By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer
The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP) is one of four projects featured in “A Life’s Work” a documentary about people who have dedicated their lives to projects that will outlive them.
“A Life’s Work” has been screened at a number of film festivals and won the
Audience Award at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. The film will be shown at the Waco Family and Faith International Film Festival, which takes place from Feb. 3 to 5 at Cinemark Waco.
David Licata, producer and director of “A Life’s Work,” said the projects featured in the film are important to recognize because they show people preserving things and passing them down to the next generation.
In addition to the BGMRP, the film features Jill Tarter, an astronomer searching for extraterrestrial life; David and Jared Milarch, a father-son duo who clone old growth trees to combat climate change; and Paolo Soleri, an architect who designed a town to test his theories about overpopulation while also preserving the environment.
Licata said he decided to feature the project when he heard Robert Darden, Baylor professor of journalism and founder of the BGMRP, discuss the project on NPR.
“I listened and I thought, ‘This is absolutely perfect,’” Licata said. “He was obviously very intelligent and very articulate. I loved his accent. So when I heard about him and heard what he was doing, it was just perfect, and the scope of it was just right. I mean, he had no illusions about what he was doing.”
The goal of the BGMRP is to preserve and catalog the most at-risk music from the Black gospel music tradition. The project began in 2005 when Darden sent an editorial to the New York Times entitled “Gospel’s Got the Blues” after he discovered that 75% of music from Black gospel’s Golden Age was unavailable to the public.
Darden said he was frustrated by the loss of Black gospel music because of its importance to American history.
“It’s one of the best chronicles we have of what life was like in Jim Crow America,” Darden said. “This music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the Civil Rights Movement. And 20 years later, people had just forgotten about the music, the freedom songs and the spirituals. So it just got left behind, and there wasn’t anybody championing the preservation of it for future generations.”
Darden also said Black gospel music is the foundation of American popular music.
“The truly American music comes from African Americans,” Darden said. “The music that we identify with this country — whether it’s blues or jazz or rock and roll or rap or gospel — all of those have their roots in Black music, which all has their roots in the sacred music and the work songs of African Americans.”
After 17 years, the BGMRP’s collection of digitally archived Black gospel records sits at around 14,000 recordings according to Darden, many of which are the only known copy. Darden said it is believed to be the largest digitized collection available to the public, and it provides gospel music for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The collection also contains around 2,000 physical vinyls on hand in the Black Gospel Archive and Listening Center, which opened in November and is located on the garden level of Moody Memorial Library.
The digitization process for the BGMRP occurs in the Riley Digitization Center, located right next to the Listening Center, which Darden said is the “world’s greatest digitization lab.” In addition to digitizing records, the lab digitizes old film reels, cassettes, books, manuscripts and more.
Darryl Stuhr, director for Digitization and Digital Collection Preservation Services, said digitization is important because many older technologies like film and vinyls can be unstable and deteriorate.
Hannah Engstrom, an audio specialist, said the first thing the lab does with a record is inventory it. Then, after cleaning the vinyl, the record is taken into a recording booth, where it is played on a turntable and recorded by a computer.
Stuhr said the raw audio is then preserved before the file is compressed in order to be uploaded to the internet. Stuhr said compression reduces some of the quality of the recordings.
“One of the things that we offer in the Black Gospel Archive is the ability to listen to those high-resolution .wav files on some high fidelity equipment,” Stuhr said. “Listening to the high-resolution audio on that equipment is a great experience.”
Jeffry Archer, dean of university libraries, said the Listening Center was designed to immerse listeners in the music and give them direct access to it. He said the Listening Center was important to fund because he feels there is very little multicultural celebration on Baylor’s campus.
“When we had the dedication, a student said that this is the first time that she felt heard and seen because she saw her own culture being reflected in our spaces,” Archer said. “So we want to do that with other cultures as well. That is another incentive for us to do this for students here at Baylor.”
While traffic to the Listening Center has been slow, Stuhr said the reaction from students has been positive. He said he hopes to get more students excited about the project.
The National Association of Black Journalists will have a “Black Gospel Experience” event hosted by Darden in the future. He said he will give a talk and take students on a tour of the Listening Center and digitization lab.
Darden said he is set to retire in May 2023 but plans to still be involved with the project as much as he can.
“This will go on long after I’m done,” Darden said. “This is just one of those great joys. I never get tired of walking across the parking lot when they call and say, ‘Hey, we got a new box. You want to come see what’s in it?’ It’s like Christmas every day. Nearly every piece of vinyl I open up is something special. Each one of these is sacred to me.”