Monday, May 30, 2011

Black Gospel Music and the Civil Rights Movement

More than 75% of the gospel vinyl released between 1940 and 1970, the “Golden Age of Gospel Music,” is unavailable in any format. The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, seeks to preserve the remaining African American gospel recordings from this period and to create the definitive online encyclopedia of gospel music. Many of the recordings preserved by the BGMRP were either recorded live at local radio stations, or were produced by small, obscure producers now out of business or bought up by larger recording labels. Working with other universities and private collectors, the BGMRP has digitized, scanned, and cataloged more than 2500 previously unavailable 78s, 45s, and LPs, making the BGMRP the largest single repository of black gospel music.

The BGMRP grew out of the research of Baylor University professor Robert Darden, author of People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continum 2004). In working on People Get Ready, Darden learned that much of the music from gospel’s golden age was missing. Darden, a lifelong gospel music enthusiast, was writing about music he had never heard. In 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, “Gospel’s Got the Blues” (February 15, 2005). New York businessman Charles Royce read Darden’s editorial and offered to fund a digitization project. The BGMRP is physically housed in the Ray I. Riley Digitization Center at Moody Memorial Library on the Baylor University campus in Waco. Because of copyright restrictions, off-campus online access to the collection is currently limited to 30-second samples of the music. A select group of music clips are also available through Baylor University’s iTunes U.

The BGMRP preserves the music of an era when gospel music and civil rights were, as Darden notes, “indelibly linked.” Gospel music provided an important accompaniment to the sit-ins, marches, and voter registration drives of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement’s most significant song “We Shall Overcome” was reworked in part from an old Baptist hymn. The album Freedom Highway recorded by the Staple Singers, featuring Mavis Staples, was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and dedicated to the freedom marchers.

Other resources:
Goodrich, Terry. "Researcher Finds Civil Rights Songs on Flip Side of Gospel Records." Associated Baptist Press, February 3, 2011.

"Gospel Music Historian Robert Darden." Fresh Air, National Public Radio (air date: December 20, 2007).

Norris, Michelle. "A History of Gospel Music." All Things Considered, National Public Radio (air date: December 17, 2004).


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