Baylor University

Q&A: Robert Darden

Sept. 8, 2006

Robert F. Darden IIIRobert F. Darden III is associate professor of journalism, the author of numerous books on a wide range of topics and the former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine. Randy Fiedler spoke with him about his involvement in a $350,000 project that aims to create the world's most comprehensive archive of recorded gospel music at Baylor.


BaylorNews: Let me start at the beginning. When did you first get interested in gospel music?

Robert Darden: My father was career Air Force, promoted to captain somewhere in the late 1950s. He got a raise with that promotion, and he bought a little tiny Hi-Fi player and had enough money left over to buy three LPs. One of them was a Mahalia Jackson LP. I'm pretty sure it was one of the old Apollo concerts, her great stuff with just organ and piano. I was intrigued and mesmerized immediately at her voice. Being that the Air Force was integrated before the rest of the country, we had black neighbors and black friends and I was in and out of their houses. The kids' parents played more black gospel music, and I just couldn't get enough of it. As I got older and we moved around, we ended up in Japan and formed bands. I was a drummer, and back then the bands I wanted to be in played soul music from the 1960s, R&B and funk -- the kind of sound where all the performers came out of gospel. Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave -- all of those people come straight from hard gospel. I just kept listening to and tracking down stuff, which back then was pretty easy. I think the second concert I ever went to as I got older was Andrae Crouch and the Disciples.

BN: How did you end up becoming the gospel music editor for Billboard?

RD: I continued to have an interest in gospel and started writing about it for various newspapers and magazines. Apparently I was one of the few people writing about it then, so when Billboard magazine in the mid-80s added gospel charts, they did a nationwide search among these big shot people in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles for somebody to write a column. I was in Waco at the time, but I had a secret advantage because Word Records was here. Word had 65 percent of the market during those days, so a lot of black gospel people were coming and going and I was already writing about them. I got the Billboard job and for the next 10 or 12 years I did a weekly column for the magazine on gospel music.

BN: Did you continue to write about gospel in other publications at the same time?

RD: Yes, whenever I could. There wasn't a big market, to be honest. There were some fan-type publications, and there were very few if any black gospel outlets, so most of the stuff I sold during those days was probably about contemporary Christian music or Southern gospel. But at Billboard, which wanted stories about black gospel because it had both white and black music charts, I got to write and interview all the people that were my heroes. I'm usually a pretty good reporter from all my years on newspapers but I was just an absolute fan when it came to talking to these people. I'm sure that if I were to go back and look at those interviews now they'd seem terribly simpering.

BN: You mentioned Southern gospel. How is that different from black gospel music?

RD: Southern gospel comes out of Appalachia. It's white music, and like barbershop music, it features close harmony. It's more rooted in country and bluegrass. Some Southern gospel groups would include the Cathedrals, the Florida Boys and the Gaithers. A song that everybody would know in this genre would be "I'll Fly Away" by Alfred Brumley. That's called Southern gospel, and it still thrives, particularly in the Southeast.

BN: Did Southern gospel grow out of black gospel, or did it evolve separately?

RD: It appears to have grown up separately, but there's not a lot of scholarship on that. It's been very interesting to find out that both of these have at least part of their roots in barbershop music, which around the 1880s forms in black barbershops because whites would not cut hair until immigrants came on the scene at a later date. So, up until about the 1880s only black people cut hair, for both white and black customers. Now, picture yourself working in a black barbershop back then. You've got no money, you've got plenty of time, but you've got a voice and you've got hands to clap. Singing is where it all starts. The whites pick it up and embrace it, and what little scholarship I've read says that if you mix that kind of singing with country songs or bluegrass, what you probably get is Southern gospel. It's strictly a rural southern phenomenon that comes out of Kentucky and Tennessee. It's a wonderful gumbo of things, but there does not seem to be any other connection between Southern gospel and black gospel.

BN: Does rock and roll owe its birth to gospel music?

