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Gospel Music “Flip Side:” Research Uncovers Secret Civil Rights Messages

February 7, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo - Gospel music of the '50s and '60s often contained "secret messages" about the civil rights movement, secrets that were literally right under the nose of anyone who purchased a vinyl copy of a song.

The story of those secret messages that really were in plain sight is unfolding, and it's shedding new light on the role of the gospel community in the civil rights movement.

Robert Darden is a Baylor University researcher overseeing the school's Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. He was about a year into cataloging vintage gospel music sent in from all over the country, when he started looking closely at the "B" sides of those records from the '50s and '60s.

"And here this stuff is, a wonderful spiritual hymn, let's all be good and go see Jesus, and on the flip side, it says, you know, people, we need to rally around Dr. King. This is important."

Darden is now focusing on those civil rights songs and messages, many of which are found on records from singers no gospel experts have ever heard of, and sometimes on record labels that don't exist in any catalogs. He has found lyrics that tell about civil rights marches and demonstrations in Texas and Tennessee, as well as graphic descriptions of violence in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Chicago.

He says while some radio stations played gospel music at the time, they would have only paid attention to the "A" sides of the disks. The records were commonly sold in furniture and grocery stores in Black communities throughout the South, where the messages reached their target audiences.

"So, the B sides, they could really indulge what was passionate to them. Every day, I'm just surprised about how straightforward and frank some of the messages are."

The project is being highlighted for February's Black History Month. Darden is still looking for vintage gospel recordings to add to the research. The school's project pays for all shipping, and returns recordings along with digitized copies.

Some full recordings of vintage gospel music, and samples of other songs, are available at
www.baylor.edu

Heather Claybrook, Public News Service - MO