What about Bob?
“What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring him a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart.” Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Those words are found in Robert Darden’s favorite Christmas hymn. Like the speaker in the song, he gives all he has to everything he does. He gives his heart. Many long-time readers of the Wacoan know Darden’s name from these pages. He’s been a contributing writer for the magazine since 2001. Some people might accuse us of favoritism by choosing one of our own. We are only guilty of good taste.
We wanted Darden to write for us because he’s so darn good. If his words only graced these pages, then maybe the criticism would be valid, but he has dozens of books and hundreds of articles to his credit. We are lucky to count him among our contributors, but if he had never written a word for us, he would still be our choice for Wacoan of the Year.
Actually, we’ve been thinking about choosing him for a while. We could have chosen him when his book on the history of black gospel music, “People Get Ready,” was published. We could have chosen him when he launched the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), shortly afterward. We could wait until his next scholarly endeavor is finished, a two-volume work about the influence of black sacred music on the civil rights movement. But why wait? Let’s honor Darden now.
“But in their ring shout they found the prophetic courage to move counterclockwise, against the movement of the sun, against time as their masters defined it.” Andrew M. Manis, as recorded in “Birmingham Revolutionaries”
Bob Darden is someone who moves counterclockwise. He published popular works before scholarly ones. He was invited onto the tenure track; he didn’t seek it. He’s won awards for teaching, but he considers himself a writer first. The project for which he is best known, a project that will outlive him, is one he started only a few years ago.
We aren’t the only ones to honor Darden this year. In April, Baylor University gave him the Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year Award. A faculty committee honors a professor for excellence in teaching, research and service. When Smith was in her 90s, Darden interviewed her for The Baylor Line.
“She identified every tree that we encountered, what it was, and then a little bit of the history of what happened in and around that tree, why it was planted, what part of the scheme of Baylor it was, why this gingko was here. [She said,] ‘Old Dr. So-and-So brought that tree from China, and we thought that would be a good place.’ We spent the day walking. It was just delightful,” he said.
One of the faculty members who nominated Darden was Linda McManness, professor of Spanish. She described her colleague as “the whole enchilada.”
“Bob Darden’s work on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project has been phenomenal. His prolific amount of well-written books and articles are just as impressive. His students love him, his classes and his storytelling ability. He has said repeatedly not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and his good-natured teasing and embellishments are just a part of why he is such a great human being,” she said.
This is not Darden’s first award from Baylor. In 2008, he became a Centennial Professor, an honor that comes with funds for a research project. That same year he was named Outstanding Research Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, he won Baylor’s first ever Diversity Award, now an annual award. Then in 2010, he was named to the inaugural class of the Academy of Teaching and Learning. He received a reduction in his teaching load so he can teach other professors how to teach.
Darden graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of science in education in 1976 and earned a master of arts in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1978. He served as adjunct faculty in the English department of Baylor from 1988 to 1999, when he received tenure. In 2006, he moved to the Castellaw Communications building, where he is now an associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media.
Wherever his office has been, he has made an impression on his students.
“If you want to get an idea across, wrap it up in a person.” Ralph Bunche, Journal of Negro Education
Darden is the kind of teacher that students love and remember years later. I took his class on Writing for the Popular Market 20 years ago. Why do you think I ended up working for a magazine?
Former Wacoan intern, Christine Sraic, said, “Professor Darden’s type is rare. The type of college professor one imagines based on a character from a movie or novel, perhaps even deemed an urban myth, until you’re fortunate enough to experience his class for yourself. I consider myself lucky that I learned this type of professor is indeed not a myth.”
Darden teaches introductory classes and upper-level courses, including introduction to mass communication, magazine and feature writing, screenwriting, film writing/criticism/review, reporting and writing for media and writing for media markets. One way to quantify his influence is to look at the careers of his former students. Let’s start with Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, screenwriters and directors. They took Darden’s screenwriting class and now have several films to their credit, including “3:10 to Yuma,” “Wanted” and most recently, “The Double.”
“Bob was a huge influence on us,” Haas said. “He encouraged us to write commercially at a time when we needed to hear it. The old adage is ‘write what you know,’ but Bob was probably the first one to encourage us to ‘write what we think is cool.’ On top of that, he’s always upbeat, optimistic and generous. He kept tabs on our careers and promoted us whenever he got the chance. He was first, a friend, and second, a mentor.”
Brandt was in the same class with Haas.
“Derek and I found each other as secret, wannabe writers in Bob’s screenwriting class in the fall of 1991. Hard to believe, but 20 years ago we entered that class with nothing but the idea that maybe we’d someday finish a screenplay. I don’t think either one of us thought we’d find a dream life in that class,” Brandt said. “Instead of focusing just on techniques, which many screenwriting teachers do, Bob taught us about ‘story’ and ‘big ideas,’ which are essential to making it in our business. I remember him pushing us, but always respectful of the process. Anyone who faces the blank page knows how tenuous the relationship is between sitting down each day and writing or finding something easier and more fun to do, like visiting the dentist.”
Brandt and Haas pay tribute to their former teacher by killing him off in each of their films. It’s sort of a good luck charm. “In nearly every script we write, we say thanks the only way we know how: by killing a character named Darden. I’m willing to bet Bob is the only Wacoan of the Year to be outdrawn and shot in the neck by Russell Crowe,” Brandt said.
Mark Olsen, another of Darden’s former students will be filling in for Professor Greg Garrett, who is going on sabbatical. Olsen, a novelist and screenwriter, had Darden when he taught in the English department.
