Deep River

By  |  September 4, 2018
“Gospel Singer 3” (2013), by Suzy Schultz. Courtesy of artist “Gospel Singer 3” (2013), by Suzy Schultz. Courtesy of artist

F

ollow the lyrics of black sacred music, from the spirituals through emancipation and the civil rights movement to present day, as gospel music historian Robert Darden has in his three books on the topic, and certain images recur. Many of the symbols are drawn from nature. As Darden writes in the afterword to the second and final volume of Nothing But Love in God’s Water, his 2016 book tracing the music from sit-ins to Resurrection City, “The image that I kept in the back of my mind as I read and researched and interviewed was that of a river—God’s water—that flowed then and flows now in an unbroken stream.” 

When I picture a river, I picture the Brazos as it runs through Waco, Texas, where I was born and raised, and where Darden has lived and worked for nearly fifty years. The city has a kind of languorous rhythm. Likely, this draws from the river, named El Rio de los Brazos de Dios, or the River of the Arms of God, by Spanish explorers, evidently because it was the first water to be found by some desperately thirsty travelers. The Brazos splits Waco into east and west. Historically, the two sections of town are segregated: East Waco is black, and West Waco is white. Like so many rivers and railroads throughout the United States, the River of the Arms of God—God’s water—divided the town along racial lines. 

If you follow the river down from the Lake Whitney Dam, it meanders southeast until it crosses under MLK Jr. Blvd., meets and subsumes the lower Bosque river, then travels alongside Cameron Park, where towering pecan trees line its western bank. Past the park, it runs through downtown Waco, dips under I-35, and curves up against the northeast edge of Baylor University’s campus. This is the home of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which Darden started in 2007. 

In many ways, Baylor is a fitting host for the archive. Though you’d be unlikely to find a blues or rap restoration project at Baylor, gospel’s Christian message fits right in. The Baptist university has seen its share of scandals over the last twenty years, the most recent of which saw the university’s president, athletic director, and head football coach forced out of their jobs in the wake of revelations of a systemic failure to address sexual assault on campus. But Baylor’s unabashed embrace of Christian topics within academia puts it in a unique position to explore important and under-represented fields. Darden’s work is one example. 

“I just have this fear every day that somewhere there’s another load going to the landfill of the only known copy of something that helped change American music,” Darden told me. So he started the Restoration Project, which aims to “collect, digitize, and archive” all of the recordings available from “gospel’s golden age,” roughly 1945–1975. Because there is no reliable discography of extant gospel recordings (creating one is another ambition of Darden’s), Darden and other scholars have trouble even estimating how many songs that may turn out to be. 

 

Born in 1954, Darden, who is white, grew up on Air Force bases all over the world. Because the Air Force was the first integrated service, his friends and neighbors included African Americans and those of many other races and backgrounds, an uncommon experience for a middle-class white boy of that era. Black gospel music wasn’t a staple for his family, but he heard it when visiting other homes on the bases. When his father was promoted to captain, he used his raise to buy a record player and three records, one of which was Mahalia Jackson’s Christmas album. “My parents said that I played that record over and over and over again until I wore it out,” Darden told me. “My wife, Mary, says that I have spent the last fifty-eight years trying to replicate the thrill I got from hearing that voice for the first time.” 

He moved to Waco in 1972 to attend Baylor University as an undergraduate, and, except for a couple of years in grad school, has lived there ever since. His first job was as a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald, where he reported regularly on Word Records, which, at the time, was based in Waco and comprised something like seventy percent of the religious music market. In part because of his access to artists through Word, in 1984 he got a job as gospel music editor for Billboard magazine, a post he held for a decade. In 1988, on top of his writing, Darden began teaching classes at Baylor as an adjunct professor. He became a full-time faculty member in 1999. 

