Robert Darden has written more than two dozen books on subjects ranging from the Branch Davidian siege to editorial cartoons to the faith of corporate executives. He was, for 10 years, senior editor of The Wittenburg Door, the self-proclaimed “world’s pretty much only religious satire magazine.” But Darden’s two latest books, and another one that will be published next year, focus on black gospel music, a genre that captured his attention when he was 6 and is the basis of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project — a project that, he says, will outlive him.
Darden came to Waco in 1972 to attend Baylor University, and that’s where he is today, as a professor in the department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media, where he has taught since 2006. He previously taught in the English Department as well as in the Department of Film and Digital Media. Before Baylor, Darden was the entertainment editor at the Waco Tribune-Herald. He and his wife, Mary, got married on 8/8/88, and Darden’s son, Van, is managing editor at KSAT-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Antonio.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, after Darden had taught his second class of the day — Reporting and Writing for the Media — Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley, a fellow Baylor faculty member, walked the 14 steps that separate their offices. There, they talked about Darden’s latest book, “Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement,” published by Pennsylvania State University Press. Darden and Tankersley also talked about the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, an effort spearheaded by Darden to obtain a copy of every black gospel song recorded during the golden age of that music, from about 1945 to 1975. The project really got off the ground when a businessman with no previous connection to Baylor read Darden’s op-ed piece in The New York Times and was inspired to offer a generous donation.
WACOAN: The title of your latest book, ‘Nothing but Love In God’s Water,’ is a volume one. That suggests that there’s at least a volume two or more.
Darden: There’s only a volume two, and it comes out in, I think, September, maybe October.
WACOAN: Where does the first volume end, and where does the second pick up?
Darden: [The first volume] begins with the advent of the spirituals as protest songs with the Civil War, and it ends with the Montgomery bus boycott. Volume two picks up with the sit-in movement and the freedom rides, then it ends with [Martin Luther] King Jr.’s death and Resurrection City [protest in Washington, D.C. in 1968].
The final chapter, actually, which is not chronological, takes it up to today with all of the freedom movements around the country and around the world, where freedom songs are being sung. I’ve got clips of it being sung on the Berlin Wall and in the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. I’ve got pictures of people in Lebanon and Egypt singing in English — non-Christian, non-black people singing these same freedom songs.
[There’s a] wonderful story of the Tibetan women’s soccer team on the BBC [‘Soccer Nuns,’ June 6, 2015]. In refugee camps in India, [these women] decided they were going to form a soccer team to play in FIFA and the Women’s World Cup. [The camps are] horrible. There are rapes. They’re playing barefoot in the snow on fields that are slanted in the Himalayas. They play and play, and they get some games against teams there in India, and they win. They apply with FIFA to play, and at the last minute, FIFA says, ‘No. China has blocked you.’ The BBC reporters are there, and these women, these tiny Tibetan women who have been through so much as refugees, form a circle and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and get on the bus singing and drive off with [the reporter] standing there with a microphone. I said, ‘That’s a powerful moment. That’s incredible.’ I play that when I speak as proof that this thing transcends singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Birmingham, [Alabama]. It’s part of a much longer continuum.
The thesis of the whole [book] is these [songs] continue because they work. Every time it happens, it just brings me to tears. These songs have been forged in blood and pain through all these centuries. Of course they work. I just never thought about it until I started seeing it happening.
Somebody called it an apostolic succession, that even the black people who don’t know they know [the song], know it. It’s there waiting for them when they need it. All these murders of young black people the last few years. At every funeral, [these songs are] being sung. Generations after the civil rights movement, this stuff still has a power and a transcendence that I’m barely just getting my mind around.
WACOAN: In addition to ‘We Shall Overcome,’ what other songs have lasted and made that transition from spiritual to protest song?
Darden: The one that was actually sung more — because ‘We Shall Overcome’ was almost always sung at the end, and it’s the only one that doesn’t have a lot of clapping — was ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.’ Also ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’ which is actually an old labor song.
I was fascinated to find out when the labor movement finally allows African-Americans in, in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, labor has a 200-year history of singing. There’s [laborer and singer/songwriter] Joe Hill. But when they finally allow blacks in, two things kind of merge, and it gives power and new life to both of them. A lot of old spirituals — ‘In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning’ becomes ‘In That Great Union Morning.’ They’re sung on picket lines and being sung in prison. They’re being sung [while] being shot at by American troops on the Flint bridge in Michigan.
I’ve heard ‘Before I’ll Be a Slave, I’ll Be Placed Down in My Grave’ sung. The old ‘Gospel Plow’ is still sung in various forms. Those are the four I hear the most, even now. They’ve all got great melodies and kind of a beat, so they’re easy to teach and sing.