“Bob was my first professional writing teacher,” Olsen said. “Although his influence started at Baylor, his impact on my career lasted long after I graduated — all the way to the present, in fact. Bob’s advice, commiseration, networking tips, professional help and plain old encouragement have helped me through some of the best and worst points of the ensuing two decades. Now, coming back to Baylor to teach some of the same courses he taught me, I find that I’m only intimidated by one challenge: living up to Bob Darden’s example as a teacher and friend.”
Darden described Olsen’s return as “a fun, big circle.”
“After eight novels, two screenplays and hundreds of articles, Mark’s moved back to Texas from Colorado Springs, and he will be teaching the same two classes I taught when I came back in 1988. It’s a great story arc. From 1988 to 2012. The first one comes back!”
If you read the November 2011 issue of the Wacoan, you may have seen an interview with J.H. Reynolds and Craig Cunningham about their new young adult series, the “Octobers.” After Reynolds decided, “the only thing I really wanted to do with my life was tell stories,” he heard about a “fantastic” writing teacher at Baylor named Robert Darden.
“During those last two years of college, I took five or six of Darden’s classes,” Reynolds said. “They were my favorite classes, and the most valuable thing I took from Darden was learning how to conduct a writing workshop. In our writing workshops, Darden gave me and others a place to be creative, to explore and to learn as equals. His classes didn’t feel bogged down with the air of academia but with a desire to share passion and ideas. Not only is he one of the best teachers I ever had, but he is a good man.”
What sticks with Reynolds is the legacy Darden has left on his life.
“In the years since I graduated, he has taken the time to give guidance and writing advice whenever I needed it. His impact on my writing life has been invaluable. Just about every day when I sit down to write, I hear his voice in my thoughts, reminding me of something he taught us in his class long ago,” Reynolds said.
The reason Darden is such a good writing teacher is because he is such a good writer. Scratch that. He’s a great writer.
“And are we not of interest to each other?” Elizabeth Alexander “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”
Darden finds people interesting. He has used that curiosity to fuel his writing for newspapers and magazines, for fiction and nonfiction, and in his editing.
After graduate school, he served as arts and entertainment editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald from 1978-1986 and worked with J. Alan Nelson, who was the business editor at the time. Nelson is now an attorney here in Waco.
“I met Darden in 1981 and found an immediate kindred spirit,” Nelson said. “I shamelessly used Darden as a source of story leads. Not leads on stories but the actual first sentence or two of any story. I found by walking anywhere near Darden and summarizing the main two or three points of any story, the lead to the story would pop out of his mouth like candy from a Pez dispenser.”
As the entertainment editor, Darden had a coveted job.
“There were always reporters from other beats working Darden, hoping to do a movie review or go to a concert. To his credit, Darden was generous,” Nelson said. “One of the reporters that Darden let do reviews was the now best-selling mystery author, Laura Lippman. She did a review of ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ that still rings in my mind, though I wonder now if Darden gave her the lead.”
Readers of the Wacoan look forward to Darden’s reviews of local restaurants. His love of Waco eateries dates back to a tradition from his newspaper days.
“Darden and I began doing what became known as Lunch Quest. The goal was to go to a restaurant once a week in the Waco area that we’d never been to before,” Nelson said. “While we ate a substantial amount of bad food in dirty — and sometimes filthy — establishments, occasionally we stumbled across some great food in obscure locations.” Current Trib entertainment editor, Carl Hoover, was also a member of the Lunch Quest.
“Bob is a longtime advocate for local eateries over the fast-food chains that populate Waco. We’d seek out the mom-and-pop restaurants, the hole-in-the-walls, the dives. We ate fried rabbit, calf-brain tacos, enchiladas swimming in DayGlo orange grease and iced tea so sweet it’d give you diabetes, as well as great soul food, down-home barbecue and a four-patty hamburger a decade before it appeared on fast-food menus,” he said.
Hoover said Darden’s stories “improve with time, like fine wine.” And he pointed out one of Darden’s lesser-known talents: he can draw.
“He had talent as a sketch artist and cartoonist — his master’s thesis had been on the cartoonists of the Dallas Morning News — and the first few years in the job I kept coming across folders and papers on which Bob had doodled and decorated leering reptiles, angry big-chinned men, flying bats and more. I have his sketch of me during a long and soporific deacons’ meeting pinned to my cubicle wall at work,” Hoover said.
Darden had other writing gigs. Beginning in 1984, he was the gospel music editor for Billboard Magazine, a position he held for 10 years. He also served as senior editor of The Wittenburg Door, a magazine of Christian satire and humor.
“It went under four years ago. It was around for 40 years. It sunk like a tire iron in a swimming pool on my watch,” Darden said. “It was a great 20 years. I loved it. I had a wonderful time. Every day I’d get 10 to 15 pieces — writing or cartoons — of which one out of 10 made me laugh out loud. Laughing out loud once a day is a good thing. The money was terrible. The people were wonderful.”
Darden is not stuck in a rut. His articles have been featured in CCM Magazine, Oxford American and Southern Arts Journal. That short list includes a Christian music magazine, a top-notch literary magazine and an arts journal.
Just how many books has Darden written? He claims 25 nonfiction works, but his wife, Dr. Mary Landon Darden, center dean of Concordia University Texas’ San Antonio campus, thinks he’s underselling himself.
“He has about 35 books. The fictions, he doesn’t put them on his resume. He has more books than he says,” Mary Darden said.
His account of the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff, “Mad Man in Waco,” was enhanced by earlier reporting he had done on the group. Some of that material has since been donated to the Texas Collection at Baylor.