In 2001, when Darden set out to write the first comprehensive history of black gospel music, from its African origins into the twenty-first century, he came across citations to many fundamental songs—early recordings by the Staple Singers; “There Is Not a Friend Like Jesus” by the Roberta Martin Singers; “Peace in the Valley” by the Southern Sons— but found that the recordings were long gone, never to be heard again. So he sought what could be salvaged. In Chicago, he climbed to the top floor of a tenement building, where he listened in awe as a woman sang lines to old freedom songs. In Memphis, he swayed and clapped in the pews of Al Green’s church. But when he finished People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music in 2004, having painstakingly laid out the history of the genre, he almost couldn’t bear that many of its core components were lost to us. 

After Darden finished the book, he got in touch with some of his old contacts from Billboard, gospel scholars and collectors like Bob Marovich, Opal Nations, and Ray Funk. He wanted to determine how much of black gospel music from its golden age was lost or unavailable. They estimated seventy-five percent. 

Ask them why, and the answer gets complicated. “Part of it is racism,” Darden says. “Part of it is economic.” Part of it has to do with the consolidation in the music industry (some record companies hold the copyrights to these songs, but, lacking financial incentive, don’t make them available in any form). And the last part, as he sees it, is the religious aspect of this music. Marovich put it to me this way: “When I was growing up, there was always, in our neighborhood, a couple of guys in white shirts and black ties that wanted to talk to you about Jesus. And you wanted to run the opposite direction from those guys. . . . Gospel is a little frightening to the unknowledgeable.” 

In February of 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the loss of these treasures from gospel’s golden age: “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he writes. “It would be a sin.” The apparent imbalance of that remark stuck with me. By any honest standard, we sin regularly. A cultural disaster seems like a much more grievous affair. But I also had the feeling that he was onto something—that the loss of this music was a moral failing born out of a history of oppression and neglect. He explained to me that when he wrote that, he had in mind Jim Wallis’s (at the time controversial) claim that racism was America’s original sin. 

The day the op-ed came out, Charles Royce, an investor from New York with no particular ties to gospel music, called Darden and asked what needed to be done to save what remained of the music. With Royce’s funding, and with the institutional support of Baylor University libraries, Darden and his colleagues started the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. In a 2007 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Darden said, “We see it as kind of like those seed banks up around the Arctic Circle that keep one copy of every kind of seed there is in case there’s another Dutch elm disease. I just want to make sure that every gospel song, the music that all American music comes from, is saved.” 

 

My first visual impression of Darden was his shock of white hair. He’s a big man, and I always found him wearing a blazer over an open collar. Once, on a reporting trip in West Birmingham, in a time before ubiquitous smartphones, he was mistaken for Bill Clinton. When you talk to him, he addresses you with his head tilted and his good ear aimed at your mouth. He’s a drummer (currently in an r&b band composed of Baylor faculty), which might account for the diminished hearing in his good ear. He was born deaf in the other. 

On a cold morning in January, walking under the canopy of a massive live oak outside Baylor’s Moody Library, Darden told me that the first thing he did after Royce offered to fund a restoration project was walk across the parking lot between his office and the library. “Because academics trust libraries. We don’t trust a lot of people,” he said, only sort of joking. “And that turned out to be the smartest thing that I could have ever done.” 

Baylor’s Riley Digitization Lab is on the basement level of the Moody Library. Even when the lab is fully operational, as it was on the Friday morning I visited, it appears dark and vacant. If you’ve ever tediously catalogued large amounts of data and, against your better judgment, found it slowly thrilling, you’d be very comfortable in this place, surrounded by quiet, knowledgeable, and earnest technicians. 

When a record arrives at the lab, it’s first cleaned in a Keith Monks record cleaner, a remarkable machine handmade in the United Kingdom that looks more or less like a record player with a mini-vacuum cleaner and a cleaning solution dispenser where you’d expect the needle on a turntable. But when Travis Taylor, a technician, lifted up the turntable to reveal the insides, I could see that it’s equipped with plastic tubing running to mason jars full of clean and dirty liquid. (“We make the interns drink that,” he joked.) He told me that records, despite collecting dirt, dust, and mold, hold their condition well. Just running one through the record cleaner can bring out a like-new sound. 

