Magazine article The Christian Century

New Smithsonian Museum Aids Baylor's Preservation of Black Gospel Recordings

Magazine article The Christian Century

New Smithsonian Museum Aids Baylor's Preservation of Black Gospel Recordings

Article excerpt

One professor's quest to preserve historic black gospel music earned the attention of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian's recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., features a permanent exhibit, Musical Crossroads, on African-American musical history. It includes materials from a project at Baylor University, a Christian school in Waco, Texas, to save recordings from the "golden age" of American black gospel music.

An interactive display featuring "The Old Ship of Zion," one of the key recordings of Baylor's Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, is among the highlights of the exhibit.

The Smithsonian recognition helps preserve a vital part of American life, said project founder Robert F. Darden, a journalism, public relations, and new media professor at Baylor.

"These recordings are priceless, irreplaceable, and historic in a way that scholars are only now realizing," Darden said.

The opening coincides with the ten-year anniversary of the project, begun at Baylor to identify, acquire, preserve, digitize, and catalog recordings from the black gospel music tradition. Many of those recordings made from 1945 to 1975 were vanishing as albums made the transition from vinyl to CDs. While albums by such legends as Mahalia Jackson are readily available, only a few by lesser-known greats could be found.

The project was launched shortly after the New York Times published an op-ed in 2005 by Darden, who lamented the vanishing number of classic releases from the genre's golden age. While contemporary gospel was thriving, "each day, irreplaceable master tapes deteriorate, get lost, or are simply tossed out," wrote Darden, a former gospel editor for Billboard magazine. "It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music. It would be a sin."

His passionate essay caught the attention of philanthropist Charles M. Royce, whose financial gift to Baylor University created the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which includes the Royce-Darden Collection.

Since its inception, the project has grown to include 1,968 items in its online collection, among them recordings from LPs, 78s, 45s, and pieces of music in taped formats that have been loaned or donated from throughout the world, with more arriving daily, Darden said.

Through the work of the Baylor Libraries' Digital Projects Group, recordings are available online in the Baylor Libraries Digital Collection, which also attracts researchers and others to Baylor in person. The collection includes streaming audio, photos, press packets, taped interviews, informal photographs, tour books and programs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and sheet music. …

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