November 19, 2007


How Sweet the Sound: A Baylor professor sets out to preserve black gospel's golden age (Michael Hoinski, November 16, 2007, Texas Observer)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of gospel’s bedrock song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Recorded by Chicago piano man Thomas Dorsey following the death of his wife and infant son in childbirth, it typifies the genre in its calling on a higher power in time of need. While Dorsey went on to become “the father of gospel music,” Robert Darden, a former Billboard gospel music editor turned professor of journalism at Baylor University, may become its savior.

In March, Darden started work on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. Its mission is to identify and acquire black gospel recordings, primarily from the music’s mid-20th-century golden age, and digitize them to create a virtual encyclopedia of a musical style unparalleled in its religious zeal.

Black gospel accounts for only a small fraction of Christian-gospel album sales. Old-school black gospel—the genesis of soul and the launchpad for Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles—accounts for an even smaller fraction. There are several reasons why this music hasn’t experienced a renaissance, as vintage jazz has over the past two decades with the conversion of time-worn vinyl into CD and MP3 formats.

For one, many black gospel labels from the genre’s heyday have had their catalogs gobbled up by major labels and other corporations, in whose warehouses they languish. Meanwhile, a dozen or so worldwide collectors are hoarding much of the rest, or breaking it up by selling it off piecemeal on eBay. Also, countless undocumented, one-off records—the kind made to, say, help a church pay off a note—are bequeathed from grandparents to grandchildren, who neglect, trash, or donate them because they either don’t know their cultural significance or are embarrassed by the bygone music.

Anyone who cares about black history or who has been redeemed by black gospel—by an individual’s repentant outpouring, a family act’s fevered calls-and-responses, or a quartet’s amens between choreographed dance moves—can recognize the tragedy of losing these recordings forever.

As the only white kid in the East Orange Gospel Ensemble in the early 70s, my two favorites were Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley and a version of Gospel Plow that I've never been able to locate on-line:

Well, my mama, she was a soldier
She put her hand on the gospel plow
When one day she got old, she couldn't fight anymore
She said, I'm gonna make it to Heaven, anyhow

We are soldiers, in the army
We got to fight, although we got to die...

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 12:07 AM
Comments for this post are closed.