Darden’s first academic work was “People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music.” The book chronicles the evolution of the music from its origins in Africa to its emergence and transformation in America. There was only one problem. When Darden interviewed people, they would mention a song — one that changed their life — but when he went to look for the song, it was gone.
“After finishing ‘People Get Ready,’ I was so angry because a lot of the music I was writing about, I couldn’t hear it,” he said. “After talking with some of the collectors, we came up with a figure that 75 percent of that music is not available. I don’t know if it’s lost or not, but it’s not available.
On February 15, 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times called “Gospel’s Got the Blues.” The last line said, “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music. It would be a sin.”
It’s a good thing Charles Royce agreed.
“But the thing which has been the secret of whatever I have done is the fact that I have been able to earn a living by doing the work which I wanted to do and work that the world needed done.” W.E.B. DuBois, “Autobiography”
Charles (“Chuck”) Royce read the editorial and contacted Darden. Royce is not a gospel music aficionado; he’s the president of an investment firm, Royce & Associates, LLC, which manages The Royce Funds. But he was impressed by Darden. After Darden researched how best to preserve the music and sent Royce a proposal, Royce made a gift of $350,000 in 2006 to establish The Royce-Darden Gospel Music Collection. Darden’s goal is to make a digital copy of every black gospel song recorded between 1945 and 1970, a period known as the Golden Age of Gospel Music.
He credits the Baylor libraries with catching the vision and making everything happen easily, quickly and well.
“I went to them cold, out of the blue, after I heard from Mr. Royce, when he said, ‘I’ll pay for this if you can figure out how to save it.’ Rather than go anywhere else, I knew the libraries would get it,” he said. “They gave me their staff and their expertise from day one. Even though it meant a lot of people spending a lot of nights and weekends working on this. They have been unflagging and unfailing in their support to make this happen. I do not think it would have happened anywhere near as well without Dean Pattie Orr and the support of everybody at the libraries. She gave me their best people to set up and create, in some cases, this extraordinary interactive system that we have that enables you to digitize and catalogue and search and listen to this music. That’s why it’s as good as it is.”
New music continues to come in, including a box the day before our interview. Sixteen songs are available for free on Baylor’s iTunes U site.
In December 2007, three-time Grammy award winner, Ashley Cleveland, heard Darden on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and knew she had the perfect idea for her next record.“That show was a turning point in my own life. Listening to that show inspired me to devote my next recording to traditional gospel and spirituals. I contacted Bob, and he graciously became the heartbeat of the project. He supplied songs, he wrote the liner notes, his book gave the context for each song, and I refer to it liberally in concerts. Ultimately, the record was nominated for a Grammy in the traditional gospel category in 2010,” Cleveland said. “In the music business, extreme generosity with no payback is rare. Bob’s payback is his passion for the music, which, in turn, fuels the way that he impacts the world around him. I am just one of the happy recipients.”
The project is so big that it won’t be finished in Darden’s lifetime. That is why he is one of the four people profiled in David Licata’s documentary, “A Life’s Work.”
The film, written and directed by Licata, focuses on people who have started projects that will outlast them. Part of the inspiration for the film goes back to his childhood, when he learned that a medieval cathedral took hundreds of years to build. So Licata, director of two short films, “Tango Octogenario” and “8 1/2 x 11,” began to look for people with projects of monumental importance. A friend, who also heard Darden on the “Fresh Air” segment, encouraged Licata to listen to the interview.
“I did. I thought he would be absolutely perfect. The music, his voice was spectacular and distinctive. He’s obviously very articulate and intelligent,” Licata said.
He was unsure, though, whether Darden was the right fit — until he met him.
“You know, you can hear somebody’s voice, but you don’t get a sense of who they are until you actually meet them face-to-face. You have to see whether you’re really comfortable about them,” he said. “When we met them — Bob and his wife — in Chicago, I was invited up to their B&B with my cinematographer, and I knew he was going to be good for the film. He’s funny, he’s warm and welcoming and generous. Meeting him in person just solidified it.”
Licata has completed 20 hours of shooting with Darden, including five or six hours of sit-down interviews.
“He was in Chicago doing work for the book he’s working on. I thought that would be a good place to follow him around, looking for records, interviewing old-timers,” he said.
The film is being edited and needs some post-production funding to finish it up. There is a producer on board. Licata said, “If a trunk load of money fell out of the sky, we could be finished in a year.”
He has no doubts that the BGMRP deserves special attention.
“It’s such a spectacular project. It’s noble. It’s the right thing to do. To see this music disappear because people are indifferent or because people feel they can’t make enough money by releasing it — that’s a horrible thing. Even if everyone isn’t interested in it now, it should be there so anyone can be interested in it in the future,” Licata said. “Trying to preserve it in itself is a noble effort, and getting the word out is equally important. Bob is spectacular at that. He says, ‘I’m not the tech guy. I’m the guy who can go out and talk and tell the story of this music and why it’s important and why it needs to be saved.’”
Darden doesn’t mind getting up in front of an audience. It’s something he does quite often, with a pair of drumsticks in his hands.
“The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing-symbol was a drum.” Zora Neale Hurston, “The Sanctified Church”
It should not surprise you that Darden not only loves music, he plays music. He’s a drummer. After Midnight — well known at Waco events — plays rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, funk and today’s hits. The day after I interviewed him, After Midnight was playing the Cotton Moon Dance at the Birome Community Center on Farm-to-Market Road 308, or the “Leroy Parkway” as Darden refers to it.
He has played drums since eighth grade.
“So that’d be 1968,” he said. “After Midnight started because we all shared a love of soul and rhythm and blues. Much of our early repertoire is in that Texas Shuffle. We’ve expanded since then in the last 12 years.”