WACOAN: Who is the audience for this book and for volume 2?
Darden: As you know, I don’t come from an academic background. But at the same time, this is an academic press. So every word in there is endnoted.
But you can take the journalist out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the journalist.
I still think I write, as I did for so many books before this one, for a more general audience. I don’t think I’m writing too academically. It’s as accurate as I can make it. There are thousands of footnotes. I’m more interested, as an old journalist, that people understand what I say. I really work on that side of it.
It’s being used as a textbook, from what the publisher tells me, in ethnomusicology classes, in music classes and in American history — particularly African-American history — classes. I hope with volume two that people who love the story of this country and who love this music will find it as accessible as I tried to make it.
WACOAN: Before this, you wrote one other book on black gospel music, ‘People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music.’
Darden: That’s a general history, from the spirituals to 2006. It’s the history of gospel music, of which [the music covered in ‘Nothing but Love’] was just a fleeting mention. Black sacred music as protest music is [another] subset.
WACOAN: Where does your love of black gospel music come from?
Darden: I have to defer to my parents on that. They’ve both passed, but when the first book came out, people asked that question. I would show up for book signings and be white and surprise the black bookstore owner.
When my dad got promoted to captain in the Air Force (this would have been in 1960), I would have been 6 years old. He got a raise and went out and bought our first little rinky-dinky hi-fi [record] player and six discs: Perry Como, movie themes and Mahalia Jackson’s Christmas album. And my parents said that I played the Mahalia Jackson [album], at age 6, over and over. And Mary says that I’ve spent the last 55 years trying to get that same thrill from hearing [Jackson’s] voice for the first time.
Then growing up in the Air Force, which was integrated long before the rest of the country. The Air Force was founded integrated, unlike every other [branch of the military]. My friends were black, and I was in and out of their houses, and that was the music their moms were playing. And not just gospel. Soul music — which was big, and it’s the same thing [but singing about] girls instead of God — and R&B. And the artists move back and forth [between gospel and soul]. The first concert I ever went to was a gospel concert.
WACOAN: Who was it?
Darden: Andrae Crouch and the Disciples.
WACOAN: I love Andrae Crouch and the Disciples.
Darden: It was at Waco Hall. I was in the balcony, and I was so worried that the second coming [of Christ] was going to happen before the concert was over, believe it or not. I was so into it. I wanted to hear the end of it, and I felt this feeling that the second coming was coming, and I wanted to at least finish out the show.
First disc I bought was soul. I couldn’t find gospel, but I could find soul in Japan, where we were living at the time. But Mahalia was big in Japan, so I could find her there.
WACOAN: Where all did you live, growing up as an Air Force kid?
Darden: I was born in Salina, Kansas, at Smoky Hill Air Force Base [now Schilling Air Force Base]. Went to Riverside, California. We go to Spokane, Washington, to Fairchild Air Force Base, for several years. Dad goes to Air Command and Staff College [at Maxwell Air Force Base] in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1967. The worst year of my life. We lived in Prattville, Alabama. Having seen the world, and I show up in Prattville in sixth grade with long hair — that was unpleasant. It was 20 miles outside of Selma, [Alabama]. From there to Japan for three years. Dad gets sent to Vietnam, so we live with my grandmother in Woodville, Texas. Then he gets sent to the Pentagon for six years, so we move to Alexandria, Virginia.
Then I go to Baylor. He never visits Baylor the four years I’m here. Both my brother and sister attend. Then he ends his career as base commander at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, which is where I had my first newspaper internship.
WACOAN: What drew you to Baylor? You were in high school in Alexandria?
Darden: I went to three high schools. I went back to Woodville for my senior year. I made better, quicker friends there than I did going to Alexandria. Mount Vernon High School [in Virginia] was bigger than [the town of] Woodville. Everybody was lovely to me. But three schools in three years. Freshman year I was in Japan. That’s a tough age to reinvent yourself.
There were people I admired a great deal in Woodville who were going to Baylor. I think 14 kids went [to Baylor]. I had the best teachers in the world. They loved me. To this day, I stay in touch [with some of them]. I graduated in ’76.
WACOAN: So you’ve been in Waco since ’72?
Darden: No, I went to grad school from ’76 to ’78 at [University of North Texas]. Then a year in England from ’86 to ’87 on a Rotary [International] fellowship.
Then the five years in San Antonio [2010 to 2015]. Mary got a job as dean at Concordia University [San Antonio Center], and I teach [at Baylor] two days a week. I would come up [to Waco] on Tuesday morning and then go back Thursday night. It nearly killed me. That last year was as hard a thing as I ever did, particularly when I would drive back on Thursday night.
