Ever hear the song “Travelin’ Up” by the Singinaires? Probably not. The recording, along with some 5,000 others, is part of an effort to preserve early Black Gospel Music, based out of Baylor University. You can now hear some of these songs at the Smithsonian’s Museum for African American History and culture – which opens this weekend.
Bob Darden grew up listening to songs like “Great Get’n Up Morning by D.C. Christian Harmonizers.
For years, Darden wrote about gospel music for Billboard Magazine, before becoming a professor at Baylor University. In 2004, he wrote “People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel”, a comprehensive look at gospel music, which he says has largely gone undocumented.
But for Darden and other gospel fans something big was still missing.
“After finishing the book I would be writing about these songs that were the foundation of all American popular music and I couldn’t hear them," Darden said. "I would go on Amazon, I would go on eBay, and I couldn’t find copies of these songs to listen to.”
That frustration led Darden to pen an op-ed to the New York Times, where he bemoaned the lack of gospel preservation, saying the loss of this music wasn’t just a “cultural disaster” it was a sin. The next day Darden received a call from New York City investor Charles Royce. Royce said he’d write a check to help establish a gospel music preservation effort. Within a couple years, Darden and Baylor University libraries set up the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.
“That is now the world’s largest initiative to identify, acquire, digitize, and catalog gospel music," Darden said.
To date he estimates the project has digitally preserved some 5 to 6,000 gospel records. That work got the attention of the Smithsonian. They were interested in using parts of the collection for its National Museum of African American History and Culture. Eric Ames is the curator of digital collections at Baylor. He says the songs will be presented with other styles of music on a touch screen where visitors can play different songs.
“So for gospel, when you tap it one of the things that comes up is "The Old Ship of Zion", says Ames.
Darden says this song from the Mighty Wonders has become somewhat of a flagship song for the project.
"It’s probably 5 maybe 6 voices singing around a single microphone in a tiny little wooden African-American church in rural Maryland, Aquasco, Maryland – just a flyspeck on the map.”
"The Old Ship of Zion" was recorded during what’s often referred to as the “Golden Age of Gospel”, roughly 1945 to 1975. That’s the timeframe the Black Gospel restoration project focuses on, gathering everything from major label releases to smaller, independent recordings like the Old Ship of Zion.
Ames, who has been with the project since its early days, says that while this is a niche slice of African-American history, it’s an essential part of it all.
“I think it's every bit as important to look at the history of a music in era as it is to look at the written word, to look at the books that came out, to look at the oral histories of people who lived through it. So if we can help tell that story through the audio in this collection, I think that helps. It gives you a more nuanced view.”
The records they’ve digitized at Baylor have largely been loaned to the project from private collectors across the country. They’re also from personal collections, from people that lived through this time. But Darden and his team will also comb through record stores, looking for regional recordings and rarities. Once acquired, the records are cataloged, their album art scanned, then meticulously cleaned and digitally preserved.
It can be a lengthy process, but for Darden and the project, it’s worth the effort. Because in the end, these songs and the stories they tell will have an audience once again.
"That’s what we’re doing, is putting this all together in a form that, hopefully," Darden said, "because of the Smithsonian, that somebody down the road won’t have to run into the same thing I did, this song changed America why the hell can’t I find it?”