But the core members have remained the same: Steve Gardner, keyboard and vocals; Lance Grigsby, bass and vocals; Barry Hankins, guitar and vocals; and Darden, drums and vocals.
“If we get a fifth member someday, it’s gonna be a 250-pound linebacker that can carry the stuff. He doesn’t have to be able to sing. He doesn’t have to able to play. He just has to be able to lift,” Darden said.
He also plays with a group called the Gospel Tornados, the official band of Concordia University Texas, San Antonio Center. “Accept no imitation,” said Darden. The two groups play different types of music. The Gospel Tornados specialize in black gospel and spirituals. The only song he plays in both bands is “People Get Ready.”
“It’s tough because I’m commuting right now. Mary saw that it was not good for me to be down there and not doing some kind of music,” he said. “I hope I’ll stay playing as long as any band is desperate enough to hire me. All the other drummers are busy.”
Actually, Darden is pretty busy himself these days. He has a new book project, one that explores the role of black gospel music in the civil rights movement.
“There is no truer truth obtainable by man than comes of music.” Robert Browning, “Parleyings with Charles Avison”
Darden’s book “People Get Ready” led to the formation of the BGMRP. As he began receiving and listening to records no one knew existed, especially the B-sides of old 45s, a new research endeavor was born: a two-volume book which will be published by Penn State University Press. The working title is “Nothing But Love in God’s Water: The Influence of Black Sacred Music on the Civil Rights Movement.”
“I got to interview for this book one of my all-time heroes, Rep. John Lewis, who was there from the beginning [of the civil rights movement]. He’s the guy who’s now bald but has a big scar across his head from having his head split open in Selma,” Darden said. “He told me with his voice — which is a little bit lower than God’s — ‘Young man,’ (now drop this about six octaves) ‘Young man, black sacred music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the civil rights movement.’”
Darden paused and said, “I knew I was on the right track, after my hand quit shaking.”
The legacy of the BGMRP may be expanding. In November, Darden traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is set to begin construction next year. They are holding preliminary — very preliminary — talks to see if there might be some kind of interactive partnership between the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP) and the Smithsonian.
We couldn’t do an interview with Bob Darden without including his wife, Mary. They have been married 24 years, and they have three grown children and two grandchildren. The first time they appeared in this magazine, they appeared together, co-writing a travel article about Nova Scotia. As Bob said during the Q&A, “It has been a team effort.”
And now, the interview with Wacoan of the Year Robert Darden
WACOAN: When is your new book coming out?
Bob: The first one is due September 1 , and it’ll take it from before the Civil War through Brown v. Board of Education. And then volume 2 will take it from there to Dr. King’s death. That was [the publisher’s] idea because the initial estimate of the manuscript was going to be, like, 170,000 words, and there’s just no way you can put out a book that big. It’s like a dictionary at that size.
Mary: You can’t lift it.
Bob: But I couldn’t cut. It was one of those things that just wasn’t an option to tell the narrative, particularly the stuff that no one had written about: spirituals and labor unions and such, which is virgin territory. The working title comes from the old spiritual, ‘Old Ship of Zion.’ That’s what I do in lieu of having a life.
Mary: Have you heard ‘Old Ship of Zion’?
Mary: There’s something about that song.
WACOAN: And is that where you got the title for your new book?
Bob: That’s right.
Mary: Do you know the history of that record? It was probably just a pressing that they did in Aquasco, Maryland. Who knows? There may have been 20 copies available. It was pressed in, what, 1950?
Bob: Late ‘50s, we think.
Mary: Probably no one’s heard it since then, until they uncovered it. You can hear something in that song. I think it’s the Holy Spirit. I think it’s anointed. I think it’s an anointed song. Every time he plays that — he closes out so many of his talks with it — and everyone is crying. Everyone in the room is crying.
Bob: It’s my ace in the hole. We’ve worked really hard trying to track down anybody related to that song. Apparently, it’s an orphan.
Mary: But if you hadn’t found it, it could have just disappeared forever.
Bob: I’m pretty sure it’s the only known copy, of which a lot of our stuff is.
Mary: One-third of it is stuff nobody ever knew existed. Nobody in the world had ever known.
Bob: A lot of that came from [the Chicago collector,] Bob Marovich, so he knew because he bought a lot of it in the old days, when he could buy it in bulk. He’s just one guy with a big garage.
WACOAN: How many years have you been working on this new book?
Bob: Six. In 2005, when I first started getting the idea, and then we started receiving the first 45s for the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, and very early on I began noticing that some of the B-sides [of the records] had civil rights-related songs that we didn’t know existed, and that kind of got my interest up.
WACOAN: What did you find?
Bob: Gospel music is notoriously badly catalogued. We just don’t know much. There’s one very good book that lists everything we know about who released what, but, as the authors say, ‘This is a guess on some things.’ The labels went in and out of business. They were bought and sold. They were mom-and-pop operations. They went bankrupt. They put out good product and didn’t get paid by the rack jobbers or the stores. Stuff was released without numbers.
And then the gospel artists themselves would do private pressings to sell for themselves at churches, or they would go to a church that needed a new roof and they would do an album with the choir but not put their name on it because they were under contract with the label, so the church could raise money. Some of the best stuff we have are those ‘Jane Doe’ kind of records with the First Abyssinian Church of Brooklyn, New York. Everybody knows that’s Dorothy Love Coates or Shirley Caesar, but it doesn’t say that. It just says ‘Special Guest.’