WACOAN: After your dad brought home that record player and you listened to Mahalia Jackson, when did you go from being a casual fan to being interested in it from another, deeper standpoint?
Darden: Good question. Nobody’s ever asked that.
It built and built. I wanted to write about music at a very young age. I started writing for the [Baylor] Lariat. At North Texas, I became one of the music critics for the old Dallas Times Herald. And they sent me to the worst dives I’ve ever been to listen to music. I nearly got killed at a couple.
The Sportatorium, on the far south side of Dallas?
WACOAN: Oh, yeah. At Cadiz Street and Industrial Boulevard. There used to be professional wrestling there, with the Von Erichs.
Darden: Yeah. Then I started writing about music and had regular columns. This is what I wanted to do. I’ve been in bands since Japan, seventh grade. Always drums. Trying to make music. But the bands I wanted to be in were generally R&B-type, which is easy in the military since there were so many black kids who sang and played. It’s what I liked writing about the most.
I get to the Trib in ’78, and after the mandatory stint as the nighttime police beat reporter, which was actually a lot of fun, I eventually wormed my way into doing more and more music. And then the guy who had been there, Craig Boate, left, and it just became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to [write about] this. With Word Records being here, with 70 percent of the Christian music industry, I began writing about Word for small magazines, like Christian Retailer Today. I would spend $50 on phone calls and get paid $40. [Word Records founder] Jarrell McCracken, who was my Sunday school teacher, would say, ‘I’m bringing in Shirley Caesar. I know you’re a fan. Do you want to interview her?’ So I interviewed people.
When Billboard magazine decided to add a weekly gospel music column, they opened it up. They said, ‘If you want to be this columnist, send us a sampling of your clips.’ I had [written articles about] merchandising, marketing, sales, as well as interviews with artists. Apparently, other people sent in mostly artist interviews. But Billboard covers everything. They took a chance. I was in my late 20s, and I became the youngest columnist for Billboard magazine. It was supposed to be mostly contemporary Christian, because those were the [labels] buying the ads at the time, and some black gospel, because they bought less ads. My interest was [gospel], so I wrote more and more gospel. I would do Amy Grant, then do two on the Mighty Clouds of Joy. I would do Sandi Patty, then I would do two on Shirley Caesar. The more I heard it, the more I was around it, the more obsessed I became.
So I began writing more articles of a different nature for bigger magazines and realizing that there was a niche here for somebody to write about this and kind of become the go-to guy. It just never stopped.
Then I never got to write about it, except for magazine articles, because I moved into books. I left the Trib in ’86 to do that Rotary fellowship [in England]. I had no job other than that weekly Billboard column. I came back, my first wife had left. There weren’t any jobs in town. There was only one newspaper. I couldn’t leave because Van was here and I would lose custody. He was only 3 or 4, so I didn’t want to do that. I said [to myself], ‘Let’s see, big guy, if you can do this.’ I went full time freelancing at that time.
As you know, as a freelancer, you only get to eat what you kill. I got an agent fairly quickly, who I still have, and we would figure out what we thought was going to sell. And I’d write a book proposal and sample chapters, spend months on things. He would send it out. Sometimes I would have three or four proposals out at any given time. A couple of years I had three books at the same time. But the only other thing I was doing back then was the Billboard weekly column.
Then I started teaching a class or two for professional writing and film and digital media [at Baylor], but never journalism.
Then The Wittenburg Door called a year later, and I became senior editor of it. It paid terribly, but it paid enough to cover the rent. I cobbled together a living, but I never got to write much about gospel, which is always what I wanted to write about.
So when Baylor called in ’99, I was teaching virtually full time in professional writing and film. The industry had changed, and a lot of the big publishing houses had been sold. I wasn’t getting the number of books or the type of books I wanted to do. And the pay had dropped, from a $25,000 advance to $6,000. I just couldn’t make a living. I was going to let Baylor know that I was going to look for a full-time job, and they got nervous because the professional writing program had just exploded over there. They offered to let me go on tenure track. I couldn’t work as a lecturer in English because I didn’t have a Ph.D. But I could go on tenure track [in journalism] without a Ph.D. because of the books I had done.
The first thing I did after I got a full-time job that paid something at the end of every month, I met with [my agent] Jeff Herman and said, ‘I need to get published to get tenure. I’d like to keep this. This is a sweet gig.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ [I said] I wanted to write about gospel music. We did some research, and there wasn’t a book out at the time on the whole history. There are plenty of great books on pieces of it. He said, ‘If you want to take a shot, I think we can sell that.’ My tenure book was ‘People Get Ready,’ which was the first chronological, historical [book] trying to cover the history of gospel from the earliest spirituals and work songs to, at the time, Kirk Franklin.
