Baylor Announces $350,000 Gift to Preserve Black Gospel Heritage

  • News Photo 3476
    The Staple Singers, featuring Mavis Staples, bridged the gap between gospel and soul music. (Courtesy of Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
  • News Photo 3477
    African-American women opened a club in Newark, N.J., for soldiers about to leave for Army camp, ca. 1918 (photo: the National Archives)
May 2, 2006

Media contacts: John Wilson, director of library advancement, (254) 710-3457 and Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism and author of "People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music," (254) 710-6353

Baylor University journalism professor Robert Darden was angry.

Darden, a former Gospel Music editor for Billboard Magazine and author of People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music (2004, Continuum International Publishing Group), knew that each day, a piece of the history of black gospel music was slipping away.

And so, with a passion rarely seen outside a tent revival, Darden wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in February 2005. He wrote about how gospel music has influenced today's contemporary hits, how new gospel releases sell millions of copies today and how, when he plays snippets of the old music during radio interviews, the public clamors for more.

"It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music," Darden wrote. "It would be a sin."

Such passion inspired Charles Royce, a businessman from Connecticut who knew little of Baylor, to call Darden. What, he wanted to know, could be done to change this course?

Darden started doing his research. He contacted the Arhoolie Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., an organization dedicated to preserving Mexican-American music. He learned how to work with the fragile media like 78s, the dominant recording available from the 1940s to the mid-1950s.

"In most cases, the original masters are long lost, destroyed or damaged. We're going to have to get the best quality 78s that we can and make copies from those."

Darden submitted a proposal to Royce that involved not only digitizing the music, but preserving ephemera like photos, liner notes, record jackets and other accompanying material as well.

On Jan. 1, 2006, Royce approved the proposal and pledged $350,000 to support the project. Royce is president and chief investment officer of Royce & Associates LLC, and president of The Royce Funds. Royce & Associates, an investment firm based in New York that he founded, has 30 years experience in the small- and micro-cap markets. Though basically unfamiliar with Baylor, Royce was motivated to support the project because he recognized the need and was impressed by Darden's zeal.

"We've done such a bad job of protecting this priceless musical heritage," Darden said. "As people begin to realize the value of this most original of all music forms -- this music that everything that comes out of America is rooted in -- they'll appreciate the fact that we, their ancestors, made an effort to save it. Not only will they love it for itself, but for its historic nature as well. Future generations will appreciate our efforts, especially as a lot of other historic media, music and film, is already lost."

Royce's gift will allow Baylor to identify, acquire, clean, digitize and catalogue black gospel music and the accompanying ephemera as part of the Charles M. Royce Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

Baylor already is equipped to handle a project of this nature. The project will utilize the Riley Digitization Center, a lab used to digitize, catalog and provide electronic access to unique and special collections of materials located in the Baylor Libraries. Harold and Dottie Riley of Austin made the generous donation equipping the center, named in memory of Harold's father, Ray I. Riley.

"With our outstanding School of Music, our premier library facilities and our Christian heritage, Baylor University is the perfect institution to spearhead this project," said Baylor President John M. Lilley. "We can provide the tools, the knowledge and the enthusiasm necessary to preserve this treasured past."

Over the past few years, the university has been digitizing the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, a collection that contains approximately 28,000 pieces spanning a period from the last part of the 18th century to the 1950s.

"Preserving these historic recordings will be a service for our nation and the world," said Bill Hair, interim dean of the Baylor Libraries. "Without such an undertaking, many of these priceless recordings could be lost forever."

Darden agrees, pointing out that every day historic materials are slipping away. Never was that more apparent than this past January, when the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago was destroyed by fire. Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music, was music director there from 1932 to the 1970s. Dorsey's greatest hit was "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," a song popularized by Mahalia Jackson (a famous visitor to the church) that became a favorite of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Much of the memorabilia of Thomas Dorsey was still there -- a lot of the sheet music he wrote, some of his 400 original gospel songs, irreplaceable photos and files," Darden said. "What we're doing now may be the last chance we have in this country to save the majority of these songs. When it's gone, it's gone. The fire was just further proof that this needs to be done now. Every day is a day too late."

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