I don’t know now, after six years, whether we have 10 percent or 50 percent [of the music]. I just don’t know. Nobody knows. Every few weeks they call and say, ‘You’ve got a new box of stuff that’s been donated. Do you want to come over and look at it?’ I’ll limp over there. I don’t mind not knowing all the artists. There’s a lot of artists that recorded during the golden age. But what scares me is every so often I’ll pull out a record on a label I’ve never heard of. And that means there’s a whole new line of that music that we didn’t know we didn’t have.
So the music starts coming in, particularly after the Terri Gross [“Fresh Air”] interview.
WACOAN: Did that stimulate a lot of new music coming in?
Bob: Oh, yeah. Anytime there’s new media, every time someone thinks, ‘I think Grandma has something in the attic.’ We pay for the shipping. We pay for insurance. We’ll send it back to them if they want it. I just want to harvest, digitally, the music.
The records would come in and, generally, I would be aware of the artist and the song, in the broadest terms, but then we’d turn them over on the B-sides of the 45s, which are not well catalogued or chronicled anywhere. And I kept noticing for the first time that a number of them are related to Dr. King or related to Selma or related to Birmingham, or they’re related to the remake of a freedom song or an old spiritual where the lyrics have been changed to reflect something that just happened in Orangeburg, South Carolina or a sit-down in Memphis.
I talked to some of the other collectors, and they said, ‘Yeah, that surprised us, too.’ It’s kind of a dangerous thing to be putting stuff out that nakedly in support of the civil rights movement when you’re already living in a place where saying the wrong thing can get your house bombed — in Birmingham.
What I’ve come to understand is these are kind of like the spirituals, with double messages and double voices. White people aren’t going to buy gospel 45s anyhow in those days. Very few white collectors are interested. And if they do, they want the hit side, and they’re not even going to pay attention to the B-side. The people who buy gospel 45s — and most of the ones we’ve received have been well played and well loved, over and over and over — they do play the B-side.
They were getting encouragement and support and whatever they needed from these songs. It was like almost secret messages, just to them: ‘Hold fast. Yes, you’re getting hosed, and dogs are attacking you, and people are doing horrible things to you, but there’s other people out there like [you], and here’s a song to help give you that courage.’ And that was the last catalyst to make me think maybe there’s a separate story here.
I had the good fortune that Baylor invited Taylor Branch, the great chronicler of the civil rights movement, the Pulitzer-prize winner of the King years trilogy. I took him to lunch, and we spent a lot of time together that day, and I just grilled him on this. I said, ‘Is there any book on just this, any manuscript of length, on the impact of the music?’ He said, ‘No.’ And he would know. He blessed the project and gave me some tips of where to go.
When we were in Binghamton, New York, we spent three days with the other great civil rights chronicler, [David J. Garrow, author of ‘Bearing the Cross’]. He’s won a Pulitzer for his work on King and the FBI. We spent a lot of time together, just the two of us. He not only gave me really great leads, most of which panned out, but he encouraged me. That was the in. That’s what I needed.
Mary: Some of the guys writing were Jewish and just weren’t interested [in the music], probably. I think they just didn’t notice it.
Bob: Partly because it came out of the church, and so many academics feel awkward about writing about religious things. You can’t prove anything when you’re writing about religion. My task was not just to chronicle it but to do the why and how this changes things.
Everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah. The music was vitally important.’ King himself talks about the power of music and how essential it was. But an academic has to try to show: ‘Yeah, everybody says it, now prove that to me.’ So I’ve been trying to break down how it changed lives. Not just: ‘Yes, religion can change you.’ [But] how can this change what was going on with boots on the ground in Birmingham?
For 65 weeks, [civil rights activists] met in different churches in Birmingham for three hours every Monday or Tuesday night at a different church to keep from getting bombed. Somebody would talk for 20-30 minutes on what we’re going to do the next day: ‘I need 400 people to get arrested at 16th Street Baptist Church at noon tomorrow,’ or ‘I need 80 people to man the food lines.’ They’d just give directions. And then King or [Fred] Shuttlesworth or somebody would preach for 45 minutes. That meant there were still nearly two hours left, and what they’d do every night — for 65 nights — was sing during those two hours. Clearly, singing was giving them something that they would devote time to it during the most important time in their lives. Something was happening. Something’s being transformed.
Mary: It’s kind of hard to assign a research method to the Holy Spirit, you know?
WACOAN: How have you and Mary worked together on this project?
Bob: It has been a team effort. A lot of the female artists opened up because Mary was there. More than just another white guy, after a lifetime of white men taking advantage of them, financially. I think that opened a lot of doors.
Mary: It changed my life.
Bob: Sitting there in their homes. These are some of the most famous artists in the country during their heyday, sitting in their little tiny homes in tough, tough neighborhoods. Having them sing to us —
Mary: In Birmingham. They have pictures all over their wall of when they used to sing with the Rolling Stones. Here they are in this little, tiny house. And they have this little, tiny living room with this white furniture covered with plastic to protect it, and it’s kind of their special room. The Rolling Stones have mansions all over the world, and these people were the voices that really made them.
Bob: Them apologizing to us and asking if maybe we’d like to hear a song. Then, concerts in their living rooms, which, we didn’t take nearly enough of them. Going to hear them in churches. And eating great food, by the way. Including waffles and fried chicken, which I’d never had before.
WACOAN: I’ve heard that those go together.
Mary: It really, surprisingly does! This was our one chance to do it.
Bob: Best I can figure, both batters had malt in them, the waffles and the fried chicken. The bites together sang like a symphony. Captain Hard Times Restaurant on the South Side of Chicago.
WACOAN: Have you already given the public lecture for winning the Cornelia Marschall Smith Award?
