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How Sweet the Sound

A Baylor professor sets out to preserve black gospel's golden age
by Published on
The Barrett Sisters performing

This year marks the 75th anniversary of gospel’s bedrock song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Recorded by Chicago piano man Thomas Dorsey following the death of his wife and infant son in childbirth, it typifies the genre in its calling on a higher power in time of need. While Dorsey went on to become “the father of gospel music,” Robert Darden, a former Billboard gospel music editor turned professor of journalism at Baylor University, may become its savior.

In March, Darden started work on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. Its mission is to identify and acquire black gospel recordings, primarily from the music’s mid-20th-century golden age, and digitize them to create a virtual encyclopedia of a musical style unparalleled in its religious zeal.

Black gospel accounts for only a small fraction of Christian-gospel album sales. Old-school black gospel-the genesis of soul and the launchpad for Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles-accounts for an even smaller fraction. There are several reasons why this music hasn’t experienced a renaissance, as vintage jazz has over the past two decades with the conversion of time-worn vinyl into CD and MP3 formats.

For one, many black gospel labels from the genre’s heyday have had their catalogs gobbled up by major labels and other corporations, in whose warehouses they languish. Meanwhile, a dozen or so worldwide collectors are hoarding much of the rest, or breaking it up by selling it off piecemeal on eBay. Also, countless undocumented, one-off records-the kind made to, say, help a church pay off a note-are bequeathed from grandparents to grandchildren, who neglect, trash, or donate them because they either don’t know their cultural significance or are embarrassed by the bygone music.

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.

“It is still the last music where genuine emotion is accepted-naked emotion that people resonate with,” Darden says. “It’s real people, one take, doing stuff that matters to them so much … they could be making more money in rock and roll, but they’re doing it because they feel called.”

Darden’s own calling came a few years ago while working on People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continuum International Publishing Group), a book that traces black music from Africa to the present “musically, historically, and spiritually.” Frustration set in when he found himself writing too frequently about music he’d heard of, but hadn’t heard. This prompted him to write a separate essay on the influence black gospel has on mainstream musicians (think Kanye West, Ben Harper, the White Stripes) and how “it would be a sin” if it expired. The New York Times published the piece, and the next day Darden was inundated with queries.

“The guy from 60 Minutes was the first guy to call-Ed Bradley,” Darden says. “He goes, ‘I’m having the same trouble. I can’t find the damn music.'”

Like Bradley, Darden was raised on black gospel. Unlike Bradley, Darden came to it secondhand. The only way a white kid could fall under the spell of powerhouse songstress Mahalia Jackson was to spend time in the houses of black families like Bradley’s, where church music was prevalent on the radio and turntable. That’s what growing up a military brat in an integrated Air Force allowed Darden to do.

“When my father got promoted to lieutenant [in the late 1950s], he got a $25-a-month raise,” says Darden, 53, “and he went out and bought the first hifi our family ever bought. And he bought three LPs at, like, $2.95 each-Perry Como, a ‘movie themes,’ and Mahalia Jackson, who was very big at the time and was the first gospel artist to sell a million copies. And my parents said I played the Mahalia Jackson over and over, which is to my credit, ’cause I could have been listening to Perry Como.”

Another call in response to Darden’s essay came from investment banker Charles Royce-also white, but with no real affinity for black gospel music.

“What do we do to preserve this?” Royce asked.

“I don’t know,” Darden replied.

“Figure it out, and I’ll fund it,” Royce said.

Darden’s research led him to the Arhoolie Foundation, a nonprofit offshoot of roots label Arhoolie Productions Inc. The California-based foundation presides over the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and MexicanAmerican vernacular recordings, which it had been digitizing and putting online through the UCLA library’s Web site.

Darden’s proposal drew from the best of Arhoolie’s technology and practices, and Royce rewarded him with a $347,175 grant. The money supports an audio engineer, a cataloger, equipment, and acquisitions. Meanwhile, Baylor provides a modest studio space and archival area on the lower level of Moody Library-an apropos locale given Baylor’s Christian affiliation.

