Thomas Dorsey has been called the Father of Gospel Music. He was the son of a preacher who decided to put the message of the Gospel to the upbeat tempo of blues music. He wrote many popular gospel tunes, like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” in the 1930s and thus created a whole new genre of music. Many gospel greats have since followed in his footsteps like Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrea Crouch.
A Vanishing Legacy
Unfortunately, the legacy of black gospel music has been rapidly vanishing. In the 1990s and early 2000s, before today’s digital age, fans of the music would have a difficult time finding vinyls or recordings of the music to enjoy. About 75 percent of gospel music from its Golden Age (1945-1975) was unavailable. It had become lost or record companies had not re-released it. This all changed, though, when Baylor University professor Robert Darden set about to preserve this vanishing legacy.
Darden is a professor of journalism at Baylor University and founder of The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program. His first job after college was writing music reviews, eventually leading him to a job at Billboard Magazine where he wrote about contemporary Christian and black gospel music. He eventually became a professor, and in order to get tenure he needed to write a book. This book, People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music, would become the definitive book on the history of black gospel music (and Darden earned his tenure).
When writing this book, though, Darden discovered that a lot of the music he was writing about was not available for him to hear. He became angry and wrote an editorial, “Gospel’s Got the Blues,” about this vanishing music genre that he sent to the New York Times – and they published it! This editorial caught the attention of a benefactor who contacted Dr. Darden and offered to help finance a project to preserve black gospel music.
The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program
Darden worked with the libraries at Baylor University to design a plan for assembling the world’s best digitization lab to record the music off of old albums, along with scanners for the album jackets. The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program works to identify old recordings of black gospel, digitize them, scan the album covers and catalog their findings. Recordings come from a wide range of sources – from big collectors to old historic churches and even grandma’s attic. They will borrow the old albums that people send them, digitize them, and give them back. They just want to harvest as much of this music as possible before it ends up in the landfill.
This black gospel archive continues to grow and has become a resource for anyone searching for black gospel music. They have even provided music for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Around 17,000 items have been digitized and preserved so far.
History Told Through Gospel Music
Black gospel music is the foundation of all American popular music. From the spirituals, to gospel music, and even freedom songs, Darden explains that virtually every other American popular music style comes from black gospel.
One of the more interesting discoveries made through this project was the civil rights story that was told through many songs on the B-sides of old 45s. These songs talk about freedom, just like the old Spirituals. Songs from the early 1960s like “No Segregation in Heaven” or “I Believe Martin Luther King” were used to encourage black listeners and let them know that they were not alone in their fight for civil rights.
Celebrating Black Culture
The Black Gospel Archive at Baylor University is “preserving legacies, informing scholarship, celebrating black culture”. While designed primarily for research scholars, the general public is welcome to visit and become immersed in black gospel music. The insulated sound booth with an electronic keyboard allows for a fully immersive experience. You’ll also find bins like in old record stores where you can flip through records. The walls are covered in posters and vinyl records, and there are listening stations with computers and headphones. They also have turntables where you can play original vinyl records.
Listening to music is an emotional experience which can transport you to times and places beyond the present. Darden shares about the time he gave a tour of the Archives to a student group. After they left, he was wandering back through and saw that there was one young man still there. He was in the listening room with the keyboard and had headphones on and was playing with the music. Darden went in to tell him they were closing and when he tapped the young man on the shoulder, he looked up with tears in his eyes. The young man explained that he’d been listening to a gospel album by Aretha Franklin that his grandmother always played for him growing up. Just the two of them. It was their special time together. “And I’m playing this song now for her,” he explained as he played the keyboard along with the recording.
To visit the Black Gospel Archive and reserve a listening pod, you can email email@example.com or make a reservation online.
Cover Photo Gorodenkoff
Wendi Baird is the Editor in Chief for Texas Lifestyle Magazine. As a fifth generation Texan, her roots run deep in the Lone Star State. She fell in love with journalism in high school and has enjoyed writing about her experiences ever since.