A Sisyphean* Task, An Unending Passion: “A Life’s Work” and Its Connection to the BGMRP

Records of America’s gospel heritage

Back in 2010, a crew of professional documentary filmmakers visited the Digitization Projects Group. They were on a mission: to interview and film the team of professionals working on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), a project brought to life through the vision of Baylor University journalism professor Robert Darden. David Licata and his crew spent a day shooting on-camera interviews with Professor Darden and hours of b-roll footage featuring our team working to clean, digitize, catalog and scan materials from the collection.

The footage Licata and his crew captured is being included in his documentary film, A Life’s Work. Described on his website as a “documentary about people engaged with projects they may not complete in their lifetime,” the film chronicles the stories of men and women who know their passionate pursuits will not be realized before they pass on to the next great adventure, and how that knowledge shapes their approach.

In addition to a segment on the BGMRP, Licata’s film will examine an architect and his “urban laboratory” in the Arizona desert; the director of the Center for SETI Research; and a father-son team of tree farmers who are trying to clone old-growth trees for long-term reforestation projects.

Prof. Darden’s attempts to save America’s black gospel musical tradition – especially materials from its “Golden Age” from 1945-1975 – have been documented on NPR’s Fresh Air, in the pages of major newspapers across the country, and through Darden’s own relentless drive to present about the project in front of audiences across the country. He knows the odds are stacked against him in terms of finding and saving the majority of the existing gospel recordings. In fact, by Darden’s own estimate, more than 75% of these recordings have already been lost.

But through hard-nosed tenacity and the generosity of some major donors, we at the DPG have managed to digitize and preserve thousands of black gospel songs thanks to a combination of technology and staff expertise. From the efforts of our original audio engineer, Tony Tadey, to the ongoing work being done by audio-visual digitization specialist Stephen Bolech – along with contributions by every member of the DPG team – our group has seen the importance of Darden’s work and are fully invested in helping him realize his dream.

One Step Closer to the Big Screen

This week we received an email from Licata telling us he’d added a new sequence of footage from his time at Baylor to the blog for A Life’s Work, and we wanted to pass it along to you, our blog readers. There are actually two clips at the link, and both feature interviews with Darden and a look at Tadey’s work in the audio booth. Licata’s blog post is full of excellent detail on the thought process behind how he creates the sequences for his documentary.

View the clip at YouTube

One update for our readers regarding Darden’s concerns about keeping someone in the position of audio engineer is worth noting here. Since the interview with Darden was conducted in 2010, the Electronic Library has added a full time staff member – Stephen Bolech – to work with audio-visual materials, including materials from the BGMRP. In addition, we are contracting with Tony to continue his work digitizing materials from a major collector in the Chicago area (where Tony now lives and works). To answer Darden’s quote from the clip, “I need more faith,” we can respond with a hearty “praise the Lord and pass the reins to Stephen” – the BGMRP will go on, and Darden’s fears of the project languishing can be laid aside.

Stephen Bolech at work in the audio booth

We are eagerly awaiting the release of A Life’s Work and will pass along details to you as they become available. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit Licata’s website, read his blog, and support the people in your life whom you know to be on a quixotic quest to do something that seems impossible. Without their efforts, we may truly lose irreplaceable pieces of our shared human experience, and that’s the gospel truth.

To Learn More about A Life’s Work

View the trailer for A Life’s Work

Visit the website for A Life’s Work

Follow Licata’s blog

* For you non-Greek myth buffs, Sisyphus was a king who was forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill for all eternity. The worst part? Every time he got it to the top, it rolled back down again and the cycle continued anew. Now, his name is an adjective meaning “endless and unavailing, as labor or a task.”