After cleaning, the records are digitized on one of two turntables in a small, heavily soundproofed room a few steps from the cleaning station. Taylor ran me through the tricks they use to get the best possible sound from a given record. Sometimes they’ll make adjustments to the settings on the turntable or the tonearm. Occasionally it’s as simple as giving the arm a little nudge. Other times they’ll have to digitally piece the song back together. Then, they catalogue loads of meta-data related to each recording. Finally, they take each record and accompanying material to be imaged so that the digital images can be stored with the audio files. 

A nearby room houses the onsite machinery on which the digitized files are stored. Darryl Stuhr, who is in charge of this aspect of the project, spoke loudly over the machines in what, to me, sounded like another language. The message: quite a lot of thought, machinery, and effort goes into the digital preservation of these songs. It can be a slow process because the music they’re looking for (only vinyl, only from the golden age) is hard to come by, and because once they have it, it can take a while to process. Right now they’ve got almost three terabytes of gospel music files, just shy of fifteen thousand digitized songs. Anyone can access the files online. Many of the archive’s songs were included in a musical history exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Darden and his wife were invited to a gala before the opening of the museum, an experience Darden described as “careening from one emotional place to the next.” There’s a continuing relationship between Baylor and the Smithsonian to build on this collection and develop others. 

Not to overstate it, but I sensed a kind of monkishness to the Restoration Project’s meticulous archiving, a sacrosanct method filled with painstaking rituals (the careful cleaning, the file-naming conventions, the arcana of digital preservation)—plus the notion that it is all in service of something bigger. While Taylor was showing me around, he confessed that when he first started the job, he thought some parts of the process seemed unnecessary. “But, you find that everything [has a] kind of a reason.” 

 

One day early on in the project, its first engineer, Tony Tadey, called Darden down to the digitization lab to hear a song. It was Tadey’s job to listen through all of the records that came in. By this point he had heard a lot of gospel music, but for some reason this song especially moved him. Darden says he wept openly when Tadey played the recording for him. It was “The Old Ship of Zion” by the previously unknown Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland. It was probably recorded in one take, likely in a small, resonant church. It’s a rare recording from the collection of Bob Marovich, who received the record from a collector from Baltimore. Marovich played it once on Gospel Memories, his radio show that airs on Chicago’s WLUW-FM, then hadn’t much listened to it until he sent it to Waco. (The Restoration Project is digitizing Marovich’s entire collection, more than five thousand records.) 

The song has become a kind of anthem for Darden and his colleagues for the beauty of its sound, the rarity of the recording, and the depth of the song’s message. When I first met with Darden in Waco, he gave me a vinyl copy of the Mighty Wonders’ 45 that he and his team had pressed to accompany the second volume of Nothing But Love. I’ve since listened to “The Old Ship of Zion” dozens of times. It’s just three voices, a cappella, a stripped-down song of expressive repetition. Halfway through, after beckoning the listener to Step on board, the soloist arrives at the chorus: There’s nothing but love in God’s water. 

Follow the Brazos River out of Waco, and you progress southeast in a slow, curving scribble. Before long you’re in Marlin, where it’s said that two blind guitarists competed for tips on a busy downtown strip: on one corner of the street, the father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson, on the other, the king of gospel blues, Blind Willie Johnson. This downtown street, on those afternoons in the 1920s, pitted secular against spiritual. The details of those days are murky, but it’s easy to imagine the genre cross-pollination, one musician inspired by the other. You can picture the two musical icons with cans for tips attached to their guitar necks, vying for the attention of pedestrians, or perhaps not much caring, perhaps taken away by the music. 

In a way, Johnson himself embodied a different kind of gospel music archive, a sort of earlier iteration of the current archive. As Darden points out in the first volume of Nothing But Love, Johnson was among the “songsters” who kept the old spirituals alive through the early 1900s. In this period between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, Johnson and his contemporaries maintained the thread of black sacred music by singing it on street corners, in churches, in improvised recording studios—wherever people would hear it. 

