WACO, TX — A surprisingly large number of “B” sides on old 45s of gospel songs address the subject of civil rights, the Vietnam War and other social issues, according to a Baylor University researcher who is overseeing a preservation effort called the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.
The recent discovery “tells us that the gospel community was much more involved in the civil rights movement than we previously thought — outside of Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates, who we knew were very involved,” said Robert Darden, an associate professor of journalism at Baylor and a former gospel editor for Billboard magazine.
In 2005, Darden began a search-and-rescue mission for gospel music on old 78s, 45s and LPs and in various taped formats to be preserved digitally and cataloged at Baylor.
Darden — author of People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music — was concerned that while contemporary gospel was thriving, early gospel by lesser known artists during the 1940s to the 1970s, the “Golden Age of Gospel Music,” might be lost forever.
“The reason we haven't known about the ‘B’ sides before is that more than third of what we've received is not in the lone book that tries to catalog all gospel music,” Darden said. “When we've known about a song, it is almost always the hit or ‘A’ side.”
The songs related to civil rights may have escaped notice because few scholars are studying gospel music’s impact on that issue, as well as the fact many of the artists are lesser known or even unknown, other than by a small circle of friends, family members and church members, he said.
The spirited “Where is Freedom?” by The Friendly Four begins with a rousing appeal: “Here’s a freedom song for all you freedom fighters out there everywhere. And when you sing, remember the wonderful ones who lost their dedicated lives for this precious purpose and won’t be allowed to see it through. Now sing — SING, every one of you!”
The lyrics speak of civil rights marches and demonstrations in Atlanta, Tennessee, Birmingham and Chicago, of violence and snapping police dogs, of integration and equal rights.
The All-Star Gospel Singers recorded “I Believe Martin Luther King Made It Home.” And the somber “Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King” by the Rev. Franklin Fondel speaks of the civil rights leader whose “voice was his weapon that opened barred doors . . . He’s free now forever, like all men should be, regardless of color, religion or creed.”
One of the well-known individuals who sang of civil rights was Della Reese, a gospel singer before she became a pop singer and star of TV’s “Touched by an Angel.” She sang “Simple Song of Freedom.”
Meanwhile, “That Freedom Plane,” by Norman Brooks, includes lyrics about a “President who held a conference and decided it was best/ to withdraw 25,000 and in time pull out the rest . . . Step on board (All aboard, the soldiers), We’re glad you’re coming home.”
President Nixon’s first round of troop withdrawals from Vietnam, in August of 1969, totaled 25,000, according to historical accounts.
Baylor University Libraries' Black Gospel Music Restoration Project grew out of a 2005 editorial by Darden in The New York Times.
Since the editorial ran, many people have provided funds for the project, and collectors of old gospel music have loaned or donated records — many of them warped, scratched and worn smooth from playing — for digital downloading.
Because of primitive technology and the cost, it was hard for many musicians to record live, Darden said. They might save a small amount of money so they could go to a studio to record two sides on one take.
Those involved in the project also are compiling taped music, taped interviews, informal photos, music programs, newspaper clippings and sheet music, Darden said.
So far, Baylor has obtained for preservation more than 2,000 loaned or donated LPs, 78s, 45s and pieces of music in taped formats from throughout the world. About 1,700 items have been digitized.