To date, Darden and crew have digitized roughly 750 recordings, as well as accompanying ephemera like photos, liner notes, and record jackets. A chunk of this can be accessed via the Digital Collections section of Baylor’s library Web site. So far, collectors have been generous with donations and loaners.

“We’re going to just exhaust the collectors-whatever they will let us use,” Darden says. “And then we’re going to go on the rabbit trails to try to track down the rest. If we exhaust them, we’ll go to the eBay auctions. Whatever we gotta do.”

Thanks to Thomas Dorsey and the Great Migration, Chicago is often considered the birthplace of gospel, but Texas and several native sons and daughters can also lay claim to being the first to infuse the blues with the Father, die Song, and the Holy Ghost.

One is Blind Willie Johnson, a fierce slide-guitarist whose voice sounds like a bullfrog with a three-pack-a-day habit. Between 1927 and 1930, the Marlin native recorded 30 known songs, including “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” and “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” which were later covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. Talk about universal appeal: Johnson’s slow burn of moans, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” was included on a record of essential sounds that astronomer Carl Sagan planted on Voyager 1 30 years ago for curious extraterrestrials.

Two other Texas gospel pioneers are Sherman’s Arizona Dranes and Simsboro’s Washington Phillips. Dranes was a blind female pianist in the barrelhouse style of Dorsey who recorded between 1926 and 1929. Phillips, who played zither (or dolceola, depending on whose story you believe), recorded between 1927 and 1929. Michael Corcoran unearthed the stories of these three musicians in All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (University of Texas Press).

Its not this black gospel music that concerns Robert Darden. “The ’20s, ’30s, and early ’40s stuff is safe because it’s free-it’s out of copyright,” he says. “It’s the stuff mat’s still in copyright that I’m scared about.”

A lot of people are already tracking down recordings in the public domain because there is money to be made off of them. Darden worries that no one is systematically tracking down post-World War II black gospel because a lot of it is embroiled in copyright disputes.

“At this point, people who own them are so worried about somebody else making money off what they have,” says Tony Tadey, audio engineer for the project. “But they don’t have any energy to do anything with it. So it’s like, well, you’re not going to make money off of it, and neither am I, so it’s just going to sit there. And as it sits there, it deteriorates and goes away.’

Darden adds, “Which is what the labels do, too. They don’t know what to do with it.”

Take Universal Music Group, owned by French conglomerate Vivendi SA. Through its acquisition of Geffen Records, Universal Music acquired the catalog of popular, Houston-based Peacock Records, a defunct label that recorded classic black gospel quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and The Sensational Nightingales. Universal has reissued only a handful of best-of CDs from the collection while the king’s ransom collects dust somewhere.

The Soul Stirrers and The Pilgrim Travelers, two acts originally hailing from Texas, also suffer from limited distribution-this despite innovating the quartet format. The Stirrers’ pre-Sam Cooke output on Aladdin Records is owned by Seagram, a Universal Music Group affiliate. The company didn’t know it possessed the Aladdin catalog, much less where it was, until collector friends of Darden’s tracked it down. Likewise, much of the Travelers’ output on Specialty Records hasn’t seen the light of day from Concord Music Group Inc., which obtained Specialty when Concord acquired Fantasy Records.

“They have released one best-of and two CDs of hundreds-maybe 200-sides that they own,” Darden says of a band that counted Lou Rawls among its ranks. “That’s it. The rest has sat in their catalog now for 30 years. Collectors have implored them. People have begged them. There’s not enough money they don’t think.”

Even so, for every recording from a major player that does resurface, mere are plenty by lesser-knowns that go by the wayside.
“I suspect there is a lot more to be found than we think,” says Robert Laughton, who along with Cedric Hayes has spent the last four decades compiling The Gospel Discography: 1943-1970, a 658-page compendium of gospel recordings from the era targeted by the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. “There are also new labels being discovered that we know nothing about.”

Darden seconds that emotion. Nothing in the first two boxes of stuff he got from a collector in Chicago was in the Laughton and Hayes book.

“I will die before we finish this project,” Darden says.