For the last dozen years, in the basement of a university library in Waco, Texas, a small team of audio engineers has been busy trying to save black gospel music. On a typical day, after delicately removing a scuffed vinyl record from its tattered sleeve, an engineer cleans the disc, places it onto a specialized turntable, and drops the needle. A moment later, an exhilarating music rises from the speakers, filling the small room with voices not heard in half a century. Once the song has come to an end, the audio file is loaded into a digital archive, and the record joins thousands of LPs and 45s that are stacked wall-to-wall in a climate-controlled room at Baylor University.
The current effort to preserve gospel recordings began in 2005, when Robert Darden, a journalism professor at Baylor, published an op-ed in The New York Times. He wrote that innumerable black gospel records, particularly from the â€œGolden Ageâ€ of the mid-1940s to the mid-70s, were at risk of being lost, whether because of damage or neglect. It was getting harder and harder to track down LPs of popular artists like the Soul Stirrers (who at one time featured a young Sam Cooke), to say nothing of 45s from largely obscure groups like the Gospel Kings of Portsmouth, Virginia. â€œIt would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,â€ Darden wrote. â€œIt would be a sin.â€
Soon after publishing the op-ed, Darden was contacted by an investment banker named Charles Royce. Royce confessed he didnâ€™t know much about gospel music, but the opinion piece had convinced him that preserving it was a worthwhile endeavor. â€œYou figure out how to save it,â€ he said, according to Darden. â€œSend me a plan, and Iâ€™ll pay for it.â€ …
Darden and other record collectors estimated that around 75 percent of all gospel vinyl released during the Golden Age was no longer available. The records had been completely lost, or only a few remaining copies were known to be in circulation. Darden was determined to know how many of these records could be found, and how many were lost for good.
After Darden came up with a plan to find and preserve these records, Royce provided a grant of $350,000. Darden got right to work, establishing the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, or BGMRP, in 2007. Inside a sound-isolated room in the basement of Baylorâ€™s Moody Library, gospel LPs, 45s, and 78s are cleaned, archived, and digitized by audio engineers, using state-of-the-art equipment. After each disc is processed, it becomes available to stream for free online, alongside any available original artwork and recording details.
One of the rare songs that Darden helped recover was â€œOld Ship of Zion,â€ recorded on a self-pressed 45 in the early 1970s by the Mighty Wonders, a group from Aquasco, Maryland. Darden recalls the first time he heard it: â€œOur engineer played it for me in the studio, and we both broke into tears.â€ Found in a box of miscellaneous 45s purchased on the East Coast, Darden spent the next five years trying to track down any information about it. During a public radio interview in Baltimore, a child of one of the original members of the group called in and introduced himself. Darden learned that the group itself didnâ€™t even own a copy. Now one of the BGMRPâ€™s most cherished finds, â€œOld Ship of Zionâ€ is featured in the gospel section of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
HT: John W. Brewer.