“Dreaming” In Stereo: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference courtesy the Library of Congress

For many of our readers, the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s name likely conjures up images of Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe or the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland. But on this MLK Day 2017, we wanted to draw your attention to a few items from the collection with direct ties to Dr. King, especially his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963.

Dr. King’s speech that day has rightfully become one of the best-known speeches in American history, its words inspiring the lives of activists, preachers, scholars and the general public for the better part of six decades. For black gospel artists recording in the years after 1963, Dr. King’s speech was fertile ground for creative expression, and they responded by creating songs that sampled portions of the speech’s recorded audio, drew inspiration from its words, or otherwise supported the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of is delivery.


I Have A Dream, recorded audio of Dr. King’s speech, 1963 on Gordy Records 45 RPM disc (Click player below for audio)

 

This disc embodies two of the ways black gospel artists responded to Dr. King’s message. The B-Side recording contains just under 4 minutes’ worth of Dr. King’s speech and ends with raucous applause after his immortal lines, “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

 


Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King by Rev. Franklin Fondel, ca. 1969 on Cross & Crown Records 45 RPM disc (Click player below for audio)

 

The Rev. Franklin Fondel recorded these tracks with his Fondel Gospel Singers in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Plaintively spoken over an accompanying organ track, Rev. Fondel spells out in rhyme both Dr. King’s life achievements and his impact on the work of the Civil Rights Movement, noting that King’s love “was the key that opened freedom’s door; no other man could have done more.”

 


I Believe Martin Luther King Made It Home by The All-Star Gospel Singers, ca. 1969 on EM-Jay Records 45 RPM disc (Click player below for audio)

 

This bluesy tribute to Dr. King features layered vocals, upright bass and electric guitar and a simple vocal refrain: “I believe Martin Luther King made it home, yes I do.”

 


In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King by Claude Jeter, 1968 on HOB Records 45 RPM disc (Click player below for audio)

 

Recorded in the immediate aftermath of Dr. King’s death, Jeter’s spoken-word tribute to King’s life and work is set over accompaniment by electric bass, piano and organ.

 


As we reflect on Dr. King’s life and legacy on this January Monday, those of us at the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project hope these songs – and the thousands of others in the project – will help bring a new perspective to his message of love, equality and freedom for all.

“Lord, Don’t Forget About Me” – Thoughts on Sustainability, Digital Collections and Museums

buffet_quote_imageThis week, I’ve been attending the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference in Ft. Worth (a.k.a. Cowtown, a.k.a. Funkytown). Amid the usual offerings on how to engage preschool visitors, trends in collections management and how to navigate federal law as it relates to Native American ceremonial items, one of the recurring themes has been the idea of sustainability. Not in the environmentally friendly, pro-recycling sense of the term, but in something more stark: do struggling museums deserve to survive, and if so, what can we do to help? Are museums doomed to fail because they are in thrall to their habits – good and bad – and unable to undertake significant change?

Specifically, there was a major report funded by the Summerlee Foundation that examined the state of historic museums in Texas, and the findings were eye-opening. Many of the state’s history-focused institutions have entered into a mode that can charitably be described as “perpetuation.” In other words, they’ve grown past the initial fervor that brought them into being in the first place – saving a historic structure, for example – and have entered into a second or third generation of leadership whose focus is on maintaining the status quo, or, at worst, keeping the whole affair from closing altogether.

This is discomforting news for many of the state’s 1,000+ historic sites and museums, as it indicates a lack of strong leadership, compelling history, innovative business models and the other positive attributes identified by the Summerlee report that are key to an institution’s survival. Implicit in all of this discussion is a question many museum professionals are hesitant to ask: If an institution that has pledged itself to add permanence to an impermanent resource (i.e. a physical collection or structure) is now in jeopardy, at what point do we say, “enough is enough?” We don’t expect for-profit institutions and businesses to last in perpetuity; stores go out of business all the time. But we DO expect our museums to last forever because they serve a higher purpose, namely, holding cultural assets in the public trust.

So Where Do Digital Collections Enter Into The Discussion?

The crux of this conversation focuses on our brick-and-mortar (and lathe, and log, and millwork, and adobe) brethren, but there are lessons here for institutions like our Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections, too.