RD: Oh, I would say it's probably 75 percent responsible. The two things that came out of spirituals are gospel for Sunday morning and the blues for Saturday night. Spirituals were the very first American black music. Rock and roll draws equally from the blues and gospel and adds a few other little elements. When you put a white person singing that music, it becomes rock and roll. Nobody is sure what the first rock and roll song is -- some say it's "Rocket 88," others say something else -- but all of the people who are doing early rock and roll come from that rhythm and blues and gospel tradition. When Elvis stepped in and took it to a wider audience, Elvis brought his own touch of country to that mix. But yes, we would say for most of what you're hearing, rock and roll comes from a mixture of the blues and gospel.

BN: One of your most recent books, People Get Ready, is a history of gospel music. How did you come to write it?

RD: I've written a couple of dozen of previous books, but People Get Ready is the book I've wanted to write for many years. The publisher, a New York house, had just come out with a new, definitive history of jazz. After the book turned out to be a big hit, they asked the author how the writing had gone. He told them it had gone well, except that when he was doing the research, he'd found this huge gap in the history of black music that got him to jazz. He said, "We need to do something about it." So, the publisher looked around and saw there was no history that takes black music from Africa through the spirituals, through jubilee and minstrel music, and through modern gospel. There are plenty of wonderful books that have pieces of the story, but to try to draw a connection musically and thematically from Africa to the Chicago south side in the 1930s, nobody had ever tried to do it on a scale bigger than just an article. The publisher did their due diligence and found me -- someone who had written a lot on gospel, who had done some historical books and who had a background in a couple areas they were looking for. It was a dream job to be able to travel to places I've been wanting to go to, talk to people I've been wanting to talk to and try, for myself as much as for anybody else, to make a coherent line of how all this stuff gets from here to there.

BN: Who were some of the people you talked to?

RD: Since this particular book was going to an overview and I wanted to do the research with the best people, I went lots of places. I went to the Library of Congress. I went to Chicago, to the south side where so much music begins. I went to black churches, looked at original sheet music, and talked to people who knew the founders, the fathers and mothers, of gospel music. I went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which has one of the two or three of the largest libraries in the world, and read obscure dissertations from the 1920s and 1930s. And then, the wonderful people at Interlibrary Loan here at Baylor made it their personal quest to help me. No matter how weird or obscure a request I made, they moved heaven and earth to try to track it down for me. I gave them a shout-out in the book. They really worked hard to make sure the world would come to Waco for me. That was very important, because nothing I needed was on the Internet. Everything was either written down or obtained by talking to people. At one point, I wanted a book long since out of print, and the Interlibrary Loan folks found the only copy in a tiny little small-town library in North Dakota. They got the book for me, and it appeared that I might have been the first person to ever read it. They were so thrilled you'd think they had a personal stake in seeing my book project succeed, which they did.

BN: Tell me a little bit about the award the book has won.

RD: It's the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, presented by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. This relates to the scholarly side of recorded music, and obviously because of that the award has a huge preservation and restoration slant. Our own library people from Baylor who are involved in the subject had been to past ARSC conventions and got the group's journals and such. I didn't know anything about the award until I heard that I'd been nominated for it, competing against some very famous people writing scholarly work in different categories -- everything from popular music to blues, gospel and jazz, and including people who were doing restoration work. I was contacted a couple months after I'd been nominated and they said I'd won. The convention was in Seattle and we had a nice contingent of people from Moody Library there. I wasn't able to go to get the award in person because I'd already made other arrangements, but it was a real affirmation of working out of Waco with this kind of support behind me. The award was a real coup, and it's one of the few things that are on my wall.

BN: How did the idea for your project to start preserving gospel music get its start?

RD: I think it's a God thing. When I was doing the research for my book and I would be writing about an individual song that was pivotal for one reason or another, I would try to track down a copy of it. I have a pretty good music collection, but I couldn't find it there. I'd go through Interlibrary Loan, and they couldn't find it. Then I'd go on eBay and talk to serious collectors and find that the recording just didn't exist. This happened about three-quarters of the time. Music that I wanted to hear and then write about could not be found for love or money. So, as I got near the end of the book and listed as best I could all of the music that I had used and referred to, I realized that about 75 percent of it was out of print. And not only out of print, but nonexistent in any form -- not in LPs, not in 78s. I got frustrated and I wrote an editorial about this, saying how this was the root of all American music and here we are just letting this stuff slip away.

