February 21, 2018 / 5:48 PM

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Gospel Music in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture


(Photo : Wikimedia Common)
National Museum of African American History and Culture

For some, Gospel music is enjoyable, for others, it is a passion. For Baylor University's Robert Darden, it is his life's work. For years, he and his team have worked to identify, digitally record and catalog both well known and obscure recordings that make up the black gospel music tradition. Those 8000+ tracks will now be a permanent part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, Darden's work in progress, was established in 2008. Its goal is to create a digital copy of every song released by every black gospel artist or group during the “Golden Age of Gospel” that spanned the 1940s to the 1980s. The roots of gospel music run deep in our nation’s history, but its history has not been well documented. Though Gospel extends back to African influences and incorporate early American hymns and spirituals, providing part of the foundation for other styles like R&B and rock ’n’ roll, much (like early recordings and stories about performers) has been lost. For every well-known recording by artists like Mahalia Jackson or the Hall Johnson Choir, there are thousands of other recordings from lesser-known artists like Sister Lucille Pope, the Angelic Gospel Singers and the Roxy Male Quartets that have been largely forgotten and are nearly impossible to find.

Dwandalyn Reece, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is excited that the Restoration Project will be coming to live at the museum. "I think it’s a tremendous resource," Reece shared with J.B. Smith of the The Waco Tribune-Herald during a visit to attend Baylor’s Pruit Memorial Symposium on black sacred music. "I marvel at things like this. We always bemoan the fact that history isn’t being preserved. It takes resources, and Baylor has put forth the effort."

Many of the original early recordings were made on were made on 45 rpm records. The "hit" was on one side and the artist's personal choice song was on the "flip" side. Those "flip side songs" were often used to share Civil Rights messages. One major example of one of those flip side songs was "Where is Freedom" by the Friendly Four.

Flip sides were also used to highlight regional diversity of early gospel music. "Not all gospel recordings made during the pinnacle of gospel’s popularity were made on major labels," Reece explained. "Many were done in connection with local churches and there are differences in style based on where these types of recordings were made."

“The Old Ship of Zion” by the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland is one of these recordings. Darden and his team believes the record was cut around 1960 in one of Aquasco’s tiny street-corner studios but after much research, they couldn't find any further information on it. The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s copy of the album is one of only two known to exist.

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