WACOAN: With that book, what was the research process? You had quite a bit of anecdotal knowledge about the subject, but this was different.
Darden: This was way different. I decided I was going to go back to the earliest stuff I could go to — the Library of Congress and everywhere I could go to get the earliest documents that mentioned spirituals and follow that through to the earliest documents that mention gospel. There’s nobody living [from that era], so I tried to trace it as much as I could to original sources and original music. It wasn’t so easy with the music until later.
Then when it gets into the modern days, I tried to do as many original interviews as I could, which turned out to be impossible. I tried to find as many black newspapers who had interviewed these people. That didn’t help.
I ended up doing a lot of research in the communist and socialist newspapers. They were the only people writing about the labor movement, and some of the best stuff I found came out of The Daily Worker, where they would go to a concert in New York City and talk about [the singer] Lead Belly and talk about The Golden Gate Quartet and what they sang and what they were trying to accomplish. They had actual interviews when nobody else was doing them.
Then as it got to more modern times, I could use my Billboard connections and start calling some of the living [singers] — Albertina Walker [known as ‘Queen of Gospel Music’] and the folks who started the early days of gospel. The earliest people were dead, from the Thomas Dorsey era. The people who followed them, who knew them, were still alive. And I cobbled together as best I could some kind of paper trail to take it from here to there.
And [I had] the same problem in [‘Nothing but Love’]. There ain’t nobody left and not many left from the Montgomery bus boycott. But volume two is much heavier on actual interviews and oral histories that somebody had the presence of mind [to record]. For the first time, somebody takes a little tape recorder and puts in a church at a protest march so we can actually hear what they sounded like.
That was fabulous, to go to Chicago, [Illinois,] and Birmingham and Memphis, [Tennessee,] and sit down in little tiny homes and hear the people tell me and sing to me, which was amazing. We were sitting just there bawling like babies as these 80-year-old quartet men stood there and sang every [song] they remember and [told us] what they sang and what day and why they sang it and why it mattered. Treasured memories.
WACOAN: Those little homes in the deep South, were you always welcomed, since you and Mary are —
Darden: Very white.
Whenever I could, I would use somebody to stand for me — [I’d say] I had done an interview with so-and-so, and I’d like to [interview] this person. Would you represent that I’m on the up and up? Would you mind serving as an introduction for me? And where I couldn’t, I would always start with a long letter telling them what I was doing, send them a copy of a book, tell them what I wanted to do. I would show that I would give them full credit. If they wanted to use any of this for their oral history, they could.
Sometimes, it wouldn’t [work]. In Chicago, it was really hard. Chicago is just so big and so split that it just didn’t work as well. We spent days sitting there waiting for people to return calls. And Chicago didn’t even welcome [King]. Only a few pastors supported him. The rest of them were in [Mayor Richard J.] Daley’s camp.
In Birmingham, Mary and I would do interviews. I took Mary everywhere, partly because she’s better technologically than I am, and partly because with Mary there, it’s just not threatening. And with some of the women who have been abused and mistreated, having another woman there, I think, made them feel much more comfortable. Mary is a hugger, and when she meets somebody for the first time [she says], ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’ They would make immediate connections. We would do a great interview, and the guy would say, ‘Well, this was fun, but you know who you should have talked to? You should have talked to old so-and-so. He was there. I’ll bet he’s down at the restaurant.’ And he would call [the man] and say, ‘I’ve got a couple of white people here. They want to talk about this. You got a minute?’ We would gather our stuff and run across town and sit in these wonderful diners, which are terrible for taping [interviews] and find this ancient person who was still working (as most of them were) who would say, ‘I was there that day. Here’s what happened. Here’s what I sang.’ Then I would say, ‘Who would you suggest I talk to?’
WACOAN: During all this time, I assume you’re collecting record albums.
Darden: Yes, collecting records.
Let me back up a little bit. What sparked this book [‘Nothing but Love’] was the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. We’re getting records coming in every day. We’re seeing [some of] them for the first time. I’m flipping them over from the hit A side and looking at the B side, and there’s a civil rights-related song. I didn’t know that, and I’m kind of an expert.
I check with the big collectors, and I said, ‘Do you know what percentage of these have civil rights-related songs on the back?’ They’d say, ‘No way.’ I would tell them about it, and we started putting together a list, and real quickly, we found 60, [then] 100 songs, not by major artists, necessarily, but by really obscure artists.
All of a sudden, I realized there’s this connection. These are on the B side, the non-hit side, so not only do most DJs not know, but most black people aren’t going to know, and no white people are going to know this.