It’s hard to say where gospel originated. Maybe it was born with the Prince of Peace in a manger in Bethlehem. Certainly it was stirred in the hot rhythms of pre-colonial West African music. We know that the horror of slavery in the New World brought these traditions into grotesque tension. That tension emitted a rhythm. The rhythm found a beat, sometimes soothing, sometimes irascible. As the iconic civil rights leader and lawmaker Congressman John Lewis put it to Darden in what Darden describes as “a voice four octaves lower than God’s”: “Gospel music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the civil rights movement.” Lewis has also put it another way: “Without music, and I mean this, without music the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” 

One thing Darden noticed as the records began filtering through the archive at Baylor was that on B sides he’d sometimes find songs overtly related to the civil rights movement. Songs like “No Segregation in Heaven.” This reminded him of the double-voicedness of the old spirituals. On the one hand, the spiritual is a religious work song, and on the other, it’s a cry for freedom. In fact, as Darden notes in People Get Ready!, several spirituals are suspected to have contained specific instructions for escape. For Darden, that link between the two periods was evidence of the unbroken succession of the music. 

In the afterword to the second volume of Nothing But Love, Darden quotes Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison’s influential essay, “Movements and Cultural Change,” in which they argue that “music enters into what we have called the collective memory, and songs can conjure up long-lost movements from extinction as well as reawakening forgotten structures of feeling.” Many, including Darden, have pointed out that it’s no coincidence that the golden age of gospel corresponds exactly with the major advances of the modern civil rights movement. 

Backtrack northwest up the Brazos, past Waco, and you’re on the outskirts of Fort Worth, home to Kirk Franklin, contemporary gospel music’s brightest star. Darden ends People Get Ready! with a section on him. Franklin has had tremendous success in the industry and he’s been forthright about the difficultly in adhering to the strictures of the religious genre. 

In a New Yorker magazine profile of Franklin, Vinson Cunningham writes: “Acts like [Sam] Cooke, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin made their way into the hearts of pop audiences by shedding their music’s religious content while retaining its fervor. They left traditional gospel behind and invented, in its place, an entirely new American genre: soul.” Collaborating with secular artists like Kanye West, Franklin has tried to stretch the boundaries of gospel without breaking them, both to make room for his creative ambition and to gain cultural traction with a wider audience, though in this cultural moment, Kirk Franklin’s brand of gospel is not at the forefront of social movements. As Cunningham points out, “Other acts held on to the sacred, and some of them were swept into wider fame by the social turmoil of the sixties. Mahalia Jackson soundtracked the civil-rights movement, echoing its overtly religious appeal. But nobody danced to Mahalia; hers was a moral moment, and the mainstream largely left her there.” 

Today’s feels like another moral moment. Not simply because of our obvious political polarization, or the elevated platform given to closed-mindedness and bigotry, but because we’re more aware than ever of injustice—racial, sexual, economic, environmental—yet we’re unable to unify to meaningfully address it. But Dr. King’s message was far from universally accepted in the black community, and even among his supporters there was disagreement and tension. In a 2009 interview with Darden, Jimmy Collier, a musician and activist who traveled and performed regularly with Dr. King, explained that when words failed, music was the “river that carried all kinds of people and pulled them together in going the same direction. And it did it quickly, it did it efficiently, it did it without as much argument or friction.” 

Several times in our conversations, I put some form of the same question to Darden: Is gospel music a tool we’ve neglected at our peril? While he of course thinks that gospel has been unjustly neglected, I sensed he thought I was framing it wrong. To call sacred music a tool is to belittle it. One can’t simply apply a song to a movement and expect tangible results. But listening to these songs, which have emboldened the oppressed for centuries, might be the best way we have to understand, to inhabit, the transcendent frame of mind that elevated resistance to a spiritual plane. It’d be hard to argue that gospel has the stature it did at the height of the civil rights movement, but Darden has shown in his work that these songs tend to re-emerge, and he and his team are doing their part to ensure the music won’t be easily forgotten. They’re creating a deep well from which timeless structures of feeling can be drawn and washed over a nation in need. 


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

Will Bostwick writes and works construction in Austin, Texas. His reporting has taken him from the fjords of northern British Columbia to the Texas–Mexico border. He was born and raised in Waco.