The Common Good

Digging for Gospel Gold (interview by Becky Garrison)

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In my ongoing quest for music that can enact positive social change, I came across the Black Gospel Restoration Project, a project spearheaded by Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism at Baylor University. Following is a short interview with Darden that elaborates on this dynamic preservation project.



How do you define gospel music?


"Gospel music" has traditionally come to mean all popular religious music. My particular passion is called black gospel music. There is also Southern gospel, which is primarily white quartet singing and has much more to do with barbershop music and country-and-western music.



How did gospel music become such an inspirational part of your life?


I grew up with it. I was an Air Force brat and the Air Force was integrated long before the country at large. One of the first LPs I can remember my parents buying was a Mahalia Jackson Christmas album. Eventually, it led me to become gospel music editor for Billboard magazine.



What was the genesis for the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project?


I wrote a book a couple of years ago titled People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. While I was writing, I became increasingly frustrated trying to find the music I was writing about. After the book was released, I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times on black gospel's fast-vanishing musical legacy. After talking to some experts, I became convinced that 75 percent of all black gospel vinyl was simply unavailable. A gentleman named Charles Royce in New York read the column and offered to fund any effort to identify, digitize, and catalogue that music. And that's what we've done at Baylor University.




How does this project operate?


So far, we've been able to get the word out primarily through the media. We've been featured on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, The Texas Observer, The Dallas Morning News (whose story was picked up by the Associated Press), and many other outlets. Whenever this happens, people who have gospel music from 1945-1985 contact me through Baylor. We pay for all shipping and handling both ways. And whether they're giving us the vinyl or loaning it to us, we'll make them a digital copy of their music.



Why is this project necessary?


As I mentioned, two-thirds of this precious resource -- the music that ALL American music comes from -- is currently unavailable for love or money. These are the songs that black churches sing and have sung for generations. Some of the best responses we've received are from African-American churches who realize the value of having the original disks and have encouraged their members to search their attics for old 78s, 45s, and LPs. Every day, irreplaceable 78s get thrown away or destroyed. We may have lost a significant portion of this music forever.



Elaborate on some of the gems you've recovered.


I'm pretty close to an expert on this topic and nearly every day a box arrives with a song I've never heard of. About once a week or so, a disk arrives with an artist I've never heard. And periodically a disk will arrive with a label I've never heard of! I'm particularly pleased with the "custom" disks we've been receiving ... where unknown artists go into a local studio, pay a few bucks to record a 45, and buy 100 copies to distribute to friends. We've found one by The Mighty Wonders of Acquasco, Maryland, titled "Old Ship of Zion" that is simply stunning. It makes people cry it's so beautiful.


How can people contribute to this project?

If you've got black gospel vinyl, you can contact me at Robert_Darden@baylor.edu and I'll send you the instructions on how to send it to us, including our FedEx account. Or you can call 254-710-7414. Or you can write me at One Bear Place #97353, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, 76798-7353. We'll also happily accept donations and 100 percent of the money will go to the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. It's a tax-deductible donation, by the way.


What do you see as this project's future?

I pray that it'll be going long after I'm gone. We don't know how much music is out there. We may never know. Each new article brings new treasures. I'd love to have agreements with other major library systems so that people in other cities can enjoy this extraordinary music. Some day I'd like to get an 18-wheeler, build a miniature museum and listening booth AND portable recording studio, and take this show on the road to the "mother" neighborhoods of black gospel music -- the south side of Chicago, Paradise Valley in Detroit, Harlem -- and set up in the parking lots of old churches and let people hear the music, see the artists ... and if they've got any old black gospel vinyl lying around, let us digitize it for them.

Publishers Weekly cited Becky Garrison as one of "four evangelicals with fresh views" alongside Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Ron Sider.

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