American gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

American gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Black gospel music was a cornerstone of the civil rights era, but today, many seminal recordings are at risk of being lost. This is why Professor Robert Darden from Baylor University spearheaded the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which is dedicated to restoring and preserving gospel tracks from between the 1940s and the 1980s, a time considered to be the genre’s golden era.

Guests

  • Robert Darden Journalism and New Media Professor, author, and founder of Baylor University's Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

Three Of Darden's Favorite Gospel Tracks

‘Great Get’n Up Morning’ performed by the DC Christian Harmonizers

This is a spiritual that later became a labor anthem under the title ‘Great Revolutionary Morning.’ “This is one of the songs that when African-Americans were finally allowed in the American labor movement in the 1930s and ’40s that blended the two song traditions,” Darden says.

‘Old Ship of Zion’ performed by The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, MD

“I love all the 10,000 songs we have, but this holds a special place,” Darden says. It was recorded live in one take and not many copies were made, and when Darden first heard it, he burst into tears. Later, Darden appeared on radio in Baltimore and someone told him that the group behind the recording was from the area, and he was able to find some of the performers.

‘Move Up a Little Higher’ performed by The Grace Gospel Singers with W. J. McPhatter

“I’m so thrilled to find a song like this one,” Darden says, “That someone would dare take on a signature song of Mahalia Jackson, because she is the queen of gospel music, but somebody else says ‘We know this is your song, but we’re going to put our own spin on it.'”

You can listen to more of the project’s preserved recordings for free on iTunes U.

Mahalia Jackson At The March On Washington D.C., by Robert Darden

This is an excerpt from Robert Darden’s book Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City.

The two moments at the 1963 March on Washington most marked by attendees – and best remembered now – were the spirituals sung by Mahalia Jackson and King’s closing remarks, what would become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jackson and King had originally agreed that Jackson would sing ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord,’ but her manager, Lou Mindling, had lobbied for something more upbeat. At some point, King had astutely judged the massive crowd’s mood and whispered to Jackson and her accompanist, Mildred Falls, “Mahalia, sing ‘I Been ‘Buked.’” Jackson, resplendent in her new hat, moved to the podium and began to sing the old protest spiritual that had sustained and nurtured African American hopes and dreams of freedom for more than a hundred years:

“I been ‘buked and I been scorned, I been talked about, sure as you’re born –” Singing it into the maze of mikes, into America, out to the crowd, it was not hurt of the past but the now of the future that brought tears of joy to her voice so the vast, restless crowd became one listening body, rapt, intent. A plane roared low overhead. Mahalia raised her eyes … I’m going to tell my Lord – “By God,” murmured Studs [Terkel], “she’s taking it on, the artist against the machine – and she’s done it!” She sang it away – face brilliant, glowing, voice vibrant; not while she’s telling her Lord! – and without a sound the crowd broke out white handkerchiefs, thousands of them waving in the air. With her last note, ‘More! More! More!’ It could not be denied and she rocked them with How I Got Over. When she finished – dripping with sweat, panting – she got a standing ovation. (From Just Mahalia, Baby: The Mahalia Jackson Story)

For John Lewis, who had earlier that afternoon delivered a controversial speech urging the administration to take stronger measures to protect African Americans, it was “How I Got Over” that still resonates with him, decades later: “I can hear her now singing, just singing from the depths of her souls, ‘How I Got Over.’ There was a feeling, there was a feeling just being there in the presence of that sea of humanity that we had gotten over. There was something very moving about the music and the songs and the beat, the words, it gave you this sense we were on our way, on our way someplace.” On the steps in the “celebrity section,” actor Sammy Davis Jr. was “seemingly ready to shout” while Jackson sang. Attorney Mortimer Zuckerman, inadvertently placed with the celebrities on the Lincoln Memorial platform, had a “magnificent view of the enormous crowd” and noted that the crowd was not “unified” at first and did not “coalesce” until Jackson sang. “She transformed the audience with the most extraordinary performance I have witnessed by any artist,” he wrote years later. “Her voice, her presence and her gospel songs seized the crowd in a magnificent way.” Historian Lerone Bennett was equally moved. He called Jackson’s performances one of the “keys” to the day’s success. “There is a nerve that lies beneath the smoothest of exteriors, a nerve 400 years old and throbbing with hurt and indignation,” he wrote in Ebony. “Mahalia Jackson penetrated the facades and exposed the nerve to public view.” According to Bennett, the moment of recognition happened during ‘I Been ‘Buked, I Been Scorned’ and the lines, “I’m gonna tell my Lord/When I get home,/Just how long/You’ve been treating me wrong.” It was then, he observed:

A spasm ran through the crowd.

The button-down men in front and the old women way back came to their feet, screaming and shouting. They had not known that this thing was in them and that they wanted it touched. From different places, in different ways, with different dreams, they had come and, now, hearing this sung, they were one.

As for Rustin, who had been working feverishly for months in preparation for this day, film and news footage of the March show him “running around and talking” incessantly during the event itself. He only paused once during his labors – to hear Jackson sing.

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