Season 5 - Episode 505
Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project preserves classic Black Gospel music—pieces that were at risk of being lost forever—in digital form for future generations. In this Baylor Connections, journalism professor Robert Darden, founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, updates listeners on ways that the project’s reach has expanded in recent months, from a new listening center on the Baylor campus to involvement with a PBS documentary and more.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. Today, we're diving into the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, a project that's grown dramatically in its to preserve black gospel music for future generations, since it was founded at Baylor by Journalism professor, Robert Darden. The project, a collection within Baylor University libraries, has archived more than 14,000 items from music to sermon, photos and more. The project's main role is digitizing music that was at risk of being lost on vinyl or cassettes. In 2016, music from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project was featured in an exhibit at Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Darden, the project founder is the author of more than two dozen books, including multiple seminal works on black gospel music, including its role in the Civil Rights Movement. And, he's with us today here on Baylor Connections. And, so Bob Darden, it's always great to visit with you, see how things are going and to catch up. Thanks for coming on the show today.
Robert Darden:I wouldn't miss it, Derek. Thanks for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, it's always fun to talk. I always say this when we talk, but I remember talking to you, KWBU, in probably 2005 when this was just a gleam in the eye. And, now it's amazing to see how in 15-16 years it has grown. And, it's funny because when you got the spot in the Smithsonian, in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, that felt like such a finish line in some ways. But it wasn't, it was just a benchmark along the way. We're going to dive into more specifics, but what of the last few years meant to the scope of the project?
Robert Darden:Derek, I step back sometimes in awe of how God's hand works on these things. Because if it was up to me, it would've been scuttled a long time ago. It's like watching a train go past, and admiring the power and the energy of it. I would love to take more credit than is due me, but it is because I believe God really wants this thing. God believes that this music and these messages have transformed nations and lives and hearts, and it's important that people 10-100 years from now get to hear it. What we have watched in the last few years is more like throwing a stone in a small pond, and watching these ripples go off. And, what's fascinating is to see them come back with something bigger that I never dreamed of. One of the nice offshoots of working with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and we'll call it NMAAHC from now on, is that it brought us to the attention of Dr. Henry Louis Gates on PBS. And, you may be familiar with this series Finding Your Roots, but he's also done a number of astonishing documentaries on the black experience. And, when he was putting together his award-winning documentary a couple years ago on the black church in America, they contacted us and asked us to help provide the music and the sermons for it. And, coincidentally asked me to come in and commentate on just a few of the items related to the music of the church. Well, the big news is that that spun off and did so well that he raised funding. And, I think he told me it took him 10 milliseconds to raise funding for four, two hour documentary series on black gospel music. And, we have been working with him the last few months, and he's asked me to serve as a consultant. And, please remember when I say me or I, it's the Royal me, I, or we. Because, none of this happens without the good folks at the Baylor University libraries who do the actual work, while I stand up front. The engineers and the technicians and Dean Jeffrey have been there as Dean or before them, and Dean Wilson before them, the spiritual heirs of this thing, because they've made it happen within their larger purview. So anytime I want to talk about this project, I always want to acknowledge that they have been there from the beginning.
Derek Smith:You mentioned the engineers and people doing that behind this scenes work, for people who may only be vaguely familiar with the project, what are they doing? How does this work, what you're doing?
Robert Darden:Well, if I understood it, I would do it. The engineers, we receive virtually every week, a box of vinyl from the golden age of gospel music, 1945-1980, roughly. And, it comes in. Our folks scan it on big scanners that we bought just for the process, everything from the jacket sleeve to the vinyl itself. We clean it with a vintage 1957 cleaner, which is my favorite piece of equipment in the whole building. Then, they go through the process of digitizing in a purpose-built studio that we had, which was the very first thing we used the original money for. And, then the hard part actually comes after all that, where we have catalogers start entering all the metadata into a purpose-built system, so that not only can scholars research what we have, that people can hear a good portion of what we have via streaming. And, that apparently takes much longer than all the easy physical labor, but getting that ready and prepared, because we make two copies of everything. One, an original archival one with all the pops and hisses with a huge wave file. And, then a more compressed one that you can dial up and hear on your own home computer anytime.
