Classic black gospel records are an endangered species. Original recordings are trapped on vinyl, hoarded by the rare gospel collector, or relegated to dust-magnet status in basements around the country. Robert Darden, a former gospel editor at Billboard and current professor at Baylor University, is trying to change that, by resurrecting and preserving this vital part of our musical history.
“Anyone who cares about black history or who has been redeemed by black gospel—by an individual’s repentant outpouring, a family act’s fevered calls-and-responses, or a quartet’s amens between choreographed dance moves—can recognize the tragedy of losing these recordings forever,” reports Michael Hoinski in The Texas Observer.
To raise awareness about black gospel’s dire situation, Darden wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times back in 2005. In it, he linked the work of popular stars such as Kanye West and Mavis Staples to the music of lesser-known classic gospel artists like Sallie Martin and the Roberta Martin singers. Darden was able to drum up some support for his cause, most crucially from investment banker Charles Royce, who told Darden that if he could figure out how to preserve the music, Royce would bankroll the project.
Darden settled on digitization as black gospel’s savior, and Royce granted him $347,175 for equipment, an audio engineer, a cataloger, and acquisitions. So far, the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project has digitally preserved some 750 songs with photos, liner notes, and record jackets. But there’s still a long way to go. “I will die before we finish this project,” Darden says.
Take a listen to a few scratchy samples of the songs, available on Baylor’s library database. (QuickTime required.)
http://ars.baylor.edu/03gospel/620.mov (I’ll Fly Away, Lady Byrd)
http://ars.baylor.edu/03gospel/853.mov (Come Ye Disconsolate, Rev. Franklin Fondel)
http://ars.baylor.edu/03gospel/715.mov (He Never Has Left Me Alone, The Angelic Gospel Singers)
http://ars.baylor.edu/03gospel/604.mov (I’m On My Way, Sammie Graham)
http://ars.baylor.edu/03gospel/739.mov (Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt, Otis Jackson)
To hear more of the songs digitized so far, go to Baylor’s library database.