Bob: Yeah, I gave that a couple of weeks ago. It was called ‘Telling Stories.’
Part of what I learned at Baylor from people like Rachel Moore and O.T. Hayward and Bob Reid and Ralph Lynn and all the great professors I had back then was how many of them incorporated story into their lectures. They could do the x’s and o’s and write all the formulas on the board, but what they really wanted and conveyed to me was the importance of narrative, even in classes that weren’t English or history-related. That’s the stuff that students and me remember.
There’s been some real interesting studies that show you can put formulas on the board, and the students will retain it for about a week. Beyond a week they only retain 17 percent of it, or something crazy. But if you tell stories, the stories never go away. The kids come back to me from when I first started teaching adjunct at Baylor in 1988. Stories I told in those early classes, they remember them verbatim. So I’ve tried to incorporate story in my teaching and in my writing.
It seems to have paid off. My students seem to do well. I seem to have full classes. I teach one class of 300 students, Journalism 1303.
Mary: It fills every time. Immediately. It’s a standing-room-only kind of thing.
Bob: I love it. I never thought I’d like teaching freshman or in that big a class, but now they would have to take it from me when they peeled it from my cold, dead fingers.
Instead of trying to cover every chapter in the book — you know, telephones and the internet and books or whatever — I pick one or two things that I can tell in an area of story (being an old music and film critic) with dozens and dozens, hundreds and hundreds of edited film clips or radio or TV clips.
So if I want to do the history of radio DJing, I don’t just stand there and tell it. I show clips from different movies, showing how different DJs do it. So beginning with ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ the scene in the radio station. Then I go to ‘American Graffiti,’ where I show the scene with Wolfman Jack. Then I cut to Robin Williams in ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ with that great opening, that eight-minute improv riff that he does. And I cut from there to Spike Lee and ‘Do the Right Thing’ with Samuel L. Jackson doing, [speaks in a low voice] Mister Señor Love Daddy. And then I cut to ‘Pirate Radio,’ and I end with a famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch from the ‘70s with Dan Ackroyd at the world’s smallest radio station, where he’s both the AM and FM DJ at the same time. [Runs through the entire sketch, alternating the fast AM voice with the slow FM voice.] He ends with doing the news in both voices. And the kids love it. How can I tell the history of radio better than that?
So for the Cornelia Smith teaching award, I owe a lot of whatever success I’ve had to these teachers who taught me the power of story and narrative. So that’s what my lecture was on. I played some clips and played some music and ended with the extraordinary video of Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt.’ It makes people cry. People were touched. It seemed to go over real well. I could have got up and given an academic lecture, like some of the previous winners have done. I said, ‘I’m sure you guys have heard a bunch of those. Let me tell you, if you don’t mind, about story, how we get from ‘Gilgamesh’ to ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ Of course, students don’t get that because they don’t know neither ‘Gilgamesh’ nor ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ The faculty and the staff got that one.
I did that, and I couched it around the hero’s journey, how you go from here to there. And that all the great stories involve change, and that’s what teachers do. We’re hoping to give them the information that will make change easier for them to accept since they’re in the great change portion of their lives.
Mary: It just struck me — I just got tears in my eyes — how you’ve lived the hero’s journey.
Bob: Thank you, sweetheart. I’ve had a relatively easy life. People have overcome a heck of lot more than I have, but thank you.
Mary: It’s never easy. I’ve got to get a Kleenex! [Gets up.]
WACOAN: You encourage your students to find their passion. How did you find yours?
Bob: Writing is what I always wanted to do. I thought I wanted to draw as well. And I still draw. I was actually pretty good.
Mary: You are pretty good.
Bob: That, as a joint passion, ended my first day at the University of North Texas when I saw a freshman art exhibition. And I thought, ‘I’ll never be that good.’ That’s the only two years of my life that I didn’t play my drums because the worst drummer I heard in Denton was better than I’ll ever be in my life. That was a great two years. Denton was wonderful, and North Texas was wonderful. It’s probably the secret weapon of Texas because of the power and influence of that school.
I wanted to write, and I learned how to write under David McHam at Baylor and Harry Marsh in the journalism department, more than anywhere else. They helped strip away a lot of my excesses and my florid writing that only an 18- or 20-year-old boy who thinks he can write injects. You’re in love with the sound of your own voice.
Mary: You’re the best writer I’ve ever known.
Bob: You keep writing, and it’s one of the great professions. Somebody, I don’t remember which professor, once told me he figured he could do it longer than any other profession. He said that you get too old to be a fireman or a brain surgeon someday, but you’re able to hunt and peck on a typewriter.
I early on discovered fiction writing, and I’ve had three novels published, all out of print. I’ve got two more written, not sold. Fiction gives you a sense of power and control that nothing else does. It’s the only time in your life, sitting there, writing away your story about your world and your characters that you are absolutely in control, whether anybody ever reads it or not. This is your world, your story, told your way. If it’s something really good, and I hope some of what I’ve written has been good, it’s a very spiritual thing because if you’re in the act of creating, I believe that’s one of the times you’re closest to the Creator. I feel God’s pleasure in my pleasure in writing.
There are times — particularly in fiction — when I’m writing, and for long moments I don’t realize I’m writing, and I feel like I’m just being dictated to, and my fingers take over. I’m big on outlines, [but] creating characters that are interesting enough and alive enough to take hold of their own destiny and wrest control of the outline away from you. Man, that’s a rush that I suppose athletes get when something goes perfectly well on the baseball field.
