Baylor University’s Black Gospel Music Preservation Program has digitized more than 36,000 copies of classic black gospel songs, preserving them for future generations.
Previously on track to be lost forever, Baylor is pouring resources into a project that will ensure decades of the sacred music of Black Americans will outlive everyone reading this story.
The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (recently renamed The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program) began as a labor of love for Robert Darden (’76), a former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine and now a professor in the department of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University. An unabashed fan of gospel music since he was a child, Darden was an undergrad at Baylor in 1972, when he saw his first gospel concert. “It was Andraé Crouch and the Disciples,” he recalled. Decades later, Darden has come full circle and is writing Crouch’s definitive biography.
The author of three highly acclaimed books about gospel music, Darden was featured in an episode of historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS series, The Black Church. “It is one of the highlights of my life,” he said, and yes, Dr. Gates is just as “charming, sweet, and funny as you hope he is.”
Darden’s 2005 book People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music is a celebratory, carefully researched chronology of Black sacred music from its origins in Africa through early African American spirituals, from minstrel music to the jubilee, and from traditional to contemporary gospel. Frustrated that he couldn’t listen to a lot of the music he was writing about, he wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times in February 2005, titled “Gospel’s Got the Blues.”
Contemporary gospel, he wrote, was thriving. At the Grammy Awards, Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama had just performed a medley with a young Kanye West that included his gospel tinged hip-hop song, “Jesus Walks.” What troubled Darden was that while albums by Mahalia Jackson were easy to find on CD, thousands of tracks by less-known greats were unavailable. Much of it had been relegated to landfills or lost through neglect, attrition, or racism. Darden challenged music historians to get involved and preserve what was left before the master tapes deteriorated.
“It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he wrote. “It would be a sin.”
The Op-Ed caught the attention of New York businessman Charles M. Royce.
“You figure out how to do it, and I’ll pay for it,” he told Darden.
Pattie Orr, then Dean of Libraries, offered her support from day one. Orr had been a Macintosh computer specialist who oversaw customer support in I.T. when she was at Wellesley College so she knew what was required to preserve this sacred music for future generations.
“This project was a perfect fit for Baylor, a historically Christian university,” she said, “and we loved both the music and the message. Another university may not have taken on such a strongly Christian project.”
Once Orr was onboard, the challenge became finding as much of this sacred music as possible and digitizing it. Royce’s grant, in the neighborhood of about $360,000, was enough to get them started.
“We needed to pay a digitization engineer and someone who could take all the material off the album and jacket, label it, and put it in a form other scholars can use,” Darden said. “It’s a detailed craft.”
His mandate was the golden age of gospel music, which occurred between 1945 and 1975.
“The stuff from before the 1920s is out of copyright so it’s being reproduced, and anything after 1980 is starting to show up on CD, but music from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s has been nearly impossible to find,” Darden said.
With Orr on board, Darden knew just who to call for advice. In his old Billboard days, he had befriended Bob Marovich, a serious collector of gospel music. After hearing about the project, Marovich agreed to provide fifty pieces of vinyl from his personal collection every month, mostly 45s at first, then LPs, and, soon, 78s. Meanwhile, once word got around about what Baylor was doing, the vinyl started pouring in from donors all over the country.
The job of digitizing the music as it comes in falls to Darryl Stuhr, Director for Digitization, Digital Collections, and Digital Preservation Services at Baylor University Libraries, and his staff at the Riley Digitization Center. In 1999, he had been part of a brand-new group — a combination of library talent and information technology professionals who focused on web development, putting library resources online, digitizing materials that were in the special libraries and archives, and putting them in a system that became known as the “Electronic Library” where they could easily be accessed.
Once the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program gained traction, it began generating a lot of publicity, and in December of 2007, Darden was interviewed on NPR by Terry Gross, the host and executive producer of Fresh Air.
Then the money ran out.
“The next angel to step up,” said Darden, “was Ella Wall Prichard.
Prichard (’63) is a graduate of Baylor’s journalism department, former editor of the Baylor Lariat, former member of the Baylor Board of Regents, and avid supporter of projects across the university. She and her late husband, Lev, cherished Black music.
Once word got around about what Baylor was doing, the vinyl started pouring in from donors all over the country.
“He fell in love with it as a kid,” Ella said, “and when I read the Op-Ed Bob [Darden] wrote for The New York Times, I told my husband that I thought this project was something he’d be interested in.”
As it turned out, she was right. In 2008, while the couple was at Baylor on a college tour with their grandson, Lev paid an impromptu visit to Darden, hoping to hear some of the music Darden’s project had been acquiring. The experience was enough to convince Lev to support the project with a generous contribution that year. By then his health was failing, and when he died in 2009, his children, who are on the board of their small family foundation, decided to create an endowment to honor their father’s memory. Their generosity and support didn’t stop there.
Recently, Ella made a few changes to her will, which had included a bequest of a million dollars to the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program her husband supported so enthusiastically.
“There’s a lot of longevity in my family, so I could live to be a hundred,” she said. “By then everyone involved in the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program could be gone.”
So, she talked to her attorney to see if it was possible to do something now, such as funding a chair at Baylor for the study of Black worship. It was, though the cost was quite a bit more than she’d set aside. Her family foundation made up the difference, and an anonymous donor matched the entire amount. Now, Baylor is collecting old tapes with sermons by the great Black pastors and digitizing them.
“The university is working on becoming a major repository for the archives of Black preachers and Black churches,” said Prichard. “Who knows where this will lead, but it’s broad enough to allow for expansion beyond what can be measured at the moment.”