BN: Just how is it slipping away?

RD: Well, for example, one of the best, most seminal labels in gospel music ended up, through various acquisitions and bankruptcies, being owned by the German division of Seagram's, the alcohol manufacturer. A couple of other collectors tried again and again to track the label's holdings, and finally found somebody at Seagram's that spoke English to talk about it. They very graciously spent months checking through their files, then came back and said, "Yes, we own it. We don't know where it is, we don't know what warehouse it's in. We don't know for sure whether it still exists or whether somebody just cleaned out the warehouse and threw everything away. We don't have a record of any stock, and we don't know if we have any masters. All we know is that somehow we own this label." My guess is that those items weren't just dumped in the trash somewhere, and that somewhere in a warehouse in America these precious wax masters and these things that make American music distinctive are molding away. If you remember the old 78s, they're so fragile that if you glare at them, they'll break. So unless they're stored right, they don't survive.

BN: And this is what you talked about in the editorial?

RD: Right. I wrote this impassioned editorial and said future generations are going to really judge us harshly, and not just from the historical standpoint, because this is a sin what we've allowed to happen to America's greatest music form. I figured I'd start at the top and sent the editorial off to the New York Times. Within a week I got a call back from them saying that they get 800 editorial proposals a week, and that mine is one they're going to use. We polished it up, and it came out in mid-February 2006. I had no idea what an editorial in the New York Times op-ed piece would do. My phone rang and my e-mail was clogged for weeks. The very first call I got was from Ed Bradley at 60 Minutes. He's a big jazz fan, and he had the same frustration I did trying to find this old gospel music because so much jazz and gospel are interrelated. We talked for a half hour about just where to find stuff, where it existed if at all. He offered to help in any way, and he may get his chance.

BN: Did the editorial lead to the music archive project?

RD: Yes. One of the people who called me after the editorial was published was a gentleman named Charles Royce. As we were talking, I idly "Googled" in his name to tell me who he was with, and what I found was extraordinary -- an investment company in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut, with something like $22 billion in assets that he manages. He's a very affable, plainspoken kind of guy, and he says, "Darden, is this true?" I said, "Well, it was in the New York Times, I guess it has to be." He said, "This is terrible, just terrible. What can we do about it?" And I said I wasn't really sure yet, but I had some ideas. He said, "Tell you what. I want to help you financially to get this done. I don't know anything about it, but you seem to be the expert. You come back to me with a proposal and we'll talk about funding it. If you need any expense money during this, just let me know."

BN: Wow. What did you do first?

RD: I knew that the Arhoolie Foundation near Berkeley, California, was doing something to help preserve Mexican American music, which is equally at risk for the same reason. Nobody thinks it's valuable, and nobody is taking care of it because it's a regional music. Up till now, nobody has bothered to archive or catalog it. The Arhoolie Foundation is doing a wonderful job of saving Mexican American music. They've worked with UCLA to set up the Frontera Collection to do what needs to be done, which is identify and locate the most at-risk music, which is primarily on 78s. They carefully clean the 78s and digitize the music on them using audio engineers. Then, they even more carefully catalog everything so that with a dedicated computer through their hard drive you can type in any name or song or label, or any topic, and not only will you hear the music but you get to see whatever else exists relating to that particular piece of music. Mr. Royce flew me, my wife Mary and an engineer friend of mine out to Berkeley and we spent several wonderful days out there. They were very gracious and gave us the keys to their kingdom, and said look at whatever you need to look at and ask whatever you need to. They gave us a whole day to inspect all their toys, how they digitize, how they collect.

BN: What happened next?