It’s like the old spirituals they would sing in front of the white overseers, not realizing they were giving each other information on how to escape, how to read. ‘Double-voicing’ is what the technical term is. Here they are again. At that moment, I thought that maybe there really is a continuum here.
Baylor brought Taylor Branch, the great civil rights historian of the King years, [who wrote] the Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, and I got to take him around campus and spend an afternoon with him. I sat him down and told him just about what I just told you. I said, ‘Is there enough here to do a book?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I got his books out and looked at them, and he had in over three massive volumes [‘Parting the Waters,’ ‘Pillar of Fire’ and ‘At Canaan’s Edge’] lots of mentions [of music], maybe a hundred or more. Then I got Mahalia Jackson’s autobiography, which covers the same time, and she has over 300 mentions, most of which [Branch] didn’t have, about individual things she did, movements she supported, money she gave, politicians she lobbied as the most powerful black woman in America and the most influential gospel artist of any kind. I was thinking that maybe there is more here.
Coincidently, a month later David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights [author] spoke at a three-day conference. He and I were the two featured guys, and we had a lot of time off, and we just hung out. I laid out what I had found out so far, and he also blessed it. He said, ‘I think there’s a bigger story here.’
With those two [blessings], I began to research. As the music has come in, I can’t quantify how much, if any impact, it had, but all it did was prove to me there is this continuity, which events in the real world have proven to be true, but I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know they had sung it at the Berlin Wall until I went back to the old CNN footage. Beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed guys with sledgehammers singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ standing on the wall. That gave me chills. That’s how that got from here to there. One thing led me to believe another, and then as I started interviewing the people, finding out how they used the music.
Then the thing that cinched it for us was on our first trip to Birmingham, very early (probably too early). I didn’t have enough research done to ask the right questions. They would tell me about the nightly mass meetings, during the worst of everything, with the dogs and the hoses, and they said, ‘Well, we would get there about 2 or 3 in the afternoon because you couldn’t get a seat if you waited too late. And we’d start singing. We’d bring lunches. Then it would start about 7. Then we would sing. Then [Fred] Shuttlesworth or somebody would say that he needed 15 people arrested at noon tomorrow downtown. Need a hundred people arrested here, and give us instructions for the next day. He would speak for 15 or 20 minutes, then King or Shuttlesworth or [Ralph] Abernathy would give the sermon.’ And he would give three or four of these in a night in three or four churches. Same sermon. Then they would sing for two more hours, and they would leave singing.’ I said, ‘Let me get this straight. The most important moment in black history, a spear point of history, you’ve got three hours, and you’re spending two of them singing. Why?’ They always said the same thing: ‘We had to. We had to. It had built us up when we were at our lowest. When we were so angry we wanted to go out and kill somebody, it calmed us down.’
One of the great honors of my life, I did an interview with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the legendary John Lewis, who is one of my heroes. He’s on the House floor, and [his staff member] said, ‘Go ahead and call him. He’s waiting for a vote. We’ve got 15 or 20 minutes. You can talk to him right now.’ I called, and [Lewis] answers the phone, and it’s like talking to God. His voice is so incredibly low and burnished and rich. I said, ‘It’s such an honor. Did your staff vet you on what I was going to ask you so you would know what I was calling about?’ He says, ‘Young man, black sacred music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the civil rights movement.’ I got shivers. He nailed it. Then we talked about what he sang and where and why and why it was important. And the book just opened up from there. I could hardly write and interview people fast enough.
I would go to people who were on the front lines in Selma and Birmingham and other places and ask them questions. At the end of the interview they would start crying. I said, ‘What’s up?’
They said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever asked. Nobody’s thought that what I had [to say] had any [importance]. My kids think I’m boring. I needed to tell somebody.’ Then Mary and I would go back to the bed-and-breakfast, and we would cry. It’s such an honor and a privilege to capture [these stories].
I worked with Baylor’s Institute for Oral History, and they provided the gorgeous NPR-style recording machine. In exchange, they transcribed all of my interviews and the original tapes and transcripts stayed there, open to anybody who wants to hear them. And they’re just now starting to put them online.
Then it became, to be honest, kind of a crusade. I wanted to [interview] everybody that I could find. Other books I’ve done in a year, six months. Three months in one case, the Branch Davidian one [‘Mad Man in Waco’]. Ten years on this [‘Nothing but Love’ and its sequel].
It didn’t start out being two volumes. It started out being one, but when I got to Montgomery, I was already pushing the word count, and volume two is going to be a third again bigger. By this point, [the publisher] trusted me. This one is 75,000 [words]. Volume 2 is going to be 125,000. The two will be over 200,000. It’s going to be massive. But we didn’t know that. It just kept going.