Pondering the confluence of events that allowed this project to take flight —Darden’s Op-Ed, which inspired Charles Royce to provide the seed money, and then Lev’s decision to accompany Ella to Baylor where he listened to this sacred music and decided that it was worth preserving — Ella is convinced that the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program was “providence rather than coincidence” and that Baylor was the right place for it to happen.
“This music, the foundation for all popular Black music, is our original American music.” Darden agreed with her.
“This music is a narrative we can’t replace any other way,” he said. “At a time when African Americans had only a handful of newspapers, they had music, which has become an irreplaceable transcript of history.”
Since American enslaved people were forbidden to read or write, many of the spirituals from the pre-Civil War era are what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls “double-voiced myths.” Listen closely to spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water,” Darden said. He points out that they contain coded messages that provided secret information to enslaved workers. On the surface, “Steal Away to Jesus” means to follow the teachings of Christ, but it’s also a call to action, urging then-enslaved people to steal away, say, to a place where they could learn to read or to a meeting about a planned uprising. In 1831, Nat Turner used this song to organize his followers in Southampton, Virginia.
What Darden has discovered since working with scholars on this project is that a disproportionate number of gospel artists recording in the 1960s were devoted to the Civil Rights movement. So, they might be singing about Jesus on the A-side of those 45s, but on the flip side, hiding in plain sight as it were, was another song calling for equal rights, such as “Ain’t No Segregation in Heaven” and “I Believe Martin Luther King Was Right.” This would have been a bold move for a Black artist living in the segregated South.
This music is the foundation for all Black popular music, which is our original American music.
-Ella Wall Prichard
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture was still in the planning stages, Darden and Baylor’s Associate Vice President Tim Logan flew to Washington, D.C., to make their pitch.
“We told them that we had the largest collection of Black gospel music we knew of and that we’d be happy to provide any materials they needed. They were delighted,” Darden said.
Before the official opening in 2016, Darden and Pattie Orr were invited to visit the museum where the sacred music they rescued from obscurity is housed along with jazz and blues on the fifth floor. One of the tracks you can listen to is “Old Ship of Zion” sung by The Mighty Wonders from Bob Marovich’s collection. “I think of it as the mascot of the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program,” he said. “When Bob Darden and one of his engineers heard it for the first time, they were so moved that they cried.”
Pattie Orr retired in 2017, and in 2020 Jeffry Archer became Dean of Libraries. His wife, Abigail Lawson, who is African American, is also a gospel singer, and the couple attends services at a church in Waco where gospel music is an essential part of the worship experience. So, it’s not surprising that his vision was always to enlarge the project as a whole.
This past November, with funds from The Moody Foundation and the Dean’s Excellence Fund, the Black Gospel Archive & Listening Center at Moody Memorial Library became a reality. Described as a state-of-the-art home for Black gospel research, it features a soundproof listening booth with a turntable and high-end speakers, a keyboard for playing along with recordings, computer access to the digital archives, and an open library space where colorful posters, album covers, and black-and-white photographs from gospel’s golden age are prominently displayed.
One of those photographs was taken at a tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt outside his home in Hyde Park, New York, on May 11, 1941, where a baritone soloist from Waco named Jules Bledsoe and a backing choir performed “Ode to America,” a song he wrote. Two years later, Bledsoe was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, his music largely forgotten.
Horace J. Maxile, Jr., Associate Professor of Music Theory and a nationally respected expert on Black composers, plans to change all that. Shortly after joining the faculty at Baylor, he visited the Jules Bledsoe archive in Baylor’s famed Texas Collection, where he discovered boxes of music, letters, and original compositions, including the libretto for an opera. Maxile is still working his way through the Bledsoe archives with the hopes of bringing this forgotten chapter of history to life.
Archer, who is committed to the retention and graduation rates of under-represented students, hopes that by creating a space where students of color see representations of themselves, this will provide a connection to Baylor that didn’t exist before. He also envisions a “Spotify for Black gospel music” with tracks from the collection.
“We’ve got 30,000 tracks right now that are available for streaming,” he said. “Come to Baylor, and you can hear them in our listening booth.”
If Ella Wall Prichard is the angel Robert Darden believes her to be, she has certainly earned her wings. In 1996, she and her husband created an endowment to fund the Pruit Memorial Symposium to bring the perspective of Christian intellectual tradition to contemporary issues of common concern. Since 2013, in conjunction with the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program, the annual symposium has focused on the tradition of Black sacred music. The three-day event includes presentations, panel discussions, and stirring performances by major gospel artists. Plans are already underway for the 2023 symposium, which Darden envisions as the capstone of his long career.
“This will be my last symposium before I retire, and it will feature Andraé Crouch and the Disciples,” he said. Another full-circle moment for Darden, who likes to say that if there was a Mount Rushmore of Gospel, Andraé Crouch would be carved in stone right beside Mahalia Jackson.
Sadly, Crouch died in 2018, but a few of his backup singers and soloists will perform, and there will be a lively discussion about his arrangements, which are still the gold standard in the industry.
Black sacred music, which has lived at the intersection of all pieces of Black life — theology, worship, history, legacy, and society — for generations on generations, is firmly rooted in the hymnals of the early 19th century intended for use in Black worship, but the definition has expanded to include praise and worship songs, and blues to hip-hop. While Darden would like to take some of the credit for the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program, he believes, as Prichard does, that divine providence had more to do with it than anything.
“God believes that this music and these messages have transformed nations and lives and hearts, and it’s important that people ten to one hundred years from now get to hear it,” Darden said.