Gospel Music is often thought to be the soundtrack of the African American experience from slavery to sit-ins the music punctuated the movements. Despite the powerful history some scholars feared future generations may never hear those songs.
Baylor Professor Robert Darden, has loved gospel since he was a child. He remembers his father purchasing Mahalia Jackson Christmas album.
“My parents say I kept playing that disk over and over And my wife said I have spent the last 55 years trying to replicate the thrill I got from that voice at that time,” Darden laughed.
Professor Darden worked as a journalist for Billboard Magazine, writing a weekly column on gospel music. In 2000, he started research for his book, People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music.
During that research, Darden discovered something troubling. “I discovered a lot of the music from the golden age of gospel music 1945-1970 is lost,” he said.
Darden estimates that almost 75 percent of the Gospel music from that period is unavailable. He explains over the years record companies were closed and merged. Many of the larger companies didn’t have an interest in keeping many of the records outside of the big names.
“The frustrating thing about that is, that period 1945-1975, is the period of influence of the African-American church and it's the period of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement and the music are forever entwined you can't create one without the other,” Darden said.
So Darden got to work, writing an editorial in the New York Times saying "if we allow this music to disappear future generations will judge us harshly.”
Darden explains that while the tradition of Gospel music is routed in that evangelical belief the themes the songs were meant to reflect the struggle.
“We thought Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was about angels but it was really about the underground railroad. As researchers continue to tease out information from these old spirituals, most of them had a double voice, a double message one for the white audience and one for the black audience that knew the keys to the code,” he said.
It’s why in part he believes the music has survived the test of time.
Despite the lack of commercial circulation, the songs have been passed through oral tradition. Darden doesn’t want the songs to only be archived in memory though. Darden wants scholars to be able to access and analyze the music. After the editorial ran, Darden got an support from across the country. Not only did Darden receive financial support for the project Baylor University helped make it a reality.
In the Moody Library a team of three works to clean the original vinyl’s and LP’s that they receive, and digitize them. In about an hour, the content and metadata is accessible online. It’s a project that has been going on for about ten years now. In that time, they’ve managed to archive about 2,000 pieces.
Darden’s dream to hold onto the work is now a reality. Not only is the online database up and running, the recently opened Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture tapped the professor to contribute to the collection. In the music exhibit “The Old Ship of Zion,” a piece restored by the project.
Darden got to see the display and says the entire experience was humbling,
“To see all these treasures of the 400 years of the African American experience is one thing to see the people who were there- we saw some of the heroes of the movement,” he said.
As they made the way to the exhibit, museum visitors could hear the song as they approached.
“As we would play those songs people would wonder up and say did you get that? And they would cry and hug us for saving the music and there could never be a better end game then that.” Darden said.
Darden is always looking to expand the collection. To learn how to donate or loan materials for the project click here.
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