While we aren’t restricted by the requirement that we care for an aging, actively deteriorating physical structure, we do have built-in costs related to our work. Servers, digitizing equipment, staffing, storage for physical items: all of these costs are inherent in the work we do. Without a scanner, a server and people to run them both, we can’t create a digital surrogate of a rare black gospel 45, and we can’t put it online for the world to experience it.

Being part of a major university certainly makes our position more stable than many of our historic sites colleagues, but even we aren’t immune from the changing whims of researchers, students and the general public. So long as the requests keep coming in for access to 19th century sheet music, the works of women poets and back issues of our campus newspaper, we will see the obvious demand for the resources we are committed to creating and hosting into the future.

But if there comes a point where online access to collections is considered as quaint as handling an authentic butter churn – that is, something you do once on a vacation and not something that has relevance to your daily life – that’s when we’ll know we’ve moved from a cause to a burden. It’s at that crucial point where so many historic sites are caught today, and it’s something we are actively planning to avoid.

We Must Sing In Full Voice

A big part of avoiding the “in perpetuation” mindset is to keep our voice fresh, to keep seeking new ways to engage with users of all stripes, and to spread the word about the uniqueness, usefulness and openness of our resources.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote a number of rules for singing in his congregations. One of them was,

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

I think that advice is fitting for us as we work to create and promote our university’s unique cultural heritage assets via our digital collections. If we are engaged with the work, if we are focused and enthusiastic about what we do, that will show in our output, and people will carry the torch for us. But if we falter, if we give only a halfhearted effort, that, too, will show, and we’ll see an attendant downturn in interest.

But fear not, friends of our work: we have no plan to grow weary, to find our work a cross to bear rather than a song to sing, and we are fully committed to maintaining and expanding our collections “forever and ever, amen.” And the more you can help us by spreading the word to your friends and colleagues, the easier it will be to make sure our work is sustainable for generations to come.

One last note: if there’s a historic house museum, a county historical society or other history-related resource in your area, do all you can to support them. Pay them a visit, make a donation, volunteer to serve on their board of trustees, post something nice about them on Facebook; any help we can provide to our fellow culture preservers only benefits us as a society, and it keeps some really great people employed, too.

An Open Letter to Darius Rucker Re: The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

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Dear Mr. Rucker,

Allow us to introduce ourselves. We are the Digital Projects Group, five dedicated professionals in the world of digital collections in academia, specifically Baylor University in Waco, Texas. You probably don’t know who we are, but we know you’re familiar with Baylor: you and your buddies in Hootie and the Blowfish played a huge concert here in 2005, as evidenced by this photo and article from our campus newspaper, the Baylor Lariat:

Vintage you (and your buddies) from the December 1, 2005 "Lariat"

Vintage you (and your buddies) from the December 1, 2005 “Lariat”

But we’re not writing today to relive the glory days of Waco’s early 2000s music scene. Our goal is to pique your interest in our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, about which we’ve written extensively on this blog, and you may have seen featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and in various publications across the country. It’s even going to be a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open on the National Mall in 2016.

The reason we see this as something that might be of interest actually harkens back to a bonus track featured on the Blowfishes’ seminal 1994 album Cracked Rear View. Tucked away at the end is a beautiful a cappella rendition of the traditional Negro spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. We know YOU know what that sounded like, but for our readers who may not have experienced it yet, here’s a version from YouTube.

It’s impossible to say just how much emotion, history and tradition are embodied in that 54-second clip. According to Wikipedia, this particular song dates back to as late as the 1870s, with an early documented version showing up in 1899. It has particular resonance for African Americans given its ties to the destructive era of slavery in our country, but it also holds universal appeal to anyone who’s felt alone, lost and without a destination beyond the hoped-for “home” beyond this earthly life.

Our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project contains a dozen different versions of this song performed by artists ranging from Willa Dorsey to the Singing Stars of Louisburg, North Carolina (a short five-hour drive up the road from your native Charleston, South Carolina, as the map below indicates).

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In case you were interested in a road trip!

Of all the versions of that song to be found in the BGMRP, we are partial to the one recorded by the Malcom Dobbs Singers ca. 1963 for their album Great Spirituals. It is spare – only vocals, a timpano and an ethereal organ – but it contains a world of emotion, and it builds to a satisfying payoff of grandness tinged with sorrow. Take a listen below.


