this kind of history, rooted in Scripture,” Darden said.
In an interview with Darden, civil rights pioneer and Congressman John Lewis talked about how gospel songs kept him going through jail and beatings.
“He told me, ‘Young man, gospel music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the civil rights movement,’ ” Darden recalled.
Music and message
Darden said he hopes the digital archive will be the foundation for scholarship in black gospel music nationwide.
“One thing I’m discovering is a huge gap in scholarship about gospel music, because nobody can hear the music to write about it,” he said. “The last significant conference on black gospel music was in 1992, and it’s the only major music form that has no academic journal.”
Darden said he hopes the entire archive can be made available through online databases to scholars at other universities, though it would have to be password-protected because of copyright issues.
But, he said, Baylor is gradually clearing songs for public release, and he hopes eventually to see compilations of the music available to the public at a minimal price.
Pattie Orr, dean of Baylor libraries, said the Pruit Symposium held Friday and Saturday on campus is a “precursor” to the kind of academic conferences she’d like to see Baylor host in the future on black gospel music.
She said she also would like to see Baylor publish a scholarly journal of black gospel music, perhaps in online form.
“At Baylor University, we love both the music and the message,” she said. “It feels so right that we can be involved in this.”