Many of the black gospel recordings that Baylor University professor Bob Darden has championed in his career tell their listeners that patience, faith and endurance on the journey will lead to a reward.
For Darden, Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and their staffers and supporters, one of those rewards comes this month when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History in Washington, D.C., opens to the public Sept. 24.
Included in the new museum’s Music Crossroads is an interactive touch screen in the museum’s permanent exhibit that will play selections and provide information from the Baylor black gospel music collection.
It is the first time Baylor has contributed materials to the Smithsonian, said Eric Ames, curator of Baylor’s digital collections, and more materials may be shared in the future if proposed exhibit expansions on album cover art and direct access to Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project come about.
“It’s exciting to know that visitors to this important and long-awaited museum will see Baylor University’s name enshrined among so many important people in American history,” Ames said.
The museum recognition is one reward, but Darden said the greater prize is what the project has done in its 10 years: preserve and digitize some 7,000 black gospel performances that might have otherwise disappeared from all but memory.
Darden, 62, will attend a special advance showing of the museum for donors, supporters and contributors Monday. While he’s in Washington, D.C., he’ll be recognized at a Baylor Libraries and Pruit Symposium reception for the project’s inclusion in the Smithsonian museum.
September also marks another milestone for Darden and his gospel music work, the official publication of “Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Vol. 2: Black Sacred Music From Sit-Ins to Resurrection City,” the conclusion of his history of gospel music and the civil rights movement.
Years of research for that book led him to a surprising realization. Gospel music songs for freedom didn’t disappear in the 1970s as the civil rights movement dissipated. Instead, the music found new life in social movements around the world, from Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring to today’s Black Lives Matter rallies, Darden said.
‘The music matters’
“The music matters now as much as it has — and even more,” he said.
In 2005, Darden, a Baylor professor of journalism, public relations and new media, drew attention to what he feared was a vanishing part of American heritage: recorded black gospel music from the 1940s to 1970s, slowly lost to the aging of the generations that created and support it; the decline of vinyl records and audio cassettes; and the relative obscurity of many of its performers.
That concern, expressed in a New York Times guest column, sparked the interest of like-minded gospel fans and collectors, which, in turn, led to the creation of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project in 2007.
Private donations from the likes of philanthropist Charles Royce started the project. Material and advice from collectors such as Robert Marovich, combined with the work of Baylor Libraries Digital Projects Group — Ames, assistant director Darryl Stuhr, audiovisual engineer Stephen Bolech and digitization assistant Travis Taylor — bore fruit over the years in rescuing and restoring thousands of black gospel recordings.
An interview by National Public Radio host Terry Gross on her program “Fresh Air” gave the project an important boost, Darden said. Gross’ national program brought in more financial support and recordings listeners submitted from family and church collections.
“Everyone wanted this to succeed,” Darden said.
The restoration project caught the attention of those planning the Smithsonian’s new black history museum, particularly its music curator, Dwandalyn Reece. As plans for the museum’s Musical Crossroads crystallized after the museum’s 2012 ground-breaking, so did Baylor’s participation.
On a Smithsonian request, Darden and the Digital Projects Group submitted some 100 songs from the thousands in the restoration project’s archives they felt had historical significance and good sound quality or were of general interest. Dialogue between Reece and Baylor staffers eventually narrowed the original submission to a final list of five songs.
First and foremost: “The Old Ship of Zion” by the Mighty Wonders, of Aquasco, Maryland, a favorite of Darden’s and a recording whose background became emblematic of many in the project. The Mighty Wonders was a small, amateur group on an independent label, and sales and distribution were ad hoc.
‘Pumping our fist’
“We were kind of pumping our fist to (the selection of) ‘The Old Ship of Zion,’ ” Darden said.
That song, recorded in a small church by an obscure group, called listeners to “Step on board if you want to see Jesus / There’s nothing but love in God’s water”— a prime example of the hope gospel music carried for black listeners under racial oppression.
A touch screen in the Musical Crossroads exhibit will let visitors access Baylor’s material under the gospel music tab. Touching an icon will start playing a 30-second clip from “The Old Ship of Zion,” and other icons will lead to information on the Mighty Wonders.
Museum officials intend to refresh exhibits and displays on a regular basis, and four other songs in Baylor’s collection stand behind “The Old Ship of Zion” in the initial pool of selections that will be refreshed over time: “Wings Over Jordan’s 1953 recordings “Amen” and “Over My Head,” The Caravans’ “I Won’t Be Back” from 1962 and the Davis Sisters’ “There’s a Tree on Each Side of the River,” recorded in 1957.
Darden’s work with gospel recordings led to his two-volume book “Nothing But Love in God’s Water” when he discovered that the flip side of many vinyl singles had songs used in civil rights demonstrations and rallies of the 1950s and 1960s.
He found that gospel music was an important motivator and morale booster in the civil rights movement but one often overlooked in political and social histories. Published by the Penn State University Press, the book grew from one to two volumes and in the process provided its author with an open-ended closure.
Volume 2 was to end in the muddy shambles of Resurrection City, a 1968 shantytown created in Washington, D.C., as part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign to draw attention to American poverty. Then Darden encountered accounts of the gospel song “We Shall Overcome,” heard at the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Chinese protests at Tiananmen Square and in public demonstrations during the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and realized his final chapter needed to be that gospel music’s power is still alive in freedom’s cause.
“It’s a little overwhelming, and I feel real blessed,” Darden said 10 years into a journey whose end he couldn’t see at the time.