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A Review of
Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement
Hardback: Penn State UP, 2015
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Review by Sam Edgin
At the end of his introduction to Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, the book’s author, Robert Darden, uses a quote from a former slave to wrap together the themes of intensity, adaptability, community, and especially rhythm and religion that he says beat within black sacred music. The slave, remembering the songs of his childhood, says that the “…weird and mysterious music of the religious ceremonies moved young and old alike in a frenzy of religious fervor.” These spiritual songs, paired to a religion that stood on the side of the oppressed and promised a better world, fueled what Darden calls a “movement” (emphasis his) that spanned generations and changed the world.
In Nothing but Love, Robert Darden traces Black Sacred Music from its origins in the Black Spirituals that grew from the oppressive slavery of early America, through the protest songs of labor unions, and finally in the gospel music that heralded the Civil Rights movement. Darden links the popularity of Civil War era spirituals such as “John Brown’s Body” and “Go Down, Moses” to the solidification of the anti-slavery movement within the larger (mainly white and northern, but, to an extent, worldwide) culture. The tune of “John Brown’s Body” was put to several different sets of lyrics over time, including “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Recording technology in the 40’s and 50’s propelled gospel songs like Mahalia Jackson’s “Move on Up” (which sold over eight million copies) to an even greater popularity and paved the ways for a number of firsts for African Americans in the early 50’s, such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ Nobel prize in poetry.
For Darden, the apex of the movement of black sacred music was in Montgomery, Alabama during the bus boycotts. He describes the hymns and old spirituals that were sang following sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The protesters revised spirituals and gospel songs for their current trial, and the music that was sang during the meetings and rallies was reported around the country. After the success of the boycott, many credited, in part, the emotional lift given by the African American churches and their oppression-defying music. The spirituals that desperately sought freedom, the songs sung by the labor unions fighting for humanity in work, and the gospel music that paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement all converged in Montgomery. The success there fueled civil rights to fruition and inherently changed the way race was viewed around the world.
This review comes on the heels of the 2015 release of Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick’s crooning, screaming, flowing and challenging work finds its place at the end of the long lineage of these songs. It pulls the characteristics of old spirituals and gospel songs into hip-hop and erects them about the life of a black man in a post-civil rights, post-Ferguson society. In doing so it looks for the hope of a better world.
If the events in Ferguson and in other cities across the United States in the past year or so have showed us anything, it’s that race relations in our society are far, far from perfect. Because that better world is still being sought, Darden’s movement of black sacred music didn’t have the choice to stop in Montgomery. A world that has the potential for so much more needs the hopeful (and critical) voices of its oppressed populations. It has certainly changed, but black music today bears many of the the same hallmarks as the songs sung by slaves in the fields in defiance of their oppressors. Its popularity has the opportunity to invite people of all colors and creeds into the work of making all things new.
Darden’s Nothing but Love in God’s Water is so thorough in presenting the details of the spirituals and gospel songs the black community sang through all the years of fighting for freedom and the ways in which those songs helped change the larger culture. It is easy, almost unavoidable, to draw lines to those same characteristics in rap and hip-hop today. Kendrick’s TPAB is not the only album that those lines can be drawn to, and it probably isn’t even the best. What it is is a fresh-as-an-open-wound reminder that the spirit that was wrapped up in the songs of the slaves moves still today. It still wants God’s freedom and God’s justice.
The music of the spirituals represented a movement that yearned heart and soul for a new world. With TPAB Kendrick shows that he is the inheritor of the movement, morphed by the times but still searching and hoping and crying for a new, better world. This is the thread that started with the slave spiritual and continues in today’s hip-hop: that a better world is possible, and we, as imperfect humans aided by a perfect God, are on the way towards it, even if it takes generations.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com