Derek Smith:This is, I know, a labor of love for you and for them, and for many people who contribute. And, you talk about records. You can see why some of this might have got lost. Someone puts it in a rummage sale or tosses out what their parents had in the attic and it's gone forever. So, as you're doing this, whether it's for you or even just thinking about maybe someone who's just a kid now, who almost everyone from the Civil Rights Movement will be long gone by the time they're an adult, what is it about the power of this music that you're trying to preserve that you want them to experience it how you do?
Robert Darden:At a time when African Americans only had a handful of newspapers, no radio stations, no television, no anything, music was one of the few avenues of communication across the country. And, music began and remains of being a vehicle of communication, as much as it is of pleasure and beat. On these pieces of vinyl, there were coded information, and sometimes pretty overt information, that sustained and nurtured I believe the most powerful movement of the 20th century. When, 1/10th of the African American churches, not even all the black churches, 1/10th of the American black churches took on the most powerful nation in the world, and forced it using love and nonviolence and music with a great beat, to transform those lives and laws. And, as King often said, when people said, "Well, you can't legislate me not to hate you." "No, but I can legislate you not to kill me." And, the music provided a message that might have circumvented a lot of other barriers that people have up. One of the great things as I've studied this is even during the heart of the Jim Crow era, white teenagers were going to hear a black artist, and eventually black teenagers were allowed to go as well. And, they would put a rope down the middle of the gymnasium to keep the two races apart. But, once the music started, the rope would come down and they would dance together, 20 years before their parents could even look a black man in the eye. And, music provide the catalyst. Music provided the engine. As John Lewis told me one time and I can't do his voice. Maybe Brody can lower the base, but I'd say, "Young man, black music, black sacred music provided the fuel that ran the engine that was the Civil Rights Movement." And, it gave me chills then because he knew, as we know now, this music mattered.
Derek Smith:Any recent visits stand out to you? Any stories you have that have been particularly meaningful to you?
Robert Darden:Well, talking to Skip Gates, Henry Louis Gates, he signs his email Skip, so I know I've arrived in the world. I still have to call him Dr. Gates. My favorite piece of music in the whole project is by the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland. And, it's a little vanity project done about 1969. We went for a decade trying to find anything about these people. And, when the music was in the NMAAHC, I was on a NPR in Baltimore and the gentleman asked me the same question. And, I told him, and I'd provided a copy, and he played it. And, he said, "Well, Aquasco, Maryland is in our listening area. So, if you know anything about this, would you give us a call?" And, the next day we got a call from the surviving member of the Mighty Wonders.
Robert Darden:And, extraordinary gentleman, they had sung that in their church. They brought out a traveling studio to come tape it, made about 50 copies. We had the only known copies that had survived of it. And, I had apologized to him that we hadn't reached them sooner, and that the other four members of the group would never get to know that their song that they recorded during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, in a very difficult part of the country, would be preserved forever, in a museum that gets 8 million visitors a year. And, he said, "Brother Darden, I don't know what religion you have. But, in my faith, we believe in a cloud of witnesses. And, I believe every time that song is played, my friends will hear it and know that we did as justified."
Derek Smith:Wow. That's really something. Well, you talk about God's hand being involved in things, when you get a connection like that from an interview, that's amazing. Visiting with Bob Darden here on Baylor Connections. And, Bob, so Washington, DC, Waco, online, where are some of the places that people can find or access this project? And, really more specifically the music?
Robert Darden:You can go to our webpage at any time through the Baylor University library/live gospel. We can just Google Black Gospel Music Project Baylor, and it'll pop up. And, you can go through, once you get to the actual site, you can type in a word, either a name or a song or just about anything. And, what we have will show up. Or, you can go to kwbu.org, and listen to each week we do a show called Shout! Black Gospel Music Moments, where I pick different song, talk about a little, and play the song. And, on the KWBU website, you can go on and hear the entire song, which is what more people want to do than hear me yak about it anyway. So, it's worldwide. You can hear what we have. You can't download it obviously for copyright reasons, but you can hear what we have from any computer.
Derek Smith:So you could, if you can't listen live, you can get it all online and go back and hear the entirety of the show at kwbu.org. Another new thing here in Waco, if people are close to home, the Moody Library, tell us about this new project.