WACOAN: Meanwhile, all this time you’re collecting albums. What turned your collection into the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project?
Darden: The project started before the book. The project started in 2006. In 2005, the editorial in The New York Times ran. We got the money but didn’t really start until late in 2006. ‘People Get Ready’ came out in 2005. Within a year of that, I started getting enough discs to start seeing the pattern.
WACOAN: Where did that money come from?
Darden: When The New York Times [op-ed] piece came out, a gentleman named Charles Royce of New York City called and said, ‘I think you’re right. I don’t know you, and I don’t know anything about gospel music. I’m an Episcopalian. But you figure out how to save it, and I’ll send you the money.’
The next day, I went to the [Baylor] library and told them what the guy said, and they said they would figure it out. While they were working on the plans for the studio and computers and stuff, the guy sent me $10,000 and said to go where I needed to go to see where this is being done.
I went out to [University of California,] Berkeley, to see where the Arhoolie [Frontera] Collection is working with UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] to save Mexican-American music. They do it on a very stripped-down, bare bones [basis]. I came back and [the Baylor library personnel] imagined it as big and as good as it can be. That’s good money, and the studio only cost $25,000. And [we wanted] to hire the right engineers and the right catalogers. And Baylor, step by step, has taken it over as the grant has run out. They’ve put people in those positions.
I have to believe that they’ve caught the vision and it’ll continue because it brings scholars and attention to Baylor from people around the world and around the country. They come in regularly because we’ve got [the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project]. Nobody else has got it. There are other collectors who may have more than we have, but nobody’s got it digitized. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process.
WACOAN: How did you get the word out, and who was sending you these records?
Darden: It’s part of the God thing. As word got out, it got out miraculously quickly for something that was really just starting. I was on nearly every major NPR program, from ‘Talk of the Nation’ to ‘All Things Considered’ to the big one, Terry Gross and ‘Fresh Air.’ When that happens, people would find records. We had gotten the money, and we [said we] would pay for the shipping and the insurance, and we would pay to send [the record] back. And if they wanted, we would make them a CD. Now we make them an MP3. We don’t want to keep their vinyl. We just want to harvest [the songs].
But more importantly, several major collectors heard and said, ‘Look, you can’t have my stuff, but if you want to make one copy and give me back my originals.’ The first guy to call was Bob Marovich, who has probably the largest collection of gospel 45s in the world. He said, ‘I want to be a part of this. I don’t want them to just sit here in my warehouse.’ For the last 10 years, he’s been sending 50 at a time. We record them and send them back. Now we have the largest digital collection. He has the largest physical collection. And other collectors were inspired.
Then I go out, like I did to Spin Connection [in Waco], and [the owner] knows what I’m looking for and saves them for me. There’s a heavy metal shop in San Antonio, Hog Wild Records, that I went and talked to, and my son went and talked to. [The owner] said he buys estates and pulls out the heavy metal and trashes or sells the other stuff. [He said,] ‘For you, I’ll save the gospel.’ He called a year later and said, ‘I’ve got 12 LPs. You want ‘em?’ They’re wonderful. They’re all local groups. They’re the most hard things to find. I said, ‘What do I owe you for this?’ He said, ‘Well, I should be making a profit on this. I am a businessman, after all. A dollar a disc. Is that OK?’
A guy found a hundred [phonograph] cylinders, the oldest, and gave them to us. And I already broke one of them. They’re wax. Just a little bit of variation in temperature, and you play it once, and they crumble. We don’t play the [other] ones we have. We’re waiting for the technology [to access the music another way].
WACOAN: Will this project ever be finished?
There was a documentary filmmaker who came out a couple of years ago, and the theme of his documentary, which hasn’t come out yet, is projects that will outlive their creators. [He interviewed] the people who started CETI [Communication with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence]. When he called, I was both flattered and little unnerved. I thought, ‘I’ll be dead and gone, and we won’t have half of this music.’
It disappears every day, but new stuff is found every day. I hope to endow it in such a way and work with the people at Baylor and the library — because it’s all the library. When that money came to me, the $350,000, I didn’t go over to the development [department]. I went to the libraries.
The libraries are Switzerland — they are everybody’s friend and everybody’s ally. They do all the work.
I get the TV time, but they’re the ones who do the digitizing and cataloging and all the work that this requires. This [work] is on top of their own jobs. The spirit of this has spread to them as well. I hope it continues long after I’m gone.
WACOAN: What’s your biggest find, either in the project or the book?