RD: We came back to Waco and Mary, my friend and I sat down and worked out a proposal, and then at that point I took it to the Baylor library. We met primarily with Tim Logan, Bill Hair and John Wilson, and they gave it their blessing, even though this would add work to everybody. Tim in particular came back, and using our work and what he knew, he came up with a proposal for what equipment we would use and what kind of employees we would need. For at least two years, we would need a true audio engineer with a background in this and a true music cataloguer. There was simply no way the current Baylor staff could add this to their plate. So we built those positions into the proposal, as well as acquisitions of the music itself and the digital equipment to record it, which turned out to be the cheapest part. We put together our proposal and I sent it to Mr. Royce in November. On December 31 he called back and said, "Sure, let's go for it." Just about as nonchalant as that. He pledged to give $350,000 and said, "I'll send you the money in four quarterly installments so you get time to do what you need to do. If you need anything in the interim, just holler." The first two checks have arrived, and this summer the ad should be posted for the audio engineer.

BN: I'm curious -- is Mr. Royce a gospel music fan, or just someone who thought this was a shame that the music wasn't being preserved?

RD: I asked him about that. He has no background in gospel music and had never even heard it. He said, "You know, when you get some of that stuff digitized, would you send it to me? I'm kind of curious."

BN: So his interest was basically in that he didn't want to see the music slip away?

RD: And concern that nobody else was preserving it. He decided, "Well heck, I'll just step in here." I found out later from people who work with him that he's this way. He's just one of those people who doesn't want any credit, and he doesn't have any particular hobbies. When he feels strongly about something he puts his money where his mouth is. But he had no background in gospel music.

BN: How exactly is this music going to be found and brought to Baylor? Is somebody going to go out and search through flea markets and libraries to find it?

RD: Once we have somebody in place that can physically manhandle the materials, we're in business. There are about 10 to 15 collectors in the world I've identified that probably have the bulk of what's known in gospel music. These collectors are in Germany, Holland, England, and scattered throughout the United States. The biggest one is in Alaska. I'm hoping they will say, "I've been collecting this, and if you'd like to buy it from me I'll sell it to you." Some of them will say, "No, I don't want to sell it, but if you want to make digital copies you can come up here and do it with a portable machine." In addition, somebody will start monitoring things like eBay and various music auctions. In the end, our goal is not to have to go to flea markets. I've done that for the last five years, and I've never found anything worthwhile. I go into every little antique store that has 78s and find a lot of classical and blues, but I'm not finding any gospel.

BN: So owning the actual records is not your top priority?

RD: No. If it means paying somebody for the privilege of listening to and digitizing their 78s while they get to keep the original, I don't care. I don't care if we ever have a single 78 here in Waco. I just want to make sure we have a copy of every song released, and our target right now is about 1945 to 1965. The stuff before 1945 is out of copyright, and because of that it's showing up on the market every day. You can make money off that. But the music released between 1945 and 1965 is under copyright and nobody is releasing it. After about 1965, you start seeing the LPs in the junk shops and things. But particularly from 1945 to, say, 1955, where it's all on those little 78s, that's where I'm scared we're losing things. We're going to spend money if we have to, we're going to travel if we have to, but when this is done we are going to have the only and best collection of this music in the world.

BN: Who is going to be making use of this preserved music? Will it be accessible to the public, where someone can come in and just listen for pleasure, or will the audience be researchers and archivists?

RD: Yes to all of that. The key, as you already know, is that you can't put complete versions of recorded music on the Internet. On the computers at Baylor in the archive, you'll be able to come in and put on headphones and listen to songs in their entirety. But, on our website, you'll only be able to do like you do with Amazon, where you hear just the first 30 seconds. We can legally do that with the copyright restrictions. Online, you'll also be able to access everything else we have related to the music, such as photos and print materials. We're buying a giant scanner so we can capture the entire LP jacket, the sheet music and the tiny stuff that's etched on the side of the LP. You'll be able to see all that online, but to hear the actual music you'll have to come on campus where these dedicated computers are. There will be scholars who are already trying to get access to this stuff, and I've already had inquiries. There will be gospel music lovers accessing this, there will be music historians who want to know how we got to rock and roll or how the stuff connects with who will come later. And since it will be available, if you're just a student or faculty member who loves this kind of music, you can come in, sit down and play some of the best stuff ever recorded.

