Two carloads of black gospel singers legally pass a slow-wheeling white farmer on a two-lane road in rural Mississippi. It’s the early 1960s. The anti-black laws of Jim Crow are waning but still reign.
“The farmer stopped somewhere along the way and made a phone call,” said Philadelphia. Pa. native and resident Howard Carroll, 85, a founding member of the Dixie Hummingbirds and a passenger in one those vehicles nearly 50 years ago. “They put up a roadblock. They didn’t take us to jail but out to some house where the guy living there was the mayor and the whole city council and everything. He looked at us, and the cars we were driving, and threw a great big fine on us.”
Things could have much worse, said Carroll, given the dangers of that lynching era. Though gospel artists mainly are known for their sacred songs of comfort and consolation, they also sang protests that played a role in Jim Crow’s undoing. “That was part of work,” Carroll said. “We felt we also were contributing.”
That fact is being spotlighted by Baylor University’s 2-year-old Gospel Music Restoration Project, which recently has been unearthing what its chief archivist says are lesser known “B-side” recordings of civil rights protests by famous and obscure gospel artists alike. “No Segregation in Heaven,” “The Alabama Bus,” and “Assassination” are a sample of the 78s, 45s, LPs and tapes in assorted formats, dating back to 1919, that are among the roughly 1,600 songs cataloged thus far.
“That they were on the B-side suggest a couple of things: Few radio stations, which mainly were white-owned, were doing playing gospel music at all, so they were not widely circulated. And what was on the B-side mostly was being listened to in the black community,” said Robert Darden, 57, a Baylor journalism professor who founded the archives. “It was a kind of private message.”
Private, perhaps, but only to a point. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Birmingham’s arm of the white-dominated AFL-CIO actually hired the local CIO Singers, a gospel quarter, to open its union rallies with a combination of straight-out, heaven-bound gospel but also protesting gospel songs. “Every community — places where there was no other entertainment—had one of these quartets. The unions used them to promote their cause, but, more centrally, they had a lot to do with battling Jim Crow,” said the Rev. George Stewart, 57, a former radio broadcaster and record company executive who founded the American Gospel Quartet Convention.
Along with lay singers, gospel artists were among those who opened for civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King Jr. “They we would preach and we would sing. It would be a whole concert sometimes. That’s how we played a part in the movement,” said Roscoe Robinson, 82, of Birmingham, Ala. He sang with, among others, the prominent Blind Boys of Alabama and Blind Boys of Mississippi, Sam Cooke and the Soul-Stirrers and Highway QCs.Baylor’s restoration aims to identify, legally acquire and preserve that music, made by legends such as the Blind Boys, Hummingbirds and Della Reese, artists with regional followings and those suspected of working under an assumed name, fearing what they might suffer if their true identities got out, Darden said. “For me personally, I get a rush every time I hear ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ And my favorite is ‘Old Ship of Zion,’ a version by the Mighty Wonders. They were nobody [famous] … a tiny little group in far western Maryland. It’s plantation country; some bad things happened there.”
A former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine and author of the upcoming Nothing But Love In God’s Water: The Influence of Black Sacred Music on the Civil Rights Movement, Darden expresses an urgency about the preservation project: “The music wasn’t valued [by white-owned record labels] when it came out. Since then, a lot was destroyed, or bought by recording labels that, despite repeated pleas from collectors around the world, never re-released them. Label owners went bankrupt or destroyed some of this music or let it rot, which was more likely what happened.”
Right now, 30-second clips of the songs can be accessed on Baylor’s website. Available on iTunes are 15 songs that the archive’s lawyers have concluded are so-called orphans, with no authors, copyright owners or artists’ heirs who are still alive. (In Black History Month 2010 and 2011, iTunes promoted the 15 on the Web site’s front page.) Lawyers are still trying to determine the manner and extent to which the broader catalogue might eventually be made available to the public. To hear the recordings in their entirety, “right now, you have to come to Waco,” Darden said.
Once the legalities are settled, Darden hopes that universities whose musicologists have expressed interests in the archives might make them accessible through listening stations.
Meanwhile, in addition to the music, the project also aims to collect press packets, photos, packets, taped interviews, tour books, souvenir journals, news clippings, sheet music and such that scholars can review.