Writers make order out of chaos. And stories are told from 10,000 choices that you could include, cherry-picking just the ones that you want to tell the narrative the way you want it. That’s a sense of control and power and satisfaction to bring order into a world that is, by its nature, pretty chaotic. So we don’t always know what’s driving us in writing. If we’re writing from the heart and subconscious and from that sheer joy of writing and pleasure that comes, then maybe it’s the Holy Spirit take-over, and maybe it’s the better angels of our nature.
I’m passionate about writing, and I want other people to feel that. I want everybody, no matter how tough a life and how insignificant they feel, to know that they have a story that’s worth telling and worth hearing. I want everybody to be empowered to write that story. I get all these wonderful, beautiful kids who come in, and so many of them are so good. I want to give them the confidence that many of them haven’t had. They have a story that’s desperate to come out; they just haven’t figured it out yet. I want to give them the keys of the kingdom.
By the time they arrive with me, it’s too late to teach them to write. I’ve lost the first 20 years. Somebody else is in charge of that. I get the last year or two. What I try to do is — with the good ones — not screw them up and give them the confidence and arcane dance steps that it takes to get a query letter and a book proposal and marketing, and how to get your manuscript into the hands of somebody who can do something with it. Those are my primary goals of a class.
Mary: I have to disagree with you on that. I think you do teach people to write well. You do take them a long way, and I don’t think you give yourself credit for that. You’ve helped me in my writing. I was always a pretty good writer. I was OK. But you helped me tweak and fine-tune. I don’t think I would have a book today if it weren’t for you.
Bob: [Smiles at Mary.] I stay in touch with as many students as I can, try to stay nurturing and encouraging. When one publishes, I feel like a grandfather. I used to feel like a father; now I feel like a grandfather. A proud grandfather. I’m as happy for their successes as I am of my own.
WACOAN: You’ve done so many different types of writing. The poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, said she saw herself as a reporter. How do you see yourself?
Bob: The [teaching] awards, each one has been a surprise to me because I see myself as a writer who teaches rather than a teacher who writes. The teaching wasn’t, in the early days, particularly easy for me or planned. It wasn’t one of my goals.
When Baylor called and said, ‘We want you to go on the full-time tenure track,’ I was stunned. I did not see that coming. I had been freelancing for 10 years. I’d been editing The Door and Billboard and doing books and doing OK. Then the kids started going off to college, we had expenses, and I realized I didn’t have any insurance. I didn’t have any retirement. I began looking for a full-time job. I told Baylor, ‘If I get a job, then I won’t be able to teach these couple of classes I’ve been teaching for you.’ I wanted to give plenty of warning. And a few weeks later, Jim Barcus [from the English department] called and said, ‘Even though you don’t have a Ph.D., you’ve had enough books published, if you’d like to go on the tenure track.’ It certainly wasn’t a plan on my part.
Anybody who had me in those first 10 years will probably affirm the fact that teaching probably wasn’t my gift. I had the passion for it and a love of the kids and a lot of knowledge, but the conveying of that knowledge I don’t think was as effective or efficient as it is now.
WACOAN: I had you back then. I liked your stories. You had actually lived a life.
Bob: It was a great life. I was a military brat. How could it be any better than to see the world and be safe, be exposed to dozens of cultures?
I can tell the military brats in my classes. They’re the ones that come in and start introducing themselves to everybody. As Mary will tell you, I’ll come into a party where we don’t know anybody, and I’ll light up: Look at all the new friends I’ve got to make! And it’s just [growing up in] the Air Force.
Mary: He’s a bit of an extrovert.
Bob: You either do that or you die. It makes you just love meeting people. You make friends fast. I still keep in touch with people that I only spent a year or two with in the Air Force, but we stay friends — doesn’t matter how many years apart.
I guess people like that should make good teachers. Kids are a whole new bunch of people. They’re a lot more scared than you are, most of the time. I like them. I like to talk to them. The only downside of the class of 300 is I don’t get to know them as well. Some of them make it a point — the military brats — make a point to come up and introduce themselves. [They’ll say,] ‘And can I come by sometime, during your office hours to just talk, even though I’m a pre-med major?’ [I say,] ‘You bet.’
Mary: You’ve corrupted a bunch of them, though. You’ve had a lot of them change their major.
Bob: They thought they wanted to do something, but their heart really was something else. I give them all the advice they want with the understanding they don’t tell their parents it was me. [To Megan:] I didn’t take you out of medicine, did I?
WACOAN: Oh, no! Unfortunately, this is all I wanted to do.
Bob: Law and medicine, 70 percent of them. Of course, by the end of their sophomore years, they’ve taken all these classes, and they realize that’s not what they really wanted to do, but they get the most strokes for saying it. They start finding what it was they wanted to do. For some of them it’s writing. For some, it’s film or art or music. There aren’t any jobs out there anyway. Why not be unemployed and happier instead of unemployed and unhappy?
WACOAN: Finally, why does black gospel music mean so much to people?
Bob: What separates black gospel from all the other forms is that dance music is wonderful. Sitting and listening music, like opera and classical, is wonderful. Music that continues a heritage, like bluegrass, is wonderful. The creative and improv aspect of jazz is wonderful. What black gospel has — from the beginning — the spirituals have been all those things, but they’ve also been the music of transformation and hope and protest, all in one.
That’s part of why I spend so many words in the book, trying to tease out from these spirituals, how many of them were actually protest songs. How many of them were rebellion? How many of them were speaking truth to power at a time when the slaves had no power? And yet they could sing, ‘Go down, Moses. Pharoah’s army got drownded’ and the overseers not get that they’re Pharaoh. [They could sing,] ‘We’re gonna get over Jordan, and we’re gonna be free,’ and the masters not get that the Ohio River is Jordan.