BN: Do you anticipate ever making and marketing any sort of anthology CDs featuring this music?

RD: No, I do not. The copyright issues are in such chaos. Recorded music is too much in dispute right now. I don't care if somebody else does it, but I don't think we'll ever do that.

BN: Have you identified a space where this is all going to be located?

RD: Right now, according to Tim Logan, there is a room on the third floor of the Moody Library where they already do restoration of old sheet music and posters. That might work, because we won't need a lot of room for our equipment. For instance, a Japanese company sent me a brochure showing a black box the size of a DVD player. You put a 78 in it, no matter how warped, and then close the just like you do a DVD player. Using a red laser, the box reads the music without ever rotating the 78. It just scans it like a barcode, and when it's finished, you pull out of the other side a CD with all the music recorded on it. So, we're not talking about needing tons of room.

BN: Will you have any equipment to clean or repair old records?

RD: We'll have a very simple little thing from England that costs just a few thousand dollars. It's a turntable that gently puts mild detergent on the records, with an arm that sucks it up and cleans these things manually because you don't want to get any water on the paper label. We'll clean them up as best we can, and that's where the audio engineer comes in. If you remember these old 78s, the grooves are so big you could almost see music in them, and on most people's old turntables the arm was slanted a little bit to the left or right. It may not even be perceptible, but if you look at them closely, they'll bias to the left or right. Many people played 78s until they looked like they're flat, but what you have done is only play one side of the groove. The exact same musical information is still there on the other side of the groove. With these new turntables, audio engineers can listen to the record and then adjust whether they want the needle to slant left or right to get a really good signal. Our engineer also will make sure the recordings are done at the right speed, and if there are any nasty pops audible above the music range, he'll take those out. He'll talk into a little microphone before each recording and give the identification of it, maybe type in the key words we need, and then 30 minutes later he will have that one song digitized. We'll have everything redundant. We'll have a hard copy on the hard drive and burn a disk every day and keep it, so that no matter what happens there are at least two or three copies floating around in the world.

BN: Do you have any idea starting off how many songs you'd like to get recorded this way?

RD: Nope, and the reason we don't is there is no really good catalog in existence that has everything that was released during this period. Nobody cared, and the labels that kept pretty good notes are out of existence. Are we talking about 10,000 songs? I don't know.

BN: So, all the information such as what date the song was recorded and where it was recorded and who was playing what instrument -- all that's mostly gone?

RD: Yes. We're looking at recreating an entire recorded musical art form.

BN: Why was gospel music so seemingly neglected in this fashion, as far as people not making the effort to keep track of all this?

RD: I think you know the answer: Jim Crow. The country is still struggling with racism. For instance, I wrote a piece last summer for the Oxford American. They asked me to do an article on a particular gospel group, the Pilgrim Travelers, that had a song called "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb," a wonderful song that's recently been re-recorded. They said, "Would you write a piece on them and this song?" I was thrilled because I'd always wanted to write for them. I spent the entire summer trying to track down any information on these guys. The Pilgrim Travelers were primarily a black group that played to black audiences. They never charted on the white charts, they rarely went to the big metro areas. But although they were one of the most successful groups in black music history, even fans that I would talk to who loved this era of music wouldn't know who I was talking about. So we have no paper record, there's no white magazine or newspaper that ever interviewed them, and if any of the black newspapers like the Chicago Defender did, we only have fragmentary reviews from them. The different black dailies thought this music was kind of old-fashioned. Even within the black communities, they looked on this stuff a little like middle-class white people look on Pentecostal church music. So, even those newspapers didn't write about it.

BN: Were you able to find out anything about the Pilgrim Travelers for your article?