Darden: In the book, the biggest find was twofold. To find out what nobody had written about, that the unions and the spirituals had come together and played such an important part in Montgomery. Many of the people in Montgomery had come from the labor movement. Bayard Rustin had been in the labor movement. He had a record of spirituals. He sang labor songs. And after singing with Lead Belly, he becomes King’s right-hand man, and so very quickly the music becomes part of Montgomery, which is not part of the standard text. But when you start looking for music and not for politics or people or things, it’s there. Just nobody else wanted to write about it.
And the second one was the importance of music to Montgomery. Everybody talks about the freedom songs later, but nobody talked about the marching people singing. But they did. And they sang in the churches, and they sang a lot. The freedom songs evolved.
That’s where the black gospel music project — every day or so, music comes in, and most of the time they call me, and I go over there, and we open the box together. It’s like Christmas.
I don’t mind not knowing all the artists. There are a lot of artists out there. Some of them only made 25 copies [of a record]. What scares me is every time I pick one up and I don’t know the record label. That means that we don’t have it and nobody has it. We don’t know if we have 1 percent or 10 percent [of the music]. Of our 20,000-something songs we’ve digitized, I don’t know. Nobody’s done a catalog like there is for jazz and blues.
But we found one very early on called ‘Old Ship of Zion’ by the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland. It’s a little village in Maryland. In what was really tough times in the Civil War, several plantations there had bad reputations, and during the civil rights movement it was a bad place. It was near Cambridge, and there was some blood spilled there. These Mighty Wonders, there were five or six of them, they go into a little church in Aquasco, Maryland, and they pay one of these traveling studios to go and meet them there. Set up a mic and do two takes, one for each song. And then buy 25 [or] 50 copies to give away at their church concerts. Then they do one other disc, which we also have. This [disc] just shows up. It’s the only one know of. Tony Tadey, the audio engineer who’s been digitizing all this, calls me: ‘I think you need to hear this one.’ We go in that glorious little studio with the best speakers. It’s soundproof. It’s got its own air conditioning. Giant speakers and a new needle [on the record player] every six weeks. He plays it, and we look at each other. And there’s tears. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s just a cappella of them doing the old spiritual ‘Old Ship of Zion.’
And the chorus goes, ‘There’s nothing but love in God’s water / Step on board if you want to see Jesus.’ I play that song every time I speak. And it has an impact on people the same way it had on me.
At the worst of the civil rights movement, these guys can go in and say that everybody can get on board. Get on board. It’s open to everybody. We don’t have any hate. At a time when it was tough to be black at all, much less to be black and singing, and although they don’t have any civil rights songs, this song is such a statement of black and white together. It was kind of dangerous in my mind.
For years, we can’t find anything about [the group]. We run census records; we do all kinds of stuff. We think they’re all dead. I get interviewed by NPR in Baltimore, [Maryland,] by [Dan Rodricks], who also writes a column for The Baltimore Sun, and he said, ‘You know what? My coverage extends up to Aquasco. I’ll bet we’ll hear something on this.’ He plays [the song], and he said the board lit up with people wanting to ask about it. And somebody calls and says, ‘That’s me.’ And four of them are still alive, and they’re still singing. And it’s a very unique kind of sound. They never leave and travel. They had no idea these [recordings] existed.
For volume 2, we’re going to have a limited edition 45 put in the back. We asked [Mighty Wonders of Aquasco] for their blessing, and they gave it, and that’s going to be one side. The other side is going to be ‘We Shall Overcome,’ sung by the Gospel Templettes. I just told you everything I know about them. Their name is the Gospel Templettes. Not even Bob Marovich in Chicago could find them.
We’ve been working with iTunesU, the free site on iTunes. You can download anything. We’ve loaded 30 [or] 40 songs up to see if anybody knew where [the artists] were. [We said] we would take them off the site or pay people if anybody claimed them, and nobody ever has. We put ‘Old Ship of Zion’ as one of those, and it’s the single most-downloaded song on iTunesU. That’s the most-treasured one so far. But to me, it’s because it’s like the [Tomb of the] Unknown Solider — it stands for all the other ones we don’t know that are out there.
Although the recorded part of it is just a small part of this book, mostly it’s about the people. It does preserve some of the songs they sang, because Folkways, the Smithsonian’s record label, only was at a few of the [civil rights movement] events. They only have what singing sounded like on a bad little handheld microphone in one church on one night. All the other thousand nights, we don’t know what was sung and where. I talked to DJs, and they told me what they played. And I talked to pastors, and I talked to foot soldiers, and I talked to policemen: ‘What do you remember? What song do you remember that day?’ Trying to put together, recreate what was sung and why.
WACOAN: Where does the Smithsonian come in?