The spirituals did so many things. They taught the slaves how to read and write and count. There are several Christmas songs that count. Songs that gave news because you couldn’t congregate as a slave, as a group. They would sing these spirituals back and forth and change the words back and forth, right under the noses of the guys with the whips. They’d say, ‘Guess what? Charlie got away last night, and here’s how he did it. He waited ‘til midnight between the shifts. He followed the Tombigbee River. He got between the two mountains.’
Some spirituals we know, like ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ is actually a map, and the drinking gourd is the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper always points you north. Frederick Douglass told us that ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ was very clearly a song they’d sing when they were trying to get over a beating or they were planning to leave. As far as we know, the studies from Africa show us that the music is still used the same way there. The slaves from western Africa who arrived, arrived singing those songs, songs that had messages and stories and insults and information. There’s no difference between the sacred and the profane. There’s no difference between a work song and a religious song. It’s all the same.
Mary: The past and present were all one.
Bob: They had no concept of spatial time. Abraham Lincoln is Abraham. Harriet Tubman is Moses. [The song] ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord? It causes’ — present tense — ‘me to tremble’ because Jesus is being sacrificed not in the Holy Land but across in the next county. It’s all present day, present tense.
It’s an extraordinarily powerful medium, the spirituals. Gospel music is the heir to that. It’s the spirituals with the beat of the blues. It’s been used, and I hope this book will further confirm that argument, that whenever the African-American has been in times of trial, they dip back into this wonderful well, this pool of music, that has sustained them through the hardest and most difficult times.
So when blacks are finally allowed in the labor unions, they quickly begin to use the spirituals in the same way. The literature is so thin on that. But I’ve spent a good amount of time going through old communist and socialist newspapers in America during the 1920s and ‘30s because they’re the only people writing about black people. So I find articles by people like John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair in UMass magazine or the Daily Worker, talking about a strike going on in a hideous textile plant in Massachusetts, and they say, ‘This is what the Negroes’ — as they called them — ‘were singing,’ and it’s an old spiritual with just a few words changed.
So many of the labor people were involved in the civil rights movement, coming from Detroit and Chicago to help King. They bring that with them. The Highlander school, where ‘We Shall Overcome’ comes from, was an old labor school that started teaching freedom early. They get involved with the civil rights movement. From the Montgomery bus boycott on, singing the spirituals and gospel and freedom songs — which don’t necessarily have to have a religious background, they can be ‘Hit The Road, Jack’ — this music becomes a sustaining, empowering force. I don’t know that you can say that about a lot of other forms of music. It becomes sacred to people who aren’t religious.
A great number of the supporters of the civil rights movement, financially, in the early days, were Jewish. They’re not believing, necessarily, in what they’re singing, but they write so passionately about how the music sustained them. They come back in Birmingham, after being whipped and hit by hoses and dogs, and the songs help ratchet people down so they don’t go out [and do] something foolish and get gunned down as well. Or before they go out, the songs buoy them up and give them courage. The songs gave release. The songs gave peace to people who were hurting. The songs gave courage to people who listened to the dynamite go off night after night in Birmingham. The blacks called it ‘Bombingham’ because there were all the mines near there and all of the steel mills, and there was a large number of white people who knew how to use dynamite. Fred Shuttlesworth’s house was bombed four different times.
What have you got? You don’t have the police. You don’t have the federal government. You don’t have anything. Not even all African-Americans are on your side. Most of them are barely able to keep their jobs. So you’ve got a tenth of a tenth of the American population — studies say only about one-tenth of the blacks were involved — against the most powerful nation in the world, against a state that’s as oppressive as South Africa at its worst. And you’ve got sacred song. And they clung to it.
I have a tendency to preach about this stuff, but I’ve been immersed in it for so long. Mary and I have gone to so many wonderful black churches. So many of them where the people were bombed and beaten and discriminated against their entire lives. There’s no anger. There was never any revenge. There was just this pervasive sense of love that I believe, in part, came from what the spirituals and the gospel songs and black sacred music gave them.
Mary: It’s amazing they could be so forgiving. We talked to friends of the girls that were killed in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church [in Birmingham]. It’s incredible to see the power —
Bob: Fifty years later. Still crying over her lost best friend, but no hatred. So there’s power in this music of a supernatural nature. And academics aren’t supposed to say that —
Mary: But you’re gonna say it anyway —
Bob: There’s an old hymn still sung in black churches today called ‘How I Got Over.’ How this music helped them get over is at the heart of what I’ve been doing. Trying to chronicle that and quantify that. There’s libraries of books on the civil rights movement, just entire libraries of books. Everything you can imagine has been written on the movement — and I’ve got a Xerox of every one of them — but this.
Now, there’s individuals that will talk about it in individual chapters. But to try to knit it together from 1600 to 1970 and show this apostolic succession of how the music is handed down because it works and continues to work and is still working. I very cherish the fact that Baylor has recognized that and has encouraged me and supported me in that quest.
Mary: It’s a hero’s journey. What you’re doing is bringing awareness that is so critical. But this music was being lost forever because it was in landfills, and it was being taken to the dump when houses were torn down. It was trash. You can never get that back. What your work is doing —
Bob: With the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project —
Mary: Which you started! Which the purpose was to save that music that forever changed this country, that forever changed the world and forever will. [More crying.] Sorry. I’m so emotional about this.
Bob: It’s been good having someone who doesn’t mind being dragged through the South Side of Chicago, spending their nights listening to black gospel music.
Mary: It’s been the greatest joy of my life, dear.
Bob: Thank you, sweetheart.