RD: They recorded somewhere around 105 records, meaning front and back sides, for Specialty Records in Houston during the course of 10 years. That's about 200 songs in their career, which is pretty good considering they didn't have LPs to work with until later in their career. I used every trick in the book and could not come up with much more than the one article that I did on them. If there is going to be an encyclopedia entry on these guys, 90 percent of it is going to be drawn from my article. That's sad, just sad, and yet Lou Rawls comes from this group. Sam Cooke's manager, who takes Sam to become the first black artist to own his own record label and become one of the first black artists to play white clubs, came out of that group, and he was in the car with Cooke when Sam had a bad wreck that nearly killed both of them. This group is terribly influential, and all we can come up with is one lone magazine article.

BN: Will having this collection at Baylor help prevent such important information from getting lost?

RD: I'm hoping when news about this collection gets out, people will come forward with information. And if I have a dream besides getting all this stuff together, it's that we'll be able to take this show on the road. Maybe we'll get together an 18-wheeler decorated with great big posters made from the record jackets and the old wonderful publicity photographs, and we'll drive it to neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere. We'll set up portable copies of the digitizer and scanner, and then put something in the local newspaper that says "Please come! We'll play the music for you, and we'll show you the posters relating to gospel, the root of all American music including rap. And, if you've got a picture of grandma with Sam Cooke, bring it down and we'll scan it and give it back to you. If you've got some old LPs in the attic, bring them as well." A lot of the gospel artists would go to individual churches without their record label knowing it, and record albums as fundraisers for the church that were only sold by that church, and some of the very best performances I've ever heard have been on those live, very primitive LPs. I don't have a single one of them. There were only maybe 100 pressed to start with and probably 98 of those are lost. But if some old saint of the church still has hers, maybe she'll bring it to us. We'll make a copy of it and give her a CD of it as well as giving her original back. Just as long as I can just keep that music. I'd like to see what else is out there.

BN: Will you be collecting oral histories as well?

RD: I'm hoping so. One of the first people I'm talking to about records did lots and lots of interviews. He's already sold his huge recorded music collection on eBay. It'll never be back together again, but he kept all of his cassette tapes, and it looks like that will be our first purchase -- his cassette tapes and photographs and untranscribed interviews. It's all part of what we're doing. I want to buy all of his old photos. We'll take whatever he's got.

BN: When is all of this actually going to start?

RD: We're kind of in a holding pattern because I don't want to buy anything until the audio engineer checks off on it. So, when we hire the engineer, Tim Logan and I will meet with that person, show them what we have and start ordering the equipment and getting used to it. Once the equipment arrives, the library will begin to chase down some of those collectors. By the end of the fall semester, we should be buying equipment and getting the audio engineer's first music to him or her. By Christmas, all the personnel and all the toys should be in place, and there should be a steady of flow of product into Waco.

BN: Anything else about this project that I haven't asked about that you want to mention?

RD: I just think one of the reasons that it's so exciting, and obviously you're talking to a fan here, is this: what better place in the whole world than a religious school, with a great music program and a history and heritage of promoting religious music, to do this? What a privilege, what a rare opportunity to put this here, and to allow to Baylor take the lead and be the trendsetter in the whole world in this music. It thrills me to think that the artists and the researchers who will come through will have to come to Baylor to get this music when other bigger, more powerful universities had their chance and didn't take it. This project fits with 2012 and the things that Baylor is known for. It's of service to humanity, not just to the church or to music scholars.

BN: I know you're anxious to get this going.

RD: I can't wait. I've written about this music all my life, and now I finally get to hear some of these songs. The fun part will be what has already started happening. We haven't even put any real publicity out about this, but the first donations already have arrived. Black choir directors are sending stuff and saying, "Here's some sheet music from the 1930s, but I don't know if it's worth anything. I was going to throw it out." The first four pieces that arrived were all very valuable. They're from a very influential publishing house on the south side of Chicago that's one of the first black-owned companies in America employing dozens of people at its peak. As that stuff comes in, we're going to find some real treasures and that will mean the big hotshot New York critics and scholars will have to come here to Waco, stay overnight and go to our library. How cool is that?


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