Darden: Through Kathy Wright, who was a Baylor Ambassador in Washington, [D.C.]. She had a relationship with [former first lady] Laura Bush, who was on the board of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. I told her about the Terry Gross thing and told her about what we had. [Bush] passed it on to the acquisitions director of the arts division. They said, ‘If you want to come out and make a presentation … ’ Tim Logan and I went out and played ‘Old Ship of Zion’ and told them what we were doing. At the end of it, the director stood up and said, ‘Make it happen.’
What will [happen] is, we will provide the gospel music for the music wing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We also got into doing video of pastors from the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’re transferring that to digital, and we’ll provide some of that. That’s our new area we’re getting into.
WACOAN: Why is this so important to you?
Darden: I think it’s because I’m writing about a time when African-Americans had very little access to newspapers. Even the Waco paper didn’t have a black person [in the newspaper] unless it was a criminal until the late ‘60s. [There were] a few black newspapers, but they were mainly in the urban northeast. [Blacks] controlled no radio stations. They controlled no TV stations. Black authors for books were still a novelty. But they were making music, and they had their own record labels.
I believe through the music and the lyrics that we get a window into the lives and the history of African-Americans that we wouldn’t get any other way. That’s why the recorded music matters to me.
On a bigger scale, it’s difficult for an academic to quantify anything religious or spiritual anyhow. That’s why so few of them write about it, not because they’re anti-religion, but it’s just hard to put a footnote and say, ‘God did this. The Holy Spirit did that.’ But Baylor, being a religious school, has given me the freedom to write about this, and Penn State is a secular press, but apparently I’ve convinced them that I can make this point.
This music matters. It will always matter, and we ignore it at our own peril.
We don’t understand the people and the forces that made a sea-change in American history, after hundreds of years. Fighting only with love and humor and music, they topple regime after regime, not just here but abroad. As a believer, I believe that this music — and I’m not going to apologize for using this word — is anointed. There’s something in this music. It is a transformative power when sung by people, whether they’re people of faith or not, because it’s proven overseas, every day.
Just like that music transfixed me at age 6. Why that voice [of Mahalia Jackson]? Why not Perry Como’s? It’s like a mystery that I’m unraveling piece by piece. And at the same time, getting to listen to the best music in the world. Baylor has given me the time and opportunity and blessing to follow that [path], to follow that path wherever it went.
I didn’t know about the stuff going on in Lebanon when I started this. I didn’t know they were still singing this. I didn’t know when all these [African-American] kids were killed [in the United States] in the last few years, they would sing ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ at the funerals. And the rest of the time, they’re still singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the streets. It still matters to them.
Zora Neale Hurston, the great African-American writer from the ‘30s and ‘40s, she was too early for the freedom songs. She said the spirituals, the black sacred music, was like King Arthur to the English. Arthur doesn’t die at the end of [the musical] ‘Camelot.’ The oldest stories say Arthur goes into a cave somewhere in Wales, where he’s waiting for England’s time of its greatest need. And when that time comes, Arthur will emerge again. She said the spirituals are like that to the African-Americans in this country.
That even though a generation may go by and you don’t know ‘em, that when you need them again, somehow everybody will remember them, and they’ll be sung again.
The bulk of the freedom songs are based on spirituals. Not all of them, but the bulk of them. And it’s been 40 [or] 50 years since the civil rights movement, and yet, boom, here they are again, over and over again. What’s not to be fascinated by trying to track [them]? And I feel like I’m holding on by my fingernails to a comet while this thing shrieks through, and I’m trying to get a handle on how this almost supernatural combination of religion and faith and power and courage and musicality continues to change the world. That’s a good reason to get up in the morning.
WACOAN: What else do I need to know?
Darden: I couldn’t do this without the library and [Dean of University Libraries] Pattie Orr. I don’t have the skill. I can’t fundraise. That money came to me; I didn’t go looking for it. I don’t know how to raise money, although money keeps coming.
Ella Prichard, the journalism graduate, has given money to make sure things continue. It’s an easy thing to tell outsiders about. Baylor does many wonderful things, but people understand why this is important intuitively.
Again, it’s a God thing. I couldn’t describe it, couldn’t explain it. I had no plan that this would go this way. I didn’t have any great scheme. I’m just an old journalist. The only reason I got a master’s was because there weren’t any jobs. And here I am, getting to write about what I do, with great kids and great colleagues.
To read Darden’s op-ed in The New York Times that inspired Charles Royce’s $350,000 donation, visit nytimes.com and search for “Gospel’s Got the Blues” by Robert Darden, published February 15, 2005.
To hear Darden’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” go to npr.org/freshair and search for “Gospel Music Historian Robert Darden,” which was broadcast on December 12, 2012.