(Copyright RCA Camden, all rights reserved. See the full item in our Digital Collection for more information.)

Whichever version you prefer, it’s obvious to us that you felt a connection to this song, and we wanted to take a moment to point out its prominence in a collection we are very proud of. We hope you’re able to discover a new version you hadn’t heard before, and we hope our collection helps further your love of American gospel music.

We’re certainly not asking for anything on your part – you can consider this a publicly available version of an FYI – but if you were to, say, offer to come back to Waco and grace us with a concert of your favorite gospel-inspired songs, we certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that. (But seriously, if you want to talk, drop us an email: digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu.)

Best wishes on a successful tour of the UK!

Your friends in the Baylor University Digital Projects Group


This post is part of a series of Open Letters to musicians, authors and others that we hope will connect our collections to prominent people in America. If you have someone to suggest, or if you’re the subject of this post and want to drop us a line, send us an email (digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu).

For more information on Darius Rucker’s music, including available discs, upcoming shows and info on his latest release of Christmas music called Home for the Holidays, visit his website.

This Just In! A Quick Look at the DPG in the News So Far This Year

Just a quick post this week to update you all on a couple of the places the DPG and the Digital Collections have been popping up in the media over the past couple of months. We’re always grateful for our work to be featured in any potential arena – digital, broadcast or print – and we thought we’d take this opportunity to share with our blog readers.

Baylor University Institute for Oral History Introduces Online Audio Files

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Baylor professor Robert Darden restoring vanishing black gospel music

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Vast New Additions to the Digital Archive of Browning Letters

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This Train is Bound for D.C.: The Smithsonian-Baylor Digital Projects Group Black Gospel Collaboration Confirmed!

 

Our thoughts on today’s news, as captured by this album from The Trumpets of Jericho.

Some big news regarding the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project was made official this weekend via the social media of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC): the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), managed and maintained by our own Digital Projects Group, will become part of the permanent collection when the museum opens its doors in 2015!

According to the story from the NMAAHC’s Tumblr, we will contribute highlights from the collection for incorporation into an exhibition called the Musical Crossroads. From the Tumblr:

This permanent exhibition will tell the story of African American music from the arrival of the first Africans to the present day.

Both [NMAAHC curator Dr. Dwandalyn] Reece and [Baylor journalism professor Robert] Darden see these recordings as important additions to the new museum for the stories they can help tell. While planning for the exhibition is ongoing, the Baylor recordings may be used to explore the importance of gospel music to the civil rights movement.

Featuring select recordings from Baylor’s growing digital collection in the Smithsonian will give visitors an opportunity to learn these stories and to listen to many gospel recordings that may otherwise have been lost to history.

Dr. Reece also pointed out the ways is in which materials from the BGMRP can help us better understand the impact of black gospel music at a regional level:

The recordings may also be used to highlight the 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 collaboration announcement post, via the NMAAHC’s Tumblr page.

The project was sparked in 2005 by an op-ed piece written by Prof. Darden for the February 15 edition. In it, he bemoaned the loss of America’s recorded collections of black gospel music. That appeal generated a lead gift from collector Charles M. Royce that funded equipment and the first audiovisual specialist, Tony Tadey. From there, Prof. Darden’s tireless promotion combined with the technological and information handling mastery of the DPG to create a collection of more than 8,000 digitized tracks, 1,200 of which are available online with more added regularly. (For more on the history of the project, please visit the project website.)

We are obviously quite excited to be partnering with an institution with such an august reputation and world-wide name recognition as the Smithsonian Institution, and we look forward to working closely with Dr. Reece and her team at the NMAAHC in the coming months.

The Digital Projects Group is a part of the Electronic Library, a special collection within the Baylor University Libraries. DPG staff involved with the BGMRP are Assistant Director for Digital Projects Group, Darryl Stuhr; Audiovisual Specialist, Stephen Bolech; Digital Collections Curator, Eric Ames; and Digitization Coordinator, Allyson Riley.

For More Information

Read the NMAAHC’s Tumblr post

Read our previous blog post about the partnership

Visit the BGMRP homepage

View the BGMRP collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections

Visit the NMAAHC website

Email us at digitalcollectionsinfo[at]baylor.edu