Robert Darden:This began out of a project that Ella Prichard had for her late husband, Lev, for a listening room in the library. And, it was a beautiful little spot, but it was probably too small. And, Dean Archer came up with the idea, well, why don't we combine that with a place for scholars? And, so working with Mrs. Prichard and others built the new archive and listening room in the garden level of Moody, which is open to the public. And, it's a beautiful little spot. It has a little soundproof booth with headphones, so you can listen to music. It's got a computer for scholars. We had an electric digital keyboard put in there, so they can play along and figure out some of these difficult songs. We're putting in all of the vinyl in that room, so you can see physically what we have. So, you're surrounded by gospel music, in a very comfortable private space for both fans and scholars. And, it's already being heavily used. So much so that as we're looking at the possibility of a couple large acquisitions in the future, we have room to grow it twice out. It was another one of the great days of my life to be there and see this place. The last little check on it was to make sure that everybody could walk in and hear the music that changed the world in a comfortable spot. The original studio, while wonderful, is the studio. It's a working studio. So, when we would bring groups in or casual people in, they would interrupt the folks doing the actual work. Here, it's just connected right off of it. So, you can still see the studio through the glass, but you're not interrupting an engineer who's trying to figure out how to save a piece of vinyl that's been in a damp basement for 50 years, covered with mold and warped, how to make and pull the best signal off if possible. We'll let him do his job. Then, come over here and play the music on the best German speakers we can buy.
Derek Smith:That's great. And, how would you recommend if people are going to come visit, go downstairs there at the library, and settle in? Is there a good place to start? Or, how would you recommend maybe if they don't know a whole lot about it, but are intrigued, they dive in?
Robert Darden:Well, I'm prejudiced right now because I've spent the last five years working on a book on gospel artists, Andrae Crouch and The Disciples. And, I think that's an easy entry point for people who are maybe not ready for the old 1940s and 50s quartets. Andrae's music is the dividing point between traditional and contemporary gospel. He is the only gospel artist to have multiple songs in white and black hymnals, even to this day. Soon and Very Soon, and The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power, and To God Be The Glory, and all of those songs retain their power, but they're contemporary enough that folks of any age, I think can engage with them.
Derek Smith:So, Andrae Crouch, then you can kind of go on a little rabbit trail from there.
Robert Darden:From there.
Derek Smith:In the listening center at the library. So, we've talked about Close To Home. Of course, we also mentioned Smithsonian, Washington, DC, and how that's impacted the project. What can people see there? If you want to take them through that a little bit, if they're planning a trip.
Robert Darden:Yeah. The museum is one of the most astonishing places I've ever been. And, you can't even get in, because the tickets are pretty dear. They're free, but you got to get them in advance. Stand outside at night and watch the light show, which is considered to be one of the finest in the world. The building is built like a West African basket, with this interlacing beams all the way around it. And, the lights play through it in a way that's really hard to describe. And, there's water fixtures that run with it. And, it's got a crowd on its own. So, do that. And, if you do get in, it's chronological from the very bottom floor, from Africa, all the way up to the top fourth floor, which is contemporary music and art and things. So, after you've completed, what's probably a two day journey up the stairs to the top floor, if you'll go in the corner, furthest from the capital, there's a room that has gospel and jazz in it. And, in that room, besides all the gospel and jazz vinyl on the walls, there's a mock-up of a black record store where you can thumb through the vinyl like we did in the old days, there's a giant table. And, on that table, are the album jackets or the actual vinyl pictures of what we provided. And, if you touch one and drag it to you, you can touch it repeatedly and see what's on the record, the front and the back and such. But, then if you touch it yet again, the music on it will fill the speakers in the room. And, the first time Mary and I did that when we went to DC the day before it opened, with Denor and Steve, everybody was wandering around and we were all so overwhelmed. And, so the people were hearing that we had something to do with the gospel music. And, when we played Old Ship of Zion, which was one of the five they chose for the first round, and it filled the speakers in that room, we broke into tears. And, most of the people around us did as well. And, many of them came up and hugged us and thanked us for what we had done. And, on the way out of the museum that evening, they didn't even have the kiosk opened yet, but they had one place you could buy a t-shirt. You can't see it.
Derek Smith:He's wearing it right now.
Robert Darden:I wore the t-shirt, which I only wear for special occasions. And, all it says is the initials. And, I was out of clean clothes. We'd been there for a week. So, I wore it the next morning, and in the cab ride to the airport and in the airport itself, total strangers came up to me and said, "Have you been there? Isn't it wonderful?" And, several of them were in tears saying, "My church raised money for that." And, one guy with a big church in Maryland said, "We raised $1,000,000 for our museum." And, they kept talking about our museum. And, we were all in tears again, by the time we got on the plane. And, somebody on the plane saw it, and said, "Is it open? Were you there? Is it wonderful?" And, your answer is yes.
Derek Smith:Yeah. Well, that's definitely something that's on my to-do list, and I think a lot of other peoples as well, to go see that and also know that there is that Baylor connection there, as well. As we visit with Bob Darden here, Bob, I want to ask you, you mentioned that opened a door for you to get to know Dr. Henry Louis Gates, be involved with the PBS documentaries. That's one exciting thing. What else can people be looking forward to in the weeks and months ahead for the project?
Robert Darden:Well, I think we mentioned just briefly last time, we have gotten involved, and again, I think it was Ella Prichard said, "Every black preacher sings and every black singer preachers. Maybe, we ought to think about adding sermons, as well." Well, among the fun things that have come out of that is Bishop College, up in East Texas, which had a seminary and is considered for many black denominations, kind of the mother college, their archives will spread all over Texas when they closed. And, Baylor will be housing their archives, which include amazing sermons from some of the best known black preachers in the last 100 years.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Robert Darden:We will be getting a collection that come from different parts of the country. But, the one we're most excited about, and it hasn't been announced yet, but he is the largest collector outside of Bob Marvich, who's been a friend and patron of the project from day one. Out on the west coast, he's retiring and his collection alone would nearly double what we have, if it works out.
Robert Darden:And, if that happens, Dean Archer himself, has promised we'll double the size of the archive in listening room, and we'll make sure that every piece of vinyl can be seen and touched and loved.
Derek Smith:That's fantastic. Well, so a lot to look forward to, in the weeks ahead. I'm curious, as we wind down. You have these different opportunities for people to engage online. Now, the listening room. Of course, there's Washington, DC. I'm curious, do different venues, different mediums, almost in a way that people listen, are there any ways that each set up speaks to the physical location differently? Or, do you kind of feel like they all kind of funnel everyone towards that same final kind of shared feeling into their own way?
Robert Darden:I'm old, so I'm skewed one way. But, to be able to touch the vinyl that in some cases we know because we bought them or we were given to them in Birmingham, and some of them, as we talked about last time, have very strong civil rights messages on the B side. And, that particularly these 45s, to carry these around with them in a time when that could have been horrible outcome for you, in a town that was averaging three bombings a month, of black homes and churches. To touch that piece of vinyl, to know that somebody that brave bought that and carried that on the streets of Birmingham, and was going to play it to help change the world, that visceral thrill of holding that vinyl, as wonderful as digital is, gives me a greater thrill than anything else.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, it's great to have you paint the picture of that for us, and to see how the project's growing. And, we look forward to seeing that more ahead. And, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you. You talk about this being open for scholars. I was thinking Baylor's Research R1, in the last couple of months, that's become official, and there's a new chair forthcoming as it relates to black worship. What's it mean to you also to preserve this in a scholarly way so that you continue to get that maybe to kind of in your own discipline, as a professor yourself, to be able to share that for your discipline?
Robert Darden:Well, I'm a journalist. This certainly wasn't in my original wheelhouse, other than the fact that what we do is try to communicate the truth. And, what this music has meant to America, not just the black community, but the white as well. It's meant that we acknowledge the past and treasure it and want to preserve it because it influences the future in ways we will never ever know.
Derek Smith:That's amazing. We're excited to see that transpire. Bob Darden, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for all the work you do, and for taking the time to share with us today. Bob Darden, Professor of Journalism and founